China Denies Ban on South Korean Entertainers, Sort of, Maybe

South Korea’s entertainment industry starts to feel the pinch even though no ban has officially been announced. 

South Korean actress and singer Yoo In-na.

South Korean actress and singer Yoo In-na.

China continues to deny officially any ban on Korean entertainers or entertainment products, but state-run media reports and the evidence say otherwise.

China’s State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) has made no statement concerning any ban on South Korean films, television shows, live concerts or other appearances by Korean celebrities on Chinese television. “I have never heard about any restrictions on the [Republic of Korea],” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang at a recent press conference, although the Foreign Ministry would not be the relevant authority on such matters.

However, as China Film Insider first reported in August, South Korean entertainment products, especially television dramas and concerts by musical acts, appear to be targeted in retaliation for that country’s decision to deploy the US Terminal High-Altitude Areas Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. China objects to the American defense technology being placed nearby, although South Korea sees it as a bulwark against attack from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), rather than as an anti-China move.

But even state-run Chinese news outlets, normally quick to toe the official line, can’t miss the evidence that this is another unspoken action against foreign entertainment elements. The normally nationalist English-language newspaper Global Times gave examples including the replacement of actress Yoo In-na on the television show Shuttle Love Millennium 2. Singer Hwang Chi-yeul was abruptly scratched from popular reality TV series Dad, Where Are We Going? 

On the film front, although South Korean films do not enjoy the same level of popularity at the cinema that their TV counterparts do, in the latter part of this year they don’t even seem to be getting a chance. While it has been sold in 156 markets outside Korea, zombie hit Train to Busan wasn’t even submitted for censorship approval by a potential Chinese distributor, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The success of Korean entertainment in China has made the neighboring market an important one for Korean producers. The entertainment industry is a low-risk but high-visibility target for retaliation against THAAD, compared to other industries such as automotive that employ thousands of workers.

Unspoken bans and blackouts are regularly used by Chinese government agencies such as SAPPRFT to limit the influence or success of foreign films or TV shows. As noted in The CFI Guide to Film Production in China, blackout dates when foreign films are not given screening slots at Chinese cinemas are used to throttle down the success of international movies, while preserving peak movie-going periods for domestic releases.