The offending remark was made by BTS member Kim Nam-joon — better known by the stage name RM, or Rap Monster — in a recent acceptance speech for an award from the Korea Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization.
“We need to always remember the history of pain shared by the two nations, and sacrifices of many men and women,” he said, referring to the United States and South Korea.
The comment hit a nerve with some in China, coming as the country holds nationwide memorials this month for the 70th anniversary of its entry into the Korean War. From 1950 to 1953, China and North Korea fought South Korea, the United States and their allies to a stalemate.
“Chinese fans give you so much money each year, and you turn around and give it to the United States,” one Weibo user wrote. “What are Chinese fans then?”
Another wrote, “Nearly 200,000 Chinese troops died in the war. Every Chinese person must remember this number.”
What followed was the latest example of the pressure on global brands to toe China’s political line.
Samsung Electronics pulled a BTS-branded purple smartphone and ear buds from its official stores and other e-commerce platforms in China. South Korean auto giant Hyundai Motor removed advertisements featuring BTS from its Chinese social media outlets. Spokespeople for Samsung and Hyundai declined to comment on Tuesday, as did Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s management label.
Suddenly, BTS had joined a long list of brands including Versace, Gap and Marriott that have triggered consumer blowback in China after — in the words of state mouthpieces — hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.
The kerfuffle sparked a media frenzy in South Korea, where BTS’s members are beloved K-pop heroes. A front-page headline in the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper on Tuesday read: “China is censoring even BTS’ award acceptance speech.” The paper voiced concerns about Chinese fans’ BTS boycott as a deja vu of economic fallout from a missile-defense dispute in 2017.
Back then, South Korean companies suffered boycotts in China when Seoul embraced a plan to deploy the U.S. antimissile system known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. Beijing banned tour agencies from selling package trips to South Korea and K-pop singers disappeared from Chinese television.
South Korea’s economy is heavily dependent on China, which is both its largest export destination and largest source of imported goods.
“Although the BTS comment was as apolitical as it gets, these South Korean companies could not but fear repercussions given the fierce Korea boycotts in China following the 2017 THAAD row,” said Sung Tae-yoon, an economics professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Dorothy Solinger, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California at Irvine, said part of the backlash was probably due to the view in China that the country had sacrificed for North Korea in the war.
“The Chinese leadership called upon Chinese soldiers to suffer and die for the sake of the Korean people,” she said. “What the band said sounds as if both nations were equally under attack.”
In China, the Korean War is referred to as “Fighting the Americans and Helping the North Koreans.”
North Korean troops crossed into South Korea in June 1950, prompting the United States to come to the South’s aid. China entered the war in October of that year, after U.N. forces pushed back into North Korea and toward the Chinese border. The fighting ended with an armistice that was never replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war.
Amid the BTS uproar, popular posts online in China scoffed at young people chasing overseas fads while forgetting their own history.
“Your 28-year-old big brother is making money from Chinese people, but did you know 28-year-old Anying will lie forever in that battlefield?” one much-circulated quip reads.
That was a reference to Mao Anying, the son of Communist China founder Mao Zedong, who was killed at age 28 by an American airstrike during the Korean War. Despite the rhetorical flourish, BTS singer RM is not 28, but 26.
John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University, said it was unclear how much genuine grass-roots outrage there was in China over the BTS comment. Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times appeared to have played a role in whipping up anger, he said.
“It’s such an innocuous statement,” he said, after watching a video of the BTS speech. “It’s so random.”
There were signs that Beijing was seeking to limit the scope of the controversy, especially as it courts South Korea’s support for its international policies. Asked about BTS at Monday’s Foreign Ministry briefing, spokesman Zhao Lijian gave a measured reply.
“I have noted relevant reports as well as the reactions from the Chinese people online,” he said. “I want to say that we all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, hold dear peace and strengthen friendship.”
And in a reminder that blowback from Beijing doesn’t last indefinitely, China resumed broadcasts of NBA games this past weekend after anger over comments about protests in Hong Kong.
Lyric Li and Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.