SEOUL, South Korea – The fate of South Korea’s kimchi industry rests on whether China considers it pickled or not.
When China reclassified the fermented cabbage dish several years ago, Korean exports of kimchi evaporated. As a pickled product, it did not meet China’s strict import standards. Now, China has pledged to reconsider the designation, a concession that could pave the way for a new boom in exports since the two countries sealed a broad trade deal.
The episode over kimchi, a source of deep culinary and cultural pride in South Korea and an entrée that is commonly served at every meal, reflects the sometimes complicated relationship that China has with its neighbors. As China looks to deepen its regional trade ties, such pockets of tension could flare up, creating challenges for its ambitions.
For years, cheaper Chinese kimchi flowed into South Korea, undercutting local producers, who were not permitted to export to China. The subject became such a sore point that kimchi was left out of important trade talks with China for years.
To the vendors at one food market in downtown Seoul, the prevalence of Chinese kimchi products is a reminder of China’s reach into the lives of ordinary South Koreans. “We cannot make much without importing things from China,” said Chu Kwi-soon, a 67-year-old seller of kimchi.
China is South Korea’s biggest partner, with bilateral trade totaling $235 billion, according to the most recent figures from the Korea International Trade Association.
China is pursuing a string of smaller pacts across Asia, using its financial heft and global influences to its advantage. In its first major move,China signed a free-trade agreementwith South Korea in June.
Under the agreement, each country will scrap tariffs on more than 90 percent of goods, including medical equipment, electronics and kimchi, over the next 20 years. The deal is expected to increase trade between China and South Korea to $300 billion, according to estimates from the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
For South Korea’s kimchi industry, it should have been a victory. But the producers, in factories across the country, are still reeling from a bureaucratic change in China. By classifying kimchi as pickled goods, the Chinese government basically blocked all imports of the product from South Korea.
Kimchi is fermented and has high levels of bacteria. As such, it did not pass the hygiene standards in China normally applied to pickled goods, which are sterilized and have low amounts of bacteria.
In a few short years, South Korea’s once-growing kimchi trade with China plunged, from hundreds of thousands of dollars of exports a year to $16,800 last year. Instead, the cabbage dish is flowing in the opposite direction, with China now exporting hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of kimchi a year to South Korea.
“We are feeling a sense of crisis as the owners of kimchi,” said Kim Young-rok, a South Korean politician.
Other Chinese agricultural products have also undercut local business and dominated food markets and grocery stores, touching a nerve for farmers in South Korea, Mr. Kim said.
In February, the Chinese government said it would revise its regulations on kimchi in a move that was seen as alast-minute concessionto South Korea. But it is not clear whether the classification has been changed, since theWorld Trade Organizationhas not yet confirmed the new designation.
Even if the rules change, it may be difficult to reverse the damage. As cheap Chinese kimchi has flooded the market in South Korea, local producers have struggled to hold on to their business.
Some have moved their factories to China to keep costs down. Others factories have closed down.
The government is trying to preserve kimchi’s cultural significance, if not its economic import.
It successfully lobbied the United Nations to name kimchi to its cultural heritage list. At the World Institute of Kimchi, a research institute financed by the South Korean government, scientists havebeen told to“nurture and develop the kimchi industry that will boost the national growth.