- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

HONOLULU — Americans are shocked to face criticism from South Korea amid the continuing North Korean nuclear crisis. South Koreans are determined to improve relations with North Korea, which is increasingly seen as one of the world’s most dangerous states for violating international agreements, selling high-tech weaponry to pariah states and making brash declarations of nuclear might.

But South Korean students demonstrate against their country’s 50-year-old ally, the United States, for what they see as interference in Korean reconciliation, while the government spurns a common strategy in dealing with Pyongyang. This situation can be understood only in the context of South Koreans’ resurgent nationalism.

Last year when Beijing claimed that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which occupied northern Korea and Manchuria from 37 B.C. to A.D. 668, was a part of Chinese history, South Koreans responded with months of violent protests. Their anger now has turned to Japan after 40 years of diplomatic normalization.

Perceptions of the past have become a serious matter for Seoul’s policy-makers in this age of globalization and regional economic integration. Their hostility toward Tokyo is ironic in a year dedicated to Korean-Japanese friendship. South Korean-Japanese relations have improved significantly since the countries co-hosted the 2002 soccer World Cup.

Many observers wonder why the two countries are heading toward confrontation. The disputes over the small rocky islets of Tokdo, which the Japanese call Takeshima, and the revisionism of Japanese history textbooks would appear to be minor problems.

One has to wonder why Korea and Japan haven’t transcended their unfortunate history, while France and Germany have long since overcome the animosity of the past. France was occupied by Germany for a few years during World War II, though the national humiliation visited by the Nazis was limited. After the war, Germany was dedicated to healing the wounds.

In contrast, Korea was victimized by Japanese invasions in the late 16th century. In the 20th century, it was colonized for nearly 40 years. But because the Cold War and U.S. policy made Japan an anti-communist bastion in Asia, Japan had no opportunity to reflect on its historical wrongdoings, especially its brutality against its neighbors. Despite repeated apologies, Japanese politicians and textbooks continue to argue that colonial rule contributed to Korean development, a claim that inflames South Koreans.

Though Japan returned to industrial power, it never restored its moral legitimacy in Asia.

The suffering of Koreans under Japanese rule differed from that of colonies ruled by Western nations.

Westerners ruled their colonies with relatively small numbers of expatriates and left open the prospect of autonomous development, but Japanese military dictatorship in Korea was much more extensive and totalitarian, and included a massive bureaucratic presence. More than 52,000 Japanese officials were posted to Korea, occupying 95 percent of higher civil service posts. Even two-thirds of the senior clerkships were reserved for Japanese.

This can be compared with Indochina — Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — where the French ruled a colony about the size of Korea with about 3,000 officials. In addition, the Japanese deployed two permanent army divisions. The number of Japanese police, public officials, teachers and civilians in Korea, a country of 21 million, was 704,000.

Without trying to heal the wounds, Japan’s rightward moves toward a “normal state” tend to refocus on the glory and power of the old Japan by justifying its colonial rule, and presenting students with a picture of their nation as victim rather than aggressor.

Facing a “rising” China, it is understandable for Japan to emphasize nationalism. But, in the era of interdependence and globalized markets, nations that want to play a leading role in the international community should emphasize open rather than exclusive nationalism to promote understanding and cooperation with neighbors.

Of course, Korean nationalism creates its own problem. Koreans born in the second half of the 20th century neither remember nor understand the Korean War and the Cold War. They want to see North Koreans as poor brethren and no longer enemies. They think the Korean people in the South and the North have been victimized by powerful neighbors. Reunification thus has become the primary goal of Korean nationalism. Progressive nationalists have noticed that earlier South Korean governments failed to purge pro-Japan elements after 1945, while North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung punished Japan collaborators — including all non-communists — giving Pyongyang more legitimacy.

Reflecting that national mood, the Roh Moo-hyun administration has undertaken a revisionist rewriting of South Korea’s modern history, which prompts soul searching about the past and a belated re-evaluation of Korea’s recent history, especially under Japanese occupation.

The effort is socially divisive and politically sensitive because Park Geun-hye, head of the main opposition party, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a Japanese army lieutenant and a long-term authoritarian president, who built an industrial Korea. Therefore, many see Mr. Roh’s anti-Japanese nationalistic arguments as part of a political strategy to strengthen the ruling party’s legitimacy while justifying his conciliatory North Korea policy.

Under this campaign, younger Koreans tend to hold the United States responsible for the division of Korea. More radical elements think no task is more urgent than the reunification of the Korean nation.

The Roh government, led by the new generation, seeks to delegitimize the governments during the Cold War period that pursued anti-communist and pro-American policies. With such a radical approach to post-1945 Korean history and inter-Korean relations, conservatives — mostly the older generations who suffered from the communists — protest Mr. Roh’s “engagement” policy toward Pyongyang.

Thus, South Koreans are divided in their views of North Korea, the United States and contemporary Korean history. As a result, the Roh administration has been fumbling domestically in the face of a continuing economic crisis and inflaming nationalist sentiment as it seeks to take a line independent of Washington and Tokyo toward North Korea.

The critical issue in East Asia is North Korea — not the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, the Tokdo islands or Japanese textbooks.

An initiative that is positive toward Japan is crucial for South Korea-Japan relations as well as the peace and prosperity of East Asia.

If the core partners of the six-party talks are not in concert, how can they arrive at a common proposal and persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms programs?


Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide