BUSAN, South Korea — For those who have spent even a short time living in the Republic of Korea, it is readily evident that anti-Japanese sentiments run strong and hot. On one level, it makes sense that ordinary Koreans would have a strong sense of grievance associated with the prior Japanese occupation. In the early days of the Republic, elite politicians worked frantically against the accusations that South Korea was home to the collaborators. Indeed, anti-Japanese rhetoric has been a mainstay of South Korean politics.
The legacy of this national formation has hit us hard on numerous occasions where we have witnessed the miraculous conversion of an apathetic student into a sharp, energetic critic driven by an almost missionary zeal informing one of Japanese wrongs: from Dokdo and the renaming of the Sea of Japan to comfort women. Often conversations on these subjects turn to how best to get world opinion behind Korea’s position on these issues.
Increasingly, the Korean government has sought to take these popular resentments and insert them into the agenda within the multilateral international framework. A recent New York Times article entitled, U.S. Emerges as Central Stage in Asian Rivalry, illustrates the point. The article points to a transition from the usual ham-handed PR campaigns to stoke global opinion about Japan’s past misdeeds, to a more sophisticated approach that begins on K-Street in Washington. It seems that Korean strategists have found their way to the Mecca of lobbying; a mainstay of US power politics: making campaign contributions to get your issues on the agenda.
And these efforts have yielded some minor, yet notable, political outcomes that move the ball in the direction the Korean government wants it to go. Activists in the Korean-American community have been successful in constructing statues commemorating comfort women in Glendale, CA and Palisades Park, NJ. Furthermore, the legislature in Virginia has recently passed a bill that requires all textbooks in the state must include the name East Sea along with the generally more accepted name Sea of Japan; a similar piece of legislation is currently pending in New York. In the case of Virginia, the result came after heavy lobbying by the diplomatic detachment of both countries, including their respective ambassadors.
What is most striking to us about this ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the global commons is its potential significance in the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape in northeast Asia. Generally, issues surrounding national security and economic growth are assumed to take precedent over cultural issues rather than material factors. For instance, trying to judge how âsatisfactory’ or âgenuine’ Japan’s apology for its use of comfort women is more a function of how one thinks about such issues than an empirical fact. Additionally, these issues, while certainly of great import for the victims and their supporters, given their historical nature, have little direct bearing on the multiple threats to stability in the region, let alone the continued economic struggles ordinary citizens face in their day-to-day lives.
These sources of instability include China’s rapid expansion of its power projection capability through a breakneck naval build-up, the hot territorial disputes between Japan and China over islands in the South China Sea, the continuing stand-off with North Korea, and the reemergence of a more assertive Japanese ruling party willing to flex its military muscle and stoke popular nationalism.
Traditional approaches to international politics would predict that for a small, middle power such as Korea, this increasingly tense security environment would push these historical/cognitive issues to the background and would yield a posture far more concerned with the immediate threats to the regional stability. This potential destabilization is particularly menacing to the trade-dependent Korean economy. However, recent events indicate that Korea has actually accelerated its efforts to press its chief ally, the U.S., to back Korean claims surrounding these issues.
One of the most notable parts of the Times’ story mentioned above was a quotation from Yonsei University Professor, Han Suk-hee, who noted that the Korean government warned [the U.S.] that China is being very friendly toward Park Geun-hye. Thus, in this case we see that rather than shifting focus to the more immediate threats to their security and prosperity, the Korean government is actually attempting to leverage U.S. concerns about the rise of China’s power, with the goal of garnering support for their claims against Japan. A great deal of Western (especially American) scholarship has tended to focus on the centrality of material interests, such as security and wealth, as the guiding force of statecraft. However, in understanding the modern discord of northeast Asian politics, these enduring historical grievances and people’s perceptions of them often seem to form the cognitive landscape upon which decisions are made.
The most interesting question is the degree to which these simmering âbad feelings’ will remain central if a genuine crisis (e.g. the collapse of North Korea, or some limited naval skirmish between China and Japan) were to break out.
Author’s note: For a more detailed discussion of the deep-seated anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, we recommend checking a recent post by Prof. Robert Kelly on his Asian Security blog.
Kevin Hockmuth is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Temple University. His research focuses on the internationalization of the Korean political economy. He currently teaches at Gyeongju University.
Dr. George Baca is associate professor of Anthropology at Dong-A University and is the author of Conjuring Crisis: Racism and Civil Rights in a Southern Military Town. You can check out his blog at www.georgebaca.com