K-pop singer’s apology escalated China-Taiwan row

Cross straits tensions between China and Taiwan are developing into an international drama with a 16-year-old Korean pop (K-pop) singer drawn into the fray, highlighting political minefields facing businesses in the region.

The Taiwanese teenager, Chou Tzu-yu, who is part of a nine-member multi-national girl band TWICE based in South Korea, is being singled out for waving a Taiwanese flag in an introduction of the group on a television program in November.

The scene was widely shared online in China ahead of Taiwan's closely-watched general election with some netizens branding her a separatist.

China-Taiwan relations have been strained since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 when the Nationalist Party retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. No armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed to mark the end of the conflict and the mainland views Taiwan as a renegade province that may be reclaimed by force, if necessary.

Amid the flag-waving controversy, a Chinese TV station cancelled TWICE's appearance on a program and Chou was dropped as a brand ambassador for a smartphone made by Chinese IT giant Huawei marketed in the country by LG Uplus, a mobile phone carrier that is part of the Korean conglomerate LG Group.

Last Friday, the band's agency JYP Entertainment uploaded a video of a somber Chou bowing and apologizing for her flag-waving action, causing another wave of controversy.

"There is only one China and the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are one," Chou said in the video posted on Youtube.

Reading off a script, she said she would "seriously reflect" on her action.

Chou's apology posted on Youtube by JYP has since garnered over 6 million views. The video also garnered about 350,000 "dislikes" over 24,000 "likes".

A supporter of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds up a placard of K-pop artist Chou Tzu-yu.
Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
A supporter of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds up a placard of K-pop artist Chou Tzu-yu.

The video sparked a backlash against JYP in Taiwan and South Korea for its heavy-handed management of the teenager and for its subservience to China, which is the top export market for South Korea.

JYP's website was then hacked over the weekend and was still inaccessible on Wednesday. The company's Facebook page has also been inundated with criticisms.

Under pressure, JYP denied it had forced Chou into a public apology but acknowledged that the company, alongside her parents, was party to her decision.

Key candidates in Taiwan's weekend elections voiced support for Chou and the issue was even addressed by Taiwan's independence-leaning president-elect Tsai Ing-wen at her acceptance speech. Tsai is the first female president in Taiwan's history.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait affairs, said via the state media saying that the issue was being used to "stir up the feelings of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait."

Despite China's official dismissal of the brouhaha, investors of companies caught in the crossfire are still unimpressed amid already challenging market conditions this year.

JYP shares listed on the Korean Exchange were down over 2 percent by Wednesday noon in Asia, taking its decline to some 3.5 percent against its close on Thursday, the day before the apology video was uploaded.

LG Uplus shares are down 3.5 percent and had fallen about 6.3 percent over the same period.

The Kospi Index fell 3.6 percent over the same time.


Meanwhile, private civic group Center for Multicultural Korea said Monday it will file a complaint later this week with the national human rights watchdog against JYP.

The center said the agency's alleged coercion of the teenager to apologize is "serious racial discrimination" and an infringement of human rights, Yonhap News agency reported.

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