Kimchi retaliation? South Korea moves to stop ‘misidentification’ of Chinese food products as Korean in Thailand and Vietnam

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

South Korea is promoting measures overseas to stop the ‘misidentification’ of Chinese food products as Korean, a policy likely prompted on the back of a recent kimchi feud with China. ©Getty Images
South Korea is promoting measures overseas to stop the ‘misidentification’ of Chinese food products as Korean, a policy likely prompted on the back of a recent kimchi feud with China. ©Getty Images

Related tags: South korea, China, South east asia, kimchi

South Korea is promoting measures overseas to stop the ‘misidentification’ of Chinese food products as Korean, a policy likely prompted on the back of a recent kimchi feud with China.

The South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) has announced that it will be formally promoting measures in foreign markets to stop consumers from mistakenly identifying Chinese food products such as fruits as Korean exports in order to both prevent confusion and ‘stop damage to the reputation of Korean exports’.

“In foreign markets and especially in South East Asia, there have been concerns about the decline of the image and reputation of Korean food products being sold there, [even though these products are actually not Korean-made or produced],”​ MAFRA Minister Kim Hyeon-su said in a formal statement.

“[One of the issues here is that] consumers are misrecognising Chinese food products to be Korean, as Korean words and markings are often used on the packaging materials.”

Kim highlighted examples such as pears imported from China but labelled as ‘Korean pears’ on the outside of the packaging complete with imitation labelling strips around each fruit, and sweet persimmons from China being sold as Korean with the use of ‘sloppy’ Korean language labelling.

“MAFRA has thus created measures to prevent further damage to our local exporters and stop the damage to the image of Korean food products due to such misidentification and misrepresentation, [and we will first concentrate these efforts] on major export markets where Korean food is highly popular,”​ said Kim.

“Thailand and Vietnam are where we will start, where we will build awareness about this situation via local influential television programmes, food magazines, online social platforms and so on.”

A lot of focus will also be placed on offline channels, where the ministry will place physical display stands in stores carrying the South Korean national flag, a QR code and other means of authentication.

“In Thailand especially, we will be making efforts via talk shows and also be highlighting the comparisons and differences between Korean and Chinese products, and in Vietnam we will be spreading awareness on how to distinguish real Korean pears using QR codes,”​ he said.

“The QR code will be important for all countries we [move to spread this awareness in] – we plan to add a Korean-made verification function to existing codes such that consumers will find it easier to check the country of origin.

“We will also be creating stickers and strip designs that are unified in terms of font, colour and do on so that consumers will be able to recognise Korean products at a glance, even across various Korean [foods] – technologies to prevent forgery such as hologram techniques will also be employed.”

Kimchi war

MAFRA’s announcement comes on the heels of China’s recent attempt to claim South Korea’s traditional and long-accepted ‘soul food’ kimchi as a food of its own, which drew widespread outrage across social media and a denial from MAFRA.

The controversy started when Chinese government-owned Global Times​ ran an article late last year stating that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) had acknowledged the Chinese-made pickled vegetable dish ‘pao cai’ as an ‘international standard for the kimchi industry, led by China’.

Kimchi is made significantly differently, being fermented with various ingredients instead of being pickled, and both taste completely different as well. ‘Pao cai’ is also commonly used to refer to kimchi in the Mandarin Chinese language, and kimchi is served in China under that name too, so yet another source of confusion.

Things heated up further after a South Korean professor wrote to China’s version of Wikipedia Baidu Baike protesting a phrase claiming origins of pao cai/kimchi in China on its ‘pao cai’ page, but essentially had his protests rejected, and later a phrase saying that ‘Korean kimchi has 3,000 years of history’​ was deleted.

As of time of writing, this phrase has not reappeared on the site, and there is a ‘History of Pao Cai’ section near the top of the page stating that ‘pao cai’ has about 1,400 years of history in China, although there appears to be some differentiation between Chinese and Korean versions on the page too.

Public ire erupted at the situation, with Korean netizens and media expressing rage by calling China ‘the most problematic nation’​ and the move to be ‘China’s latest attempt at world domination’​, accusing the country of trying to steal their soul food and culture.

MAFRA attempted to highlight differences between the two foods, saying in a statement that ‘pao cai is not the same as kimchi’​, but this made little impact as China is refusing to make any changes to the situation.

According to Global Times, ​Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press conference that: “In my opinion, kimchi, also called paocai in China, is a pickled fermented dish that does not exclusively exist in certain countries and regions. They share some similarities, but have different ingredients, flavours and preparation methods.”

But South Korea isn’t backing down either – the country has enlisted various Seoul-based foreign diplomats by sending DIY kimchi kits to them and asking for help to record their efforts and promote kimchi to be South Korean.

In addition, although the ministry did not directly mention its latest promotional campaign in South East Asia as retaliation for the kimchi saga, it is noteworthy that this ‘misidentification’ has been ongoing in the region for years, but never before did South Korea ever attempt to correct the situation, allowing Chinese firms and exporters to benefit – until now.

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