A row over teakwondo touched off anti-Korean protests in Taiwan. At the Asian Games in China’s Guangzhou, the Taiwanese athlete Yang Shu-chun was disqualified over allegations that she wore extra scoring sensors in her socks. As video footage proved that the sensors had already been removed before the bout started, Taiwanese have been up in arms. Because the first senior official who called the socks into question was Chinese, and it was a Chinese athlete who later won the competition, the anger was initially aimed at China.
But after Taiwan’s lawmakers and the media put the blame on the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF)’s secretary-general, a South Korean, and the referee, a Filipino of Korean descent, the fury then turned against South Korea.
What followed was an outburst of anti-Korean sentiment on the island. South Korean flags were burned, the Korea-based Asian Taekwondo Union (ATU) Web site hacked, Korean schools in Taipei pelted with eggs, Korean products smashed, calls for boycotts made and online forums flooded with racial slurs.
Neither is the intensity of the rage precedented, nor are there plausible reasons to grab.
Taiwan, or the historic KMT-ruled Republic of China, had never fought a war with Korea. There’s no real sovereignty dispute between Seoul and Taipei, nor has Taiwan been flooded by Koreans immigrants. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there are less than 3,500 Korean nationals residing on the island, and even in historic times, Koreans never formed a significant population. However, quite a few Koreans choose Taiwan as a travel destination for shopping tours. From January to August this year, the number of Korean tourists was approximately 140,000.
Asked about an explanation, Seoul’s announcement of formal recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1992 is often cited by the Taiwanese as the point in history where the aversion originated. South Korea was the last Asian country that had official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China. When Taipei found out that Korea secretly prepared to switch recognition to Beijing, it severed diplomatic relations with South Korea.
Whereas Japan’s, the US’s and other western countries’ turning away from Taipei’s Republic of China towards Beijing’s People’s Republic of China in the 1970ies hugely disappointed the Taiwanese, South Korea following suit two decades later was perceived as an outrightly betraying stab in the back. That is because prior to the diplomatic split, to the Taiwanese, the Republic of China and South Korea -both divided countries- had been something like blood brothers resiting the communist threat as the common enemy.
The recent news that security at Taipei’s schools for Korean expatriates’ children and the South Korean representative office had to be beefed up because of anti-Korean protests naturally made its way into the Korean media, leaving Koreans dumbfounded. While they are aware of latent anti-Korean resentments in Japan, China and also the Philippines, it’s very new to them that such a phenomenon exists in Taiwan. On online forums popular with Koreans, such aswww.daum.net and www.cyworld.co.kr, Korean net-citizens have thus been looking for answers by trying to get in touch with fellow countrymen residing on the island. One of those, Jo Geun-a, graduate student at a Taiwanese university, during the last week made it his mission to provide Koreans with an explanation.
“After the Korean war, we were weak”, he writes. “Back then, the Taiwanese felt themselves as being the Number 2 in Asia, only behind Japan. But Korea’s economy started a race to catch up, and coinciding with the time it overtook the Taiwanese’s came Seoul’s switching of diplomatic recognition”.
He then expounds that Taiwanese are notoriously envious of South Korea’s brand names, such as Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Display Co. “They produce the same electronics as we do, but theirs end up in Japanese products, with Japanese brand names on”, so Jo. According to him, apart from brand names, there are still other things Korea has which Taiwan lacks. “The Taiwanese begrudge us our TV drama stars and our athletes, that’s why they always claim that we’re cheating in competitions.”
Taiwan and South Korea have often been described as “economic rivals” which as two of Asia’s “Four Little Dragons” compete on equal footing. 20 years ago, economic growth rates were on a par but over the last decade, Taiwan’s average economic growth rate has lagged behind South Korea’s. South Korea has gone from a per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) just 77 percent of Taiwan’s to pull even and ultimately surpass Taiwan’s per-capita GDP by 26 percent. Both countries’ economies are heavily export-depended, but in terms of exports, Korea has outpaced Taiwan. A decade ago, Taiwanese and South Korean exports remained extremely close in terms of value, but by last year the total value of South Korean exports had outstripped those of Taiwan by 80 percent. And, as blogger Jo Geun-a had mentioned, South Korea, unlike Taiwan, which sticks to contract manufacturing of electronics, managed to develop brand image in broadly diversified world markets, such as for shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing, semiconductors, wireless communications, machinery, LCD panels, steel and petrochemical sectors.
But is a diplomatic humiliation suffered eighteen years ago, and the notion that Korea’s economy, the movie industry and athletes have been doing better than one’s own enough to develop an actual aversion? According to Koreans living in Taiwan, it seems as if. Although there haven’t been violent attacks on Korean expatriates or tourists that have been reported on, Koreans living in Taiwan do feel that there is anti-Korean sentiment.
“Koreans I know were told to shut up by Taiwanese who sat next to them in restaurants for no other reason than that they chatted in Korean”, describes Lee Sujin, a teacher for Korean as a second language what in her eyes amounts to the worst case scenario could come upon Koreans when being in Taipei. “What happened personally to me was that students displaying a bad attitude sat with crossed arms in the classroom, again and again trying to take me to task about some baseball or taekwondo competitions where Koreans allegedly cheated the Taiwanese”, says Lee.
That the recent anger over the disqualification of the Taiwanese taekwondo athlete at the Asian Games didn’t come to China’s expense is something Taiwan’s ruling KMT is likely grateful for. If the Taiwanese public’s impression had been that it was Beijing instead of Seoul that “robbed” Taiwan of its victory, the Beijing-friendly KMT would have certainly lost votes in the upcoming five municipality elections to be held on Saturday, which are seen as a precursor to the 2012 presidential elections. The government of president Ma Ying-jeou, just as the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), went to great lengths to condemn the disqualification. The KMT even made the controversy one of the main themes of its campaign rally on the last Sunday before the polls. Ma, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin together with a group of KMT lawmakers, who were dressed as taekwondo athletes, vowed to “fight for justice for Yang Shu-chun” in front of an estimated 100,000 KMT supporters .
That it’s the Koreans being on the receiving end of public outrage as opposed to the Chinese puzzles outside observers. Wong Yiu-chung, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University and an expert on China-Taiwan-Hong Kong relationships told Asia Sentinel: “Korean films and TV drama are popular in Taiwan. Therefore, the emotional anti-Korean outburst will be short-lived. I think, what the Taiwanese dislike more is that the Mainland Chinese officials did not protect the Taiwanese athlete in the taekwondo incident.”
However, it’s unlikely that Koreans can agree with Wong’s assessmentabout a short-lived phenomenon after they have seen a graph taken from Yahoo Taiwan posted on the Korean online forumwww.daum.net. It is the graph of a survey that asked Taiwanese how they felt about North Korea’s shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong Island in which two South Korean marines were killed, three civilians wounded and about 70 houses burned down. The bar graph representing the votes for “I feel happy” was filled to about 75 percent. The one for “I feel sad” was empty.