With two songs currently on the Billboard Hot 100 and an online concert attended by nearly 1 million viewers over the weekend, K-pop group BTS continues to surge in popularity. In China, however, the band has garnered a different kind of attention than they’re used to.
Outrage flooded the Chinese internet this week over remarks the band made about the Korean War, even drawing comments from a top Chinese official. But given the band’s phenomenal success and positive global image, experts and loyal fans said that they weren’t too worried about the backlash.
On Monday, New York-based organization The Korea Society awarded BTS its prestigious Van Fleet Award, which recognizes “distinguished Koreans and Americans for outstanding contributions to the promotion of U.S.-Korean relations.”
“This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War,” said BTS leader RM in an acceptance speech, emphasizing the importance of world peace. “As members of the global community, we should build a deeper understanding and solidarity to be happier together. We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”
The speech did not go over well on Chinese social media, incurring the wrath of some netizens who say the singer failed to acknowledge “wartime sacrifices” of Chinese soldiers, who fought on the side of North Korea.
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 and saw thousands upon thousands of North Korean troops storming into South Korea following intense border clashes. South Korean forces, with the support of the United Nations and United States troops, clashed with North Korean soldiers who were aided by China and the Soviet Union. The war unofficially ended in 1953 in an armistice but its devastating impact, which cost millions of lives and divided the Korean peninsula, is still felt today.
“The Korean War affected millions in China and North Korea too. How arrogant of BTS to assume that only their country’s side should be acknowledged for a peace award,” remarked one netizen on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
Others on the micro-blogging site flexed their patriotism and slammed the boy band on their official Weibo page, applauding decisions by big brands like Samsung and Fila who swiftly removed references and advertisements featuring the band from their Chinese social media accounts and websites.
“We are proud of our soldiers who fought bravely in the war which still divides Korea today. To exclude China’s sacrifices and efforts on the global stage is an insult to our entire country,” read another comment from a Chinese netizen, which drew thousands of likes.
“Your career in China is over. Kiss your success goodbye.”
Adding to the controversy, Chinese state media published stories saying that the band’s speech “reflected a one-sided attitude” and “hurt fans.” Even the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director and spokesperson Zhao Li Jian weighed in on the backlash.
“We should learn from history, value love and peace, and promote friendship. These should be our common goals,” Zhao said.
BTS, known to speak up about social issues like mental health, was alongside other award recipients like Korean War veterans credited for strengthening South Korea’s relations with the U.S. through positive messages and promoting inclusion.
The band’s agency Big Hit Entertainment did not immediately respond to questions from VICE News about the issue. But on Twitter, their fiercely loyal and vocal fan base, known as ARMY, mobilized and sprang into action.
“BTS is Korean. They will stand by their country and it’s totally correct,” tweeted one fan. Another quipped: “Still waiting for Kim Jong Un to get mad too because BTS didn’t mourn North Korean sacrifices.”
“How on earth was that an insult,” tweeted one fan, in defense of their idols. “I literally have no idea why some Chinese people don’t realize that it’s unreasonable to ask the rest of the world to think from China’s perspective.”
Hong Kong democracy activist and politician Joshua Wong, often the target of mainland Chinese internet trolls, also got involved in the debate and expressed his support and solidarity with BTS.
In a series of tweets, he wrote: “Nothing could be more ridiculous when the award was given to those promoting #U.S.-#Korean relation, it’s natural to only mention the two nations. In fact, the speech didn’t even mention #China, nor anything against it, but nationalist trolls have already treated it as an insult.”
The outrage and anger from Chinese netizens were also drowned out in South Korea, where many supported BTS.
On South Korea’s biggest online portal Naver, users said the Chinese government and people overreacted to BTS’ comments.
“It’s ridiculous that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China criticizes singers from another country, and the people followed it blindly,” one Naver user commented on an article about the issue. The comment now has over 4,000 likes.
Some Koreans also recalled an incident involving K-pop singer Lee Hyo-ri, who became the target of Chinese internet users in August and was accused of making “disrespectful” comments about Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. This, after Lee suggested using “Mao” as her stage name in a TV show, although the production team said that she was not actually referring to the late Chinese leader.
While calls for a BTS boycott grew in China, which wields significant spending power and great influence over entertainment and media markets, experts were not fazed by the recent controversy.
“One of the historical points that BTS has achieved is that they have become a K-pop group that can ignore the Chinese market,” wrote prominent columnist Kim Do-hoon.
“They made the world market theirs [and reached] the level of having no need to bend their heads down on every word that censors culture nationalistically and patriotically.”
Stanley Rosen, a political science and international relations professor from the University of Southern California, said that the controversy was “a non-issue” and would only affect BTS “in the short-run.”
“Chinese favorability ratings have declined drastically and dramatically in South Korea for the past few years and this is one more example of why Chinese soft power is so weak in the East Asian countries,” Rosen told VICE News.
“Given their immense success, it would be incredibly foolish for big-name companies to remove BTS from their websites and campaigns outside of China.”