Thursday, March 13, 2014

"On Korea’s Intense Resentment of Japan"

In his "Three Hypotheses on Korea’s Intense Resentment of Japan" (The Diplomat - 20140313), Robert E. Kelly suggests three reasons why "Koreans go over-the-top" against Japan these days. Beyond the obvious, that is: of course, Kelly insists on the context, from the Imperial Japan abuses to the (re)current provocations, most notably from a certain Shinzo Abe.

As you well know, I also find regrettable this sick ping-pong game between pseudo-nationalists across East Asia, and I deplore how extreme reactions as well as the inability to face its own past undermine Korea's cause.

So yes, Koreans do go over-the-top. But all the more so that hardliners in Japan go as far over-the-top as they want, untamed by a public opinion that seems more shocked by spectacular displays of outrage overseas than by the outrageous declarations that triggered them in the first place. Mutual hatred has been deliberately orchestrated and fueled by a minority growing every day bolder, with the benediction of political leaders pretty much "over-the-top" themselves (see for instance "Can't top that? Shinzo Abe posing as Shiro Ishii, the Josef Mengele of Imperial Japan"). 

Kelly is right to point out that "it is long overdue for Abe to make a high-level statement against this stuff", but a tad optimistic to consider such an unlikely event: clearly, this "over-the-top" thing is a chicken-and-egg situation where the international community almost unanimously blames a certain chicken that loves to drop as many explosive eggs as he fancies.

Now among the 3 examples used to illustrate Korea's over-the-topness, only "Liancourt" (Dokdo/Takeshima) fully deserves the label, the islets popping-up in all kinds of variety at the most unexpected moments in the nation's desperate drive to defend its territory. The other two cases have been accepted as legitimate far beyond Korea: more nations are recognizing the relevance of a challenge to the "Sea of Japan" branding operated under Imperial Japan, and of parallels between Imperial Japan atrocities and the Holocaust.

That said, "Korea's intense resentment of Japan" remains a sad reality. Before adding my two cents, I'll quote the 3 explanations listed in the article, Kelly "tilting toward the third":
"1. Koreans have always been sharply anti-Japanese since the war; we just did not see that until democratization twenty-five years ago made expression of public opinion easier and less manipulated by the government. 
2. The late 1980s/early 1990s rise of intense anti-Japanese feeling coincides with the passing of the first generation of South Korea’s political and business elites.
3. When South Korea democratized, it needed some kind of legitimating story (unnecessary under authoritarianism)."
Of course, they all make sense. For instance, we all know that PARK Chung-hee was not exactly the poster-child of anti-Japan Korea (he was even listed as a collaborator), or that many chaebol did enjoy comfortable head starts thanks to Japanese assets. Likewise, sharing an enemy with North Korea and China is always convenient when you lack common ground or diplomatic leverage. 

Is the legitimating story unnecessary under authoritarianism? Devilization also comes in handy to justify authoritarianism, or to make in comparison other evils acceptable. Among the fiercest 'over-the-toppers' stand ultra-conservative Koreans who refuse to consider the nation's own dark periods as periods of "dictatorship". Typically, the storytelling in Seodaemun Prison proves to be very selective: very graphical when it comes to describing torture under Japanese rule, totally amnesic when it comes to mention the way facilities were used in the troubled decades that followed.

Beyond "the passing of the first generation of South Korea’s political and business elites", the late 80s / early 90s also marked a shift in the respective trajectories of Japan and Korea, and revisionism and xenophobia revived in the archipelago as Japan's star started fading, just like the Northeast Project in China gained momentum precisely when Korea became a cultural force and a magnet in the region (2002 World Cup frenzy, K-drama boom).

Also, let's not forget the benchmark role of Japan in Korea, typical of the fascinating and complex love-hate relations between two countries I like (I even toyed with the Oedipus cliché, as I recalled in that column I wrote in The Korea Herald: "Is Korea really the younger, smarter brother of China?"*).

If I agree that the US can't solve the conundrum, I do believe they have a responsibility. Not as "hegemon", but as a player who's got his own dark moments to fix, and who happens to have supported bad guys on both sides** of the East Sea-Sea of Japan.

Of course, Koreans and Japanese share the same enemies: the ones from within, that undermine each democracy from the inside. And again, Shinzo Abe is not an enemy of Korea but an enemy of Japan, a nation that, thanks to him, is about to chose unwillingly and unconsciously between its peaceful post-war present and its hateful Imperial past (see "Saving Japan - Let's fall the Indecision Tree").  

How to expect other people to love your country when your leader is metonymyzing it with its darkest era? As Gabriele said in "A Special Day", "it is not the tenant of the 6th floor that's antifascist. It's fascism that's anti-tenant of the sixth floor".

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* Here it is, in case you missed it:

Is Korea really the younger, smarter brother of China? (The Korea Herald 20111127)

Korea the younger, smarter brother of China? The cliché cumulates too many “no-nos” to be sustainable. First, nations are not anthropomorphic entities you can compare on moral grounds. Second, Northeast Asian relations can be as touchy as minefields, and the epicenter of Confucianism is not the ideal playground for audacious familial metaphors. Ask a Chinese nationalist, and he’d rather consider South Korea and its actual sibling, North Korea, as mere provinces bound to get back to their Motherland. And why not throw in Japan, Russia, or the U.S. for a fuller familial picture?

I must confess that, when I first came to Korea in 1991, I toyed with another familial cliché: Korea as a strange Oedipus, condemned to kill his economic father Japan, and to marry his mother China. Not your usual mom: a Woody Allen-style, Jewish-mother stereotype, always lassoing her offspring with anything that could pass for an umbilical cord, making sure she remains the only woman who counts in her boy’s life (“When you grow up, you’ll understand: that American girl is no good for you.”).

This image came up because of the conflicting feelings of Korean businessmen toward Japan: Korea owed its successes to its own amazing dynamics, but even as the Lost Decade unfolded, benchmarking Japan remained an obsession, and foreign businesses had to prove their credentials there before finding a Korean partner.

“Mother China” is as wrong and caricatural a metaphor as “Japan the economic father,” but a timeless classic. In 1991, following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the 800-pound gorilla was starting to stretch its muscles after eons of hibernation. Not fit yet, but clearly gaining momentum, and certainly tempted to grow ambitions soon.

South Korea had already surpassed North Korea as China’s main commercial partner on the peninsula following the 1988 Olympics, but for most Korean businessmen, the Middle Empire remained well below the radar ― and for most Koreans, definitely more a political foe than a potential commercial friend.

This changed in 1992 when Korea established diplomatic relations with China, a normalization that facilitated the first boom in bilateral trade ($1 billion in 1989, $5 billion in 1992, $20 billion in 1996). The second boom happened in 2001 (from $44 to 200 billion between 2002 and 2010): that year, China’s accessed the WTO, and Incheon Airport was inaugurated. Even now, when I see ICN destination boards covered with Chinese cities, I remember my first trip from Gimpo to Shanghai in 1992: since direct flights to “red” China were not allowed, I opted for a stopover in Hong Kong.

China is now Korea’s biggest trade partner and Korea China’s fourth biggest trade partner. In 20 years, while China’s share in Korean foreign trade jumped from less than 3 percent to more than 20 percent, the U.S. dived from 29 percent to 10 percent. Korea smartly balances the political influence of both hyperpowers, significantly hosting their first G2+ in Asia (a.k.a. the G20 Summit).

With its 50 million souls and record low birthrate, Korea enjoys trade surpluses with a neighbor boasting a 300 million-strong middle-class expected to double by the end of the decade. Korea is now the economic and cultural model to follow, the subject of benchmark for Chinese players, the trendsetter and a key entry point for Western majors in the region.

So could Korea really be the smarter and younger brother of China? As Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.”

China is reassuming a position its familiar with, Korea venturing into unknown territories. The dynamics can’t be more different, the future more uncertain. Can Korea transform its Golden Moment into an original and sustainable model? Can China propose a new deal to its own people as the old one (growth versus liberties) expires? How will the North Korean adventure end?

Younger brother or not, in this transitional period, Korea needs to play extra smart. If it can’t push, like its giant neighbor, its own standards in key industries (IT, telecoms, nuclear or solar energy, bullet trains), it has to consider more sustainable standards than surgically enhanced K-pop stars. Hopefully, Korea Inc. has eventually understood the importance of reaching beyond hardware, of getting “softer” without losing the legendary drive and determination to succeed of Korean citizens.

Against such a formidable “coopetitor” as China, Koreans can leverage unique strengths (swiftness in decision making, capacity to democratize innovations, to embrace change), and convenient weaknesses (a small but compact and reactive market, a relative neutrality versus hyperpowers). But Korea can’t succeed without major reforms, starting with the empowerment of SMEs (also a must for China), and reforming an education system that destroys creativity and diversity.

In the brotherhood of nations, Korea and China will experience more moments of tension and friendship. They’ll move closer to each other in order to build more bridges (regional collaboration, FTAs, a common currency?), but also to square off when necessary.

Both China and Korea have to change now, and both have to redefine their own models as true leaders, without positioning themselves versus one particular nation. Let’s hope both can combine the best genes of each country: Sun Tzu’s strategic vision and Sejong’s wisdom.

By Stephane Mot

Stephane Mot is a French author, and an expert in strategy and innovation with a business start-up background. His friendship with Seoul started 20 years ago when he joined the French Embassy, and the city plays a recurrent role in his fiction as well as his blog ( ― Ed.

** see for instance "The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Kerry"

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