SEOUL, South Korea – You don’t insult the concept of royalty in England, you don’t talk trash about the emperor in Japan and you don’t express ill-will towards kimchi in Korea. The tasty side dish is an institution, a cultural treasure and just shy of a sacred icon in the minds of many on the peninsula.
But Korea’s kimchi sovereignty, a term coined for the capital of the spicy fermented cabbage that’s appearing on more and more tables around the world, is being pared away by increasing competition from neighboring China. In fact, Chinese kimchi already has a well-established beach head on Korea’s home turf with one report estimating that about half the public eateries in the country serve kimchi produced in China.
Not only is China going head to head in the kimchi homeland, it’s effectively moved to ban the import of kimchi into China by enacting strict inspection regulations. According to the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation no domestically produced kimchi has been sold into the Chinese market this year.
What’s worse is Japan, Korea’s largest kimchi customer (the Japanese call it ‘kimuchi’) accounting for nearly 80 percent of the total export, is turning to cheaper Chinese brands to satiate their K-food trend. According to the Korea Customs Service, exports of kimchi to Japan were down 19.2 percent between January and May this year, accounting for the biggest drop since 2007.
While some experts attribute it to the weakening yen others point the obvious finger to China and its aggressive aim to dominate another market. Korean officials have publicly noted that dozens of producers in Shanghai and Qingdao are actively making a push to increase exports to Japan at the cost of Korean producers.
The situation is very serious, an analyst told the Korea Times. A great number of domestic kimchi makers have found their sales down by 20-30 percent this year.
When governments join the battle
Government participation in protecting domestic industries is nothing new in the world of international trade. Governments around the world have long worked alongside manufacturers to make it more difficult for imported items to gain entrance and break domestic monopolies.
Now it seems the Chinese are following the same playbook by making import regulations on Korean food coming across Chinese borders more and more stringent.
Perhaps the Chinese government is aware that the new rule is strict, said an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. I think this is a strategic move aimed at supporting Chinese kimchi makers.
Others see this as a reaction by the Chinese government to ‘food scares’ over the suspected quality of Chinese kimchiâincluding accusations by Korean lawmaker Ko Kyung-hwa, who last year publicized a study by the Seoul Research Institute of Public Health and Environment that suggested some brands of Chinese-made kimchi contained five times more lead than what’s found in domestic products.
The ensuing public uproar forced the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) into the fray. After conducting their own tests they concluded that the ‘Chinese-produced spicy pickled cabbage is safe to eat.’
The findings by the KFDA also produced some unwanted news for domestic makers championed by Ms. Ko.
The testing used 28 domestic and 30 Chinese-made kimchi samples and found that the domestic brands actually tested positive for lead more often than the Chinese brands with seven imported and fourteen Korean-made brands shown to contain less than 0.05 part per million of lead. The remainder of those tested were found to contain no traces of the substance.
Following the KFDA findings Korean newspapers quoted housewives saying they would avoid store bought kimchi altogether and make more of the side-dish at home.
Ko was skeptical of the KFDA results accusing the government of simply trying to cool down tensions with China, Korea’s largest trading partner.
‘I believe the administration is trying to cool this kimchi scandal down with untrustworthy results,’ Ko said.
To Ko’s credit, she was correct that bad press has irritated Beijing officials and thus rendered the tough new Chinese regulations on Korean kimchi imports unsurprising.
‘The Chinese Foreign Ministry has officially requested us [South Korea] to co-operate to ensure South Korean press fairly reports on China’s kimchi exports,’ South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a Seoul official as saying.
How this all plays out remains to be seen, but who will be surprised to see the Chinese economy of scale rule the day in a once sacred market?
Further reading: Kimchi and Class Struggle