For years, South Korea has been trying to give kimchi a better reputation. This preserved vegetable is said to be high in vitamins and minerals. Consumed daily, it can lead to weight loss and wrinkle-free skin. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, South Koreans claimed that kimchi could fend off the deadly virus. Seoul has even lobbied for the winter tradition of pickling kimchi to be designated as cultural heritage by the United Nations.
South Koreans consume two million tonnes of kimchi a year. The problem? The country isn’t producing enough of it. Since 2010, Chinese exports have counted for 99% of all of South Korea’s imported kimchi, says Hong Kong’s Apple Daily.
In the past Chinese-made kimchi has sparked food safety scares (for containing excessive lead, for example). Many Korean families shun Chinese kimchi in supermarkets. But the cheaper imports has attracted eateries, hotels and schools to serve kimchi made in China. “Other than upscale restaurants and families of housewives, the dining tables in the kimchi kingdom are largely conquered by China’s cheap kimchi,” Apple Daily observes.
This also hurts South Korea’s own kimchi exports, which fell from $98 million in 2010 to $84 million last year. In Japan, the largest overseas kimchi market, more consumers now opt to buy Chinese kimchi as well. Small wonder then, that South Korea faces a weird paradox: a kimchi trade deficit. Last year kimchi imports hit 212,938 tonnes, while exports stood at just 24,742 tonnes, according to data from South Korea’s customs released last week.
What irks Korean producers most is that China has largely banned kimchi imports since 2013. The Chinese authorities claim that South Korean kimchi can contain excessive levels of coliform bacteria. Last year, only 3 tonnes of the South Korean preserved vegetable made it through the Chinese inspections.
Kimchi has become such a point of contention that it has moved from the dining table to the diplomatic stage. Last July, South Korean President Park Geun-hye pleaded with Xi Jinping to relax inspections on kimchi, and incorporate it into the free trade agreement between the two countries. Beijing, in return, demands that Seoul make concessions over car imports.
The two countries share much in the way of heritage, but can also rub each other the wrong way. Korean government attempts to register the Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn festival as Korean cultural properties (applications were made to the UN) duly irked many Chinese.
This explains some of the online mockery sparked in China when South Korea’s latest kimchi deficit became news.
Chinese experts have also riled their neighbour by saying the Koreans have no right to get so proprietary over the spicy foodstuff. “Technically, kimchi originated from Sichuan pickles,” reckons Zhang Huiqian, associate director of the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine. “It’s like the offspring has stolen the glory belonging to its ancestor.”
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