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Explained: Why are South Korea and China fighting over kimchi?

The spicy fermented pickle, kimchi, has created some bitterness in China-South Korea trade ties.

Written by Pooja Pillai , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 10, 2020 12:12:02 pm
kimchi south korea, kimchi china, china south korea kimchi dispute, china south korea trade, south korea cuisine, express explained, indian expressSouth Korea has devoted considerable resources to the promotion of kimchi at home and abroad. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, International Organisation for Standardisation,the Switzerland-based global standards body, released new regulations for the making, transportation and storage of pao cai, a salted and fermented vegetable condiment from China’s Sichuan province. The document stated that the regulations did not apply to kimchi, a spicy fermented pickle of Korean origin, typically made with cabbage.

However, the Chinese media announced the news by clubbing pao cai with kimchi, with The Global Times, a state-owned nationalist tabloid, calling it “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.

How did South Korea react?

Koreans saw the Chinese media’s assertion as an infringement on their cultural heritage. They took to social media to share their outrage and accused China of plagiarism. Chinese users responded by arguing that China is the leading producer of kimchi in the world and so has a claim on it.

The South Korean agricultural ministry issued a statement saying that pao cai should not be confused with kimchi, for which the standardisation has been set back in 2001 by the UN.

How important is kimchi to Koreans?

Rice and kimchi (also spelt gimchi) is a staple dish in the peninsula and both North and South Korea have anointed the pickled preparation as their national dish.

It is no exaggeration to say that kimchi is one of the keystones of Korean identity. Along with pop music and soap operas, is one of the most well-known South Korean cultural exports. Kimjang (or gimjang), the traditional process of preparing kimchi, was listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013.

South Korea has devoted considerable resources to the promotion of kimchi at home and abroad, setting up the World Institute of Kimchi and Korean Kimchi Association to further research and innovation in the industry, and the Korea Food Research Institute to research the nutritional and medicinal value of kimchi and confirm long-cherished beliefs about the food’s ability to cure almost any ailment.

There’s even a museum in Seoul called Kimchikan which gives visitors a quick survey of the food’s 1,500-year history and introduces them to nearly 180 regional varieties. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

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Is there more to this spat?

The tension between China and South Korea over kimchi is rooted in the trade relations between the two neighbours. For many years, South Korea has supplemented its national kimchi demand by importing more and more Chinese-made kimchi. According to a report published in 2014 in Finance and Development, brought out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this trend began in 2003 because Chinese kimchi was cheaper.

Even as domestic demand for it grew, especially from restaurants, fewer households were making their own kimchi. A 2017 report by the World Institute of Kimchi states that nearly 90 per cent of the kimchi served in restaurants came from China.

Complicating matters was the fact that China had tightened its regulations on the import of pickled products in 2012 and South Korean export of kimchi to China fell drastically as it failed to meet the new standards. Even after a concession for kimchi was made, with China agreeing to remove tariffs on the food when signing the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea in 2015, Korean kimchi trade couldn’t recover.

China also elbowed out South Korea as the main exporter of kimchi to Japan, another very important market for the food product, according to the IMF report.

In fact, the international standardisation that kimchi received in 2001 had its roots in another trade conflict, between South Korea and Japan. In Culinary Nationalism in Asia (2019), food historian Katarzyna J Cwiertka notes that the “Kimchi War” between the two nations began in 1996 when Japan decided to designate kimuchi (Japanese pronunciation of kimchi) as one of its official foods at the Atlanta Olympics.

“By then, Japanese-Korean trade relations were already under stress because Japan had already been involved in exporting the Japanese ‘instant’ version of kimchi, which lacked the distinctive flavour derived from the fermentation process. In response, South Korea had filed a case with Codex, arguing that there was a need to establish an international kimchi standard, which was officially adopted on July 5, 2001,” she writes.

Cwiertka adds that it was, in fact, the standardisation of kimchi that led to the increase in Chinese kimchi production, even as it generated only a slight positive margin for South Korea.

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