THAAD is why

South Korean stars penalised after Seoul enrages Beijing in military spat

Bae Soo-Ji w

No show: Bae Suzy’s China event was cancelled over military tensions

Since the South Korean hit TV series Descendants of the Sun concluded its run in April, actor Song Joong-ki hasn’t stopped working.

Most of his obligations, however, have had little to do with his acting career. The runaway success of the show – the finale accumulated over 3 billion views online in China – meant that Song had become a hot commodity for advertisers. He signed over 20 endorsement deals, seven of which were in China, where advertisers were willing to pay him double that of South Korean firms. Song is now the face of everything from Chinese smartphone maker Vivo to local skincare brand Proya. Hong Kong’s Mingpao Daily reckons that he has made over Rmb200 million ($31 million) from all the commercial deals signed in recent months.

But Song has now seen his commercial prospects in China threatened. Apparently he and many other South Korean stars recently found themselves caught up in a diplomatic war. This broke out between Seoul and Beijing after South Korea decided to deploy a US missile shield system (named THAAD) in response to North Korean provocations.

China has long objected to the anti-missile system’s deployment. It is worried that its powerful radar could be used by the US to snoop on what is going on within its own borders (see WiC309). So to retaliate, Beijing decided to hit back where it hurts South Korea most – cultural exports.

Even though no official directive was issued, Chinese media reported that approvals to air programmes featuring South Korean stars would be declined. They have also been banned from attending promotional activities in China.

“They [media regulators] told us to postpone any plans for new programmes that involve South Korean stars or copyrights for South Korean TV shows,” one source told the South China Morning Post. “They said we would not get approval, even if we made such plans.”

Sohu, a portal, says broadcasters and production firms have been in damage-control mode, frantically editing out scenes in TV series and films that had cast South Korean stars or postponing the release date indefinitely. Music acts, too, face cancellations. Last week, top Korean boy band EXO announced that it had called off a sold-out concert in Shanghai scheduled this month.

Online video site Youku announced too that Kim Woo-bin and Bae Suzy, two of South Korea’s biggest soap-opera stars, would not appear at a media event in Beijing this month. Industry insiders say regulators have either delayed visa-application approvals for Korean stars or have urged organisers to scrap the promotional events altogether.

It is equally bad news for Chinese firms which have invested in South Korea’s entertainment business. Tencent, for instance, bought a 4.5% stake in YG Entertainment back in May. YG is the owner of several famous pop bands like Big Bang and singer Psy. Alibaba, too, invested $30 million in SM Entertainment, which controls EXO and the hugely popular female band Girls’ Generation. All of these firms saw their share prices tank after news of the ban made headlines.

China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner as well as the biggest importer of Korean TV content and music. Variety shows based on Korean formats like Running Man and Dad, Where Are We Going are among the highest rated in China. Between 2010 and 2015, China invested over Rmb170 billion in South Korean entertainment, internet and gaming firms, says KBS.

Still, Xinhua says that there is plenty of domestic support for banning South Korean entertainers: “A recent online poll showed that more than four-fifths of Chinese people would support the government ban on the appearance of South Korean entertainers in Chinese TV programmes. It reflects Chinese placing love for their home country before the popularity of entertainment stars,” says the state-run news agency. (Though, Shanghaiist, a China blog, reckons that this online survey can’t entirely be trusted because it couldn’t find the poll anywhere.)

Global Times, too, published an editorial saying South Korea had only itself to blame if the popularity of its pop culture exports faded. “It’s not China’s fault if South Korean stars eventually become the scapegoat of the THAAD deployment,” it declared.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.