Anti-Korean spleen in Taiwan

At the recent Asian Games in Guangzhou, the Taiwanese athlete Yang Shu-chun was disqualified over allegations that she wore extra scoring sensors in her socks.

Despite the fact that video footage proved that the sensors had been removed before the match started, that a Chinese official called the socks into question and that a Chinese athlete later won, inexplicably the incident has kicked off a wave of fury against -- South Korea.

After Taiwan's lawmakers and the media put the blame on the World Taekwondo Federation’s secretary-general, a South Korean, and the referee, a Filipino of Korean descent, what followed was an outburst of anti-Korean sentiment on the island. South Korean flags were burned, the Korea-based Asian Taekwondo Union website was hacked, Korean schools in Taipei were pelted with eggs, Korean products were smashed, calls for boycotts made and online forums flooded with racial slurs.

The government of President Ma Ying-jeou, as well as the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, 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 Nov. 28 municipal elections. Ma, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin and 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 – all conveniently ignoring the Chinese role in the affair.

There appears to precedent for the intensity of the rage nor are there plausible reasons for it. Taiwan, or the historic KMT-ruled Republic of China, had never fought a war with Korea. There's no real sovereignty dispute, nor has Taiwan been flooded by Koreans immigrants. According to South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there are fewer than 3,500 Korean nationals residing on the island, and even in historic times, Koreans have 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.

Seoul's switch of formal recognition to 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 towards Beijing in the 1970s hugely disappointed the Taiwanese, South Korea’s decision to follow suit two decades later was perceived as an outright stab in the back. That is because to the Taiwanese, the Republic of China and the Republic of Korea, both divided countries, had been something like blood brothers resisting the communist threat as a 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 resentment in Japan, China and the Philippines, it's very new to them that such a phenomenon exists in Taiwan. On online forums popular with Koreans, such as www.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, 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".

The Taiwanese, he wrote, 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." Apart from brand names, there are 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, two of Asia's "Four Little Dragons" competing on equal footing 20 years ago. Economic growth rates were on a par but over the last decade, Taiwan's average GDP has lagged. South Korea has gone from a per-capita GDP just 77 percent of Taiwan's to pull even and ultimately surpass it 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 Taiwan’s by 80 percent. And, as blogger Jo said, 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 an 18-year-old diplomatic humiliation, and the notion that Korea's economy, the movie industry and athletes have been doing better enough to develop an actual aversion? According to Koreans living in Taiwan, it seems as so. 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," says Lee Sujin, who teaches Korean as a second language. "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."

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 would agree with Wong's assessment. A survey taken from Yahoo Taiwan and posted on the Korean online forum www.daum.net asked Taiwanese how they felt about North Korea's Nov. 23 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.