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Starbucks in crossfire of Korea's culture war

How an international coffeehouse chain is being co-opted by the South Korean right

Far-right YouTube channel Hover Lab’s recent livestream focused on the backlash against Starbucks among the left. (YouTube)
Far-right YouTube channel Hover Lab’s recent livestream focused on the backlash against Starbucks among the left. (YouTube)
A new culture war is brewing in South Korea. At the center is Starbucks, after vice president of Shinsegae Group Chung Yong-jin -- the largest shareholder of the coffeehouse chain’s operation in the country -- shared several anti-communist posts on social media.

In recent weeks, the outspoken billionaire made headlines for using the hashtag “annihilate communism.” While he has gained support for his political statements, mostly from conservatives, some are threatening to boycott Starbucks over the support he has received from the far-right.“I’m going nowhere near Starbucks in Korea,” read one viral tweet alongside a screenshot of hosts from the far-right YouTube channel Hover Lab smiling with Starbucks merchandise.

Users have posted pictures of themselves getting a refund on gift cards, while others encouraged people to go to local independent cafes instead.

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

Shinsegae Group’s shares plunged by 6.8 percent to 233,000 won ($195) on Monday against the benchmark KOSPI’s 0.95 percent decline, signaling jitters among investors that Chung’s social media presence might be a risk. On Tuesday, the stock recovered some of the losses to close at 239,000 won.

“Chung is aware of the boycott and said he would no longer use the phrase “annihilate communism,” one official at Shinsegae Group told The Korea Herald.

“It wasn’t his intention, so he expressed concern that (his social media posts) were being politicized,” the official added.

Despite the vice president’s internal message on Monday, Chung shared another Instagram post with a screenshot of the news article about North Korea’s missile launch Tuesday morning with two cryptic circles, prompting others to type “myeol-gong” in the comment section instead. The word means “annihilate communism” in English. The post was later taken down.

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

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

“The remarks also come after the golden cross where polls show people want a different party to take power but approval ratings for the main opposition party is not living up to the sentiment,” Lee added.

Among Chung’s supporters, however, his playful anti-communist messages have gone down well.

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

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

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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