By Oiwan Lam

China’s online patriots are targeting internationally famous K-pop band BTS after the group’s leader Kim Nan-joon paid tribute South Korea’s and United States’s war veterans on October 8.

Nan-joon, also known by his stage name RM, made the remarks at a recorded acceptance speech for the James A. Van Fleet award, a prize granted by US-based non-profit Korea Society.

BTS. Photo: Wikicommons.

Here are the words by Nan-joon that angered Chinese nationalists:

This year’s Korea Society 2020 Annual Gala is especially meaningful as this year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War. We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations [US and South Korea] shared together, and the sacrifices of countless men and women… As members of the global community, we should build deeper understanding and solidarity to be happier together.

Approximately 3 million people lost their lives in the Korean War (1950-1953), half of them civilians. After Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into two separate states, one in the north backed by the USSR and another in the south backed by the United States. Both governments claimed sovereignty over the whole peninsula, and the war began after the North Korean Army invaded the South in June 1950.

The war claimed the lives of 406,000 North Korean soldiers, 217,000 South Korean soldiers, 600,000 Chinese soldiers, who fought on the North Korea side, and 36,574 US soldiers, according to statistics compiled by CNN.

Chinese netizens were angry that Nan-joon did not acknowledge the sacrifices made by Chinese people. Comments such as “BTS get out of China” have flooded Weibo and, on October 11, BTS became the top search result on the social media platform.

Anticipating calls for boycott, South Korean companies who do business in China such as Hyundai and Samsung removed all BTS-related promotional material from China’s online stores. Meanwhile, Chinese fan clubs of BTS suspended purchases of the group’s new album.

Photo: Wikicommons.

Chinese state media applauded netizens’ reactions. For example, Reference News, an outlet affiliated with state news agency Xinhuaposted on Weibo:

BTS touched the “red line” of history and national sovereignty that Chinese netizens share (…). Chinese netizens believe that the nation should come before their idols. This should also serve as a signal to other foreign artists.

Shen Yi, a professor of international relations at Fudan University, said on Weibo that the mere act of receiving the Korea Society’s James Van Fleet Award renders BTS into “American propagandists.”

Such accusations have been widely reported in South Korea, triggering a backlash — including from BTS fans. Some Korean columnists even suggested that South Korea and its allies in the Korean War launch a counter-boycott against China.

On Twitter, many users have reacted against the Chinese response:

Some found the Chinese argument incomprehensible and unreasonable:

@Solitude_Sola sees the incident an ideological struggle over history waged by the Chinese Communist Party:

If what BTS has done is insulting to China, that means the witch hunt of China offenders has entered the 2.0 stage. In the past, they only targeted comments which were directly related to China. Now, if your comment is different from their understanding of history, or if your memory is different from their politically correct memory, then you will be considered to be humiliating China. So the right way is to proactively “shame” China rather than passively being labelled as such.

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong called on other netizens to stand with BTS:

Korean Military Manpower Administration Commissioner Mo Jong Hwa spoke out in defense of BTS:

The fact that BTS mentioned Korea’s alliance with the US is an encouraging thing. Chinese netizens should be ashamed to talk about this issue. I think they are 100% wrong when they claim that BTS should’ve recognized the harm the allies of North Korea suffered as well.

To contain the damage the incident could do to China and South Korea’s relations, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian attempted to cool down the patriotic sentiment in the ministry’s regular press briefing on October 12:

We all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, hold dear peace and strengthen friendship.

This article originally appeared on Global Voices.

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Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.