I just published a long essay about Korea’s view of Japan for Newsweek Japan. Please contact me if you would like the Japanese version. Below is the reprint in English.
As so often when I write in this area, I immediately got hate-mail. So please, don’t bother telling how much this website sucks, that I’m a mouthpiece for whomever you dislike, that I am ‘taking sides,’ betraying Korea, and so on. I know Koreans and Japanese read critical analyses of one or the other in zero-sum terms. The essay below is not meant as a ‘Japanese win.’ It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade Dokdo with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.
I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Dodko is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did here, are genuinely baffled by all this.
So the puzzle, to put it in social science terms, is not why Koreans dislike Japan. There are grounds for that. But rather, why do Koreans (specifically the media) exaggerate those grievances so much that even sympathetic outlets (like this blog or American analysts more generally) feel compelled to call out the nonsense? That is actually a really good research question – but for all the hate-mail – if you are writing a PhD in this area.
Here is my primary hypothesis: ‘Japanphobia’ – the over-the-top Korean descriptions of Japan as some unrepentant imperial revanchist – serves S Korean domestic nationalist needs. Specifically Japan functions as a useful ‘other’ for the identity construction problem of a half-country (SK) facing a competitor (NK) that openly proclaims itself the real Korean national state against an imposter (SK). Trapped in who’s-more-nationalist-than-thou contest with NK, demonizing Japan is way for South Korea to compete with the North for Korean nationalist imagination. The RoK can posture as an instantiation of the minjok by criticizing Japan, which it can’t do by attacking NK, because NK says the same thing. Given that Koreans are more moved by the blood and cultural associations of the Chosun minjok than the dry, corrupt formalism of the RoK, the RoK desperately needs something to give itself some identity. Japan is that something. The RoK can’t connect convincingly with Koreans as the anti-DPRK, because too many South Koreans are ambiguous on NK. So the (post-dictatorial, democratic) RoK is the anti-Japan instead
NK routinely calls SK the ‘Yankee Colony’ to delegitimize it, but beating up on NK is not so easy in SK. A sizeable minority of S Koreans clandestinely sympathize with NK and agree that SK is too Americanized and not Korean enough. And NK cynically, relentlessly manipulates the evocative symbolism of Mt. Paektu to emotionally confuse the South. By contrast, Japan, the former colonialist, brings a convenient, black-and-white ‘moral clarity.’ It’s morally easy to condemn Japan. As a result, Dokdo gets fetishized (instead of now compromised Mt. Paekdu, the much more obvious geographic symbol of Korea) and Japan (not NK) becomes the state against which the RoK defines itself.
The full essay follows the jump. The framing is the recent trip by US Secretary of Defense Hagel to Tokyo and the furious grand strategy debate that touched off in Seoul. If the language seems a little ‘journalist-y,’ that’s because this was edited for readability by Newsweek.
“When US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel and US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Japan last month, it received scant attention in Tokyo. But for South Koreans, it was a big deal. The so-called “2+2” talks and the subsequent strengthening of the US-Japan alliance has sparked a raging strategy debate in Seoul. The Japanese media gave the trip minor coverage, because the American ‘pivot’ to Asia is popular in Japan, and Tokyo shares America’s concerns about China. But South Korea does not. Hence, South Korean newspaper editors and foreign policy analysts are worried that Korea might get roped into an incipient stand-off between China on the one hand, and the US and Japan on the other. The JoongAng Daily warns of an “an emerging Cold War-type rivalry between America and China” with Korea sandwiched in the middle. Indeed given Korea’s geography, it is almost impossible for it to avoid a serious contest between Asia’s two largest economies.
But there is also a sharp edge about Japan in this debate. Koreans are more fearful of Japan than a rising China, and they feel that stronger US-Japan ties would inadvertently draw Korea closer to Japan through the US. This is anathema to Korean elites, who have consistently attempted to de-link the US alliance with Korea from that of the US and Japan. Traditional Korean distrust of Japan has risen under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Chosun Daily snapped that “Japanese rightwing fanatics are only hungry for power and short-term gratification.” A similar editorial in the Korean Herald proclaimed Japan as Korea’s “ancient foe,” with whom alliance is impossible. It argues that Korean officials are upset that they were not consulted beforehand about Washington’s intent to tighten US-Japanese relations, with its obvious focus on China. President Park Geun-Hye’s regular rebuffs of Abe suggest that Korea will persist in distancing itself politically from Japan.
This is a risky business, as Korea is an encircled middle power, despite its position in the G-20 and the nationalist media frenzy that this ‘elevated Korea’s status.’ Korea’s American ally very much wants a Korean-Japanese rapprochement, so if South Korea remains adamant in rejecting improved ties with Japan, US pressure is likely. Still, South Korea views Japan with continuing hostility. Confusedly then, this pits South Korea with Japan and the US against North Korea, but then both Koreas with China against Japan. This entangling alliance framework – specifically persistent Korean alienation from Japan – cripples the creation of collective security – an Asian NATO – by blocking the consolidation of a democratic camp in East Asia.
To a degree, this kind of attitude – insisting that Washington should seek Seoul’s “permission” before dealing with Tokyo – is rooted in South Korea’s view of American engagement in East Asia as a zero-sum game. As Stephanie Nayoung Kang, a fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS points out, “Seoul sees Tokyo as a competitor for U.S. attention.” Tight US-Japan relations, as evidenced in Hagel’s trip, activates jealousy and resentment – the direct motivation for Park’s counter-move of a diplomatic tour of southeast Asia. The rapid growth of South Korea at the same time that Japan has slipped badly in its ‘lost decades’ has nurtured a vision of equality between Korea and Japan in the American structure in Asia. Traditionally Japan has been the American security anchor in Asia (similar to Germany in cold war NATO). Koreans resent this elevation in American attention, and this current flap with the US is an expression of that bitterness.
Furthermore, Koreans increasingly seem themselves, perhaps too much, as a major actor in Asia. Seoul refuses to be strong-armed by the U.S. into crafting a better relationship with Japan (nor vice versa), nor does Korea want to be ‘chain-ganged’ into an Asian cold war between China, and the US and Japan. In an attempt to project the image of Korea, Park subsequently went on that tour of Southeast Asia to demonstrate a counter-Japanese Korean alternative in Asia. This has been cheered in the nationalistic Korean media.
This greater Korean willingness to challenge, if not antagonize, Japan flows from its rapid economic growth. Koreans refer to their period of rapid growth from the 1960s to the 1980s as the ‘miracle on the Han’ (river). In a generation, Korea moved from third world poverty to modernity. Today, it is the world’s fifteenth largest economy, and it is in the G-20. At the same time, North Korea has been definitively eclipsed, Japan has struggled with decades of stagnation, while Soviet/Russian power in East Asia collapsed. In short, South Korea has dramatically closed the power gap with its neighbors in the last half-century. So South Korea today feels that it is much better placed to push its demands on both the US and Japan. The current strategy debate in Seoul is an expression of this greater regional equality.
The Seoul-based Asan Institute argues that this has given a ‘new nationalism’ to South Koreans. Korea today no longer feels that it has to heed to Washington’s lead on East Asian issues, and it is increasingly confident in condemning Japan on historical grievances. Koreans increasingly see Korea as equal to Japan, and they are increasingly unwilling to accept the fact of Japan being America’s primary ally in Asia. Hence, Hagel may wish Korea to reconcile with Japan and cooperate more with the US and Japan on China, but this is unlikely. There is little appetite for an open South Korean alignment with the US and Japan against China.
What’s behind South Korea’s worldview? For one, Koreans maintain some degree of historical sympathy for China. Korea held pride of place in the old Sinocentric ‘tribute system;’ Chinese dynasties did not bully Korea much, despite its small size. And of course, the Ming helped defeat the Hideyoshi invasion. Nor do present-day Koreans—contrary to many countries in the Pacific—perceive China to be a rising military threat. Instead, Koreans are more fearful about its perceived Japanese “rearmament” than China’s ascension. Further, China is Korea’s largest export destination and a substantial location of Korean direct investment. Seoul fears that the growing Korean-Chinese economic interdependence would be threatened by an explicit anti-Chinese stance by the U.S. and Japan. Finally, China is North Korea’s primary backer. South Korea cannot embrace a militarized US pivot if it is to convince China to one day give up North Korea. An anti-Chinese South Korean posture would put off any chances of reunification, because China will not give up its North Korean “buffer” if “hostile” US forces would be on its Korean border.
As the U.S. pivot to Asia tightens the environment around Korea, the debate in Seoul illustrates what will put Korea in a bind: choosing between the Chinese and US-Japanese camps. Distant states like Indonesia or Australia can slip-and-slide between the two sides. Their geography gives them some options to play for time, as well as encourage Sino-US rapprochement. Korea does not have this luxury. The demilitarized zone, right in the middle of Korea, is ground-zero for the US-China stand-off in Asia. Unless South Korea pursues a path of vigorous neutralism, including kicking out American troops and going nuclear, Korea will likely be forced to choose between the two camps.
Non-Koreans frequently assume this would be an obvious choice. China is a one-party dictatorship with a poor human rights record, weak civil liberties, and no elections. The US and Japan, by contrast, are established liberal democracies—values that South Koreans also espouse.
Here, the deep-seated Korean animosity toward Japan upends all expected political equations. Americans are perplexed how Koreans see Japan as a greater threat than China, but they do. Hagel encouraged Park to deal with Japan, which brought a sharp reply about Japan’s historical behavior in Asia. Abe’s current nationalist coalition has badly inflamed the issue. Park refuses to meet with Abe until he speaks more apologetically on the war. The differences are well-known, but in my experience in Korea, Koreans insist on four things regarding Japan:
1. Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are an annual irritant (to the Chinese and Americans as well). It would help enormously if Japan could find a way to honor its war dead without the moral ambiguity of Yasukuni’s presentation of the war.
2. Dokdo has become a symbol to Koreans all out of proportion to its actual value. The actual geographic focal point of Korean nationalism should be Mt. Paektu, near the Chinese border, the mythological birthplace of the Korean race. Unfortunately it is under North Korean control, and Southern opinion on the North is deeply divided. Hence, Dokdo is a clearer, morally easier symbol of Korean nationalism: Japan was Korea’s colonialist, so controlling Dokdo is a way of showing Japan that Korea is sovereign, independent, and proud. All Koreans can agree on that without a confused debate on which Korea is the ‘real’ Korea.
3. The ‘comfort women’ – Korean women impressed into forced sexual service to the Japanese imperial army – is another deeply divisive issue. Korean public attitudes toward sexuality are still deeply conservative, so the ‘comfort women’ are a national humiliation. My Japanese colleagues often ask me why this issue regularly comes up, despite the 1965 Japan-Korea treaty that legally ended reparation claims. Here Korea seeks not just financial compensation, but moral recognition. Ultimately in Korea, this is not a legal or financial issue, but a moral one. Koreans want an admission of guilt from Japan, along the lines of German attitudes toward the Holocaust, and they expect contrition from Japanese politicians on this point.
4. Finally, there is regular concern in Korea about the way in which history is taught in Japan. Again, the issue is likened to Germany’s post-WWII contrition about Nazism. Koreans expect that from Japan, and expect youth education in Japan to openly reject Japanese colonialism as aggressive imperialism.
For these reasons, Korea does not want a rapprochement with Japan. Koreans perceive Abe is moving in the wrong direction on this. Hence the current deep freeze in Korean-Japanese relations. Therefore, to join a US-Japanese anti-Chinese coalition would not only antagonize its primary export destination in China, it would align Korea with its ‘unrepentant historical foe.’
Japan as the Anti-Korean ‘Other’ in the Nationalist Competition with North Korea
But considering the fact that these issues have been around for decades, they do not fully explain the logic behind Seoul’s recent behavior. What is at play here is something deeper, which ultimately does not have to do with Japan, but South Korea’s psychology as a ‘half-country’ whose national legitimacy is openly challenged by North Korea.
South Korea’s animosity toward Japan, although rooted in history, is also an outgrowth of nationalist confusion caused by the division of the Korean Peninsula. A strong sense of pride about its ethnicity and heritage runs deep in Korea—and North Korea frequently exploits this nationalism to its advantage. The North controls Mt. Paektu, the mythological birthplace of the Korean race near the Chinese border, and uses this symbolism relentlessly and manipulatively to its advantage. The North refers to itself as ‘Chosun’ (조선the traditional name of the united Korean state that preceded Japanese annexation), instead of ‘Hanguk (한국the modern republican name with far less emotional weight). And it claims to be the true defender of the Korean race (the ‘minjok’ 민족) against the globalized, racially mongrelized ‘Yankee Colony’ to the south. (A guide in North Korea actually told me that Koreans should not ‘mix’ their race.) On behalf of the ’minjok,’ Pyongyang, in their view, stands tall against everyone – China, the US, Japan, while Seoul remains obedient to America
Many outsiders may find all of this as typical North Korean bombast and propaganda–but it resonates emotionally with many Koreans in the south. This is why there are a minority of North Korea-sympathizers in the south; NK complicates political categories in Seoul. Unlike many Western countries, in South Korea the left is nationalist—dovish on North Korea—, while the right is ‘internationalist,’ or pro-American. All of this sows confusion in the mind of South Koreans about the direction of nationalist feeling—which makes Japan an easy, clarifying symbol—a lightening rod of sorts. Here, Japan—because of its colonial record— becomes an easy outlet for Koreans of all stripes to unite and prove their nationalist credentials. It presents a simplistic good/evil dichotomy, an alternative to the constant confusion North Korea and its nationalist posturing sows in the south. Even as South Korea defers to Washington on North Korea policy, the South can gain a sense of pride and self-respect by taking a tough stance with Japan. All Koreans—both south and north– can agree to dislike Japan; all can rally round the flag on this.
This is why Dokdo, rather than Mt. Paektu, is a clearer, morally easier symbol of South Korean nationalism. Paektu should be the territorial locus of Korean nationalism, but it cannot be. It is compromised by its location in North Korea and by Pyongyang’s mendacious exploitation of symbolism. Dokdo is the replacement: because Japan was Korea’s colonialist, controlling Dokdo is a way of showing Japan that South Korea, a half-country with a weak sense of ‘state-ness,’ is in fact a sovereign, independent, and proud country. All Koreans can agree on this without a confused debate on which Korea is the ‘real’ Korea.
In other words, a lot of this isn’t about Japan at all. Japan is a convenient placeholder for South Korean elites to sidestep North Korea and assert their nationalist pride while avoiding the complicating relations with Pyongyang. Japan is an ‘other’ against which South Koreans can construct a separate national identity badly compromised by the overt ‘Chosun’ nationalism of the North. Korea’s divided condition creates a unique identity crisis which ‘Japan-as-other’ helps resolve.
South Korea has a weak sense of ‘state patriotism’; Koreans are indeed ethnic nationalists, but to their blood and cultural community, including Koreans in the North. They are one people. But the actual Republic of Korea, the state itself (in the south), has weak legitimacy and roots in Korean civil society. It is a half-country politically dominated by the Americans for decades, with institutions frequently copied wholesale from the US, with no obvious lineage to the beloved Chosun dynasty, and a closed political-economic Seoul-based elite (‘Kangnam style’) that alienates much of the country. The result is a poor sense of a distinct South Korea identity and weak commitment to corrupted, distant Southern institutions. In this context, Japan is a useful other against which a Southern state identity can be constructed. Hence the exaggeration of Korea’s otherwise defendable claims against Japan.
Korea’s Grand Strategy Dilemma
Korea is caught in a tough predicament. It is an encircled middle power. Three great powers border it, as does North Korea. Koreans may perceive the ‘miracle on the Han’ to level the regional competition, but I believe this to be an exaggeration. Korea risks ‘overplaying its hand’ as the Wall Street Journal recently noted. Korean security is still highly dependent on the US. So an open split with Japan is perilous, because Japan is still the anchor state of the American alliance architecture in Asia – which point Park’s Southeast Asian sought, fruitlessly, to contest. Korean geography is immutable, and Korean demography is stagnant. In other words, Korea cannot move out the way of Sino-Japanese competition, even if it wishes to, and Korea’s economic ‘miracle’ days are over. Korea will not catch up to Japan or even Russia (a point on which the Korean media could be more helpful). Perhaps decades after unification, but for now, Korea is still ‘a shrimp among whales.’
That traditional Korean saying captures well the long-term dilemma of Korean security, what ultimately shapes its geopolitical worldview. The great historical goal of Korean strategy is autonomy, independence from its much larger neighbors. (Hence the ideological satisfactions of Park’s confrontational Southeast Asia diplomacy.) China may focus on regional supremacy, as it did in the past, and Japan may, in turn, focus on preventing Chinese hegemony. But Korea’s strategic focus is much more immediate and narrow – preventing domination by its much larger neighbors. For a millennium Korea bounced back and forth between China, Japan, and Russia in northeast Asia. A wealthier, more confident Korea is now struggling against that continuing geographic constraint, unhappy that yet another outsider, the Americans, seem to be manipulating it.
The current debate in Seoul, then, is just the latest in a long historical effort. Understandably, Korea doesn’t want to be pushed around by powerful outsiders. But I am doubtful this can change – unless Korea were willing to openly break with the US and unilaterally nuclearization to go it alone. Geography, demography, and cold war division badly cripple Korean power. Korea feels that it is strong enough for the moment to resist an easy slide into the US-Japanese ‘pivot’ tacitly aimed at China. But so long as it is a US ally, the pressure will continue, and there is no obvious way out.”