Life & Culture

Starbucks in crossfire of Korea’s culture war

A new culture war is brewing in South Korea. At the center is Starbucks, after Shinsegae Group Vice President Chung Young-jin – the country’s largest shareholder of the coffee shop chain – shared several anti-communist posts on social media.

In recent weeks, the outspoken billionaire has grabbed headlines for using the hashtag “End Communism.” Although he has won support for his political statements, mostly from conservatives, some have threatened to boycott Starbucks because of the support he has received from the far right. Screenshot of hosts from the far-right Hover Lab YouTube channel smiling at Starbucks merchandise.

Users have posted pictures of themselves getting cash back on gift cards, while others have encouraged people to go to local independent coffee shops instead.

E-mart, a supermarket chain of the Shinsegae Group, also happens to be the largest shareholder in Starbucks Coffee Korea with a 67.5 percent stake.

Shares of Shinsegae Group fell 6.8 percent to 233,000 won ($195) on Monday versus the Kospi’s 0.95 percent decline, indicating concerns among investors that Chung’s social media presence could be risky. On Tuesday, the stock recouped some of its losses, closing at 239 thousand won.

“Chung is aware of the boycott and said he will no longer use the phrase ‘exterminate communism,'” an official with the Shinsegae group told the Korea Herald.

“It was not his intention, so he expressed concern that (his social media posts) are being politicized,” the official added.

Despite the vice president’s internal message on Monday, Chung posted another Instagram post with a screenshot of the news article about North Korea’s Tuesday morning missile launch with two encoded circles, prompting others to write “myeol-gong” in the comments section instead. The word means “to exterminate communism” in the English language. The post was later deleted.

Lee Young-ae, a professor in the department of consumer sciences at Incheon National University, said Chung’s comments were “calculated.”

“Based on the word ‘myeol-gong’ (annihilation of communism), it’s easy to assume what Chung supports politically. As a businessman, I doubt this was done on a whim. It sounds like a calculated move.” She claimed that Chung’s recent comments failed to protect the interests of shareholders, and came from the mentality of an “owner” rather than a “professional businessman”.

“The statements also come after the Golden Cross as polls show that people want a different party to take power, but the approval ratings for the main opposition party fall short of sentiment,” Lee added.

But among Chung’s supporters, his hilarious anti-communist messages went well.

“We went to Starbucks outside our office and bought all the mugs,” Kim Se-eui of Hover Lab said during a recent live broadcast.

“Liberals love Americanos. Let’s see how many days they can survive without Starbucks.”

Written by Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)

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