Among numerous foreign invasions of the Korean Peninsula, the Imperial Japan colonizing Korea for 36 years stands outstanding as the archenemy in the collective memory of the contemporary Koreans. Thus, the concept of patriotism comes with the anti-Japanese sentiment like the two sides of a coin.
36 years are not short; although the anti-Japanese resistance during the colonial period has been lionized (and almost fantasized) nowadays, still a majority of the colonial Koreans interacted with the Japanese since the Japanese were their only economically advanced neighbors in the early 20th century. Syngman Rhee, an anti-Japanese leader and the first president of the Republic of Korea, had cut all the diplomatic ties with Japan. However, the price of nationalism was high: the South Korean war-damaged economy had relied on the American aid, and smuggling from Japan became rampant. Koreans began to realize, “It is cool to hate Japs, but our opportunities will be seriously limited unless we work with them.”
In 1965, President Park Chung-hee re-established diplomatic ties with Japan. South Korea needed Japan to enhance its key interests – national security and trade. In the Cold War era, South Korea was literally the watchtower of the Communist Bloc. If Seoul continued to reject working with Tokyo, it would have alienated South Korea to face North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union alone. Also, the Park Chung-hee administration needed Japan to carry out its export-driven economic policy. Back then, anyone who wanted to expand business or even simply wished to financially prosper had to work with the Japanese in some form. A majority of the so-called Korean nationalists have accused President Park of being a traitor collaborating with Japanese exploiters.
Perhaps such a strong anti-Japanese sentiment is related to the income inequality in South Korea. One of the most common nationalistic myths is that patriots ended up in poverty while traitors prosper at the cost of their nation. The nationalists attempt to label anyone who made a fortune in the 70s and 80s as “unpatriotic” unless he or she join their nationalistic cause. Simultaneously, those who have been marginalized or simply feel marginalized can identify themselves with the anti-Japanese patriots. It is no surprise that the leftists have vigorously employed nationalism as its platform.
Since the 90s, the rightists also began to imitated their rivals to remain appealing to the voters. Even in the 21st century, nationalism still remains influential to most of the Koreans. For example, a rather emotional territorial dispute with Japanese demagogues over a rocky isle called Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese) has been treated as a life-and-death issue while the threat posed by North Korea is downgraded. Nationalism blinds so many people so easily. Here is the undeniable fact: Japan is one of South Korea’s key allies. Even if Japan will someday turn to a militaristic empire to invade Korea again, South Korean leaders, politicians, and intellectuals alike should not provoke the ally for no reason but seeking domestic popularity. In Aug 14, 2012, for example, the rightist leader President Lee Myung-bak demanded a “proper” apology from the Emperor of Japan Akihito. Given the status of the Japanese Emperor that holds no authority in foreign affair, President Lee’s statement was nothing but a politically motivated gaffe to increase his popularity. It is a bitter irony that the leftists still condemn Lee as a pro-Japanese traitor.
President Park Geun-hye made a remarkable turn in South Korea’s anti-Japanese diplomacy in 2015. President Park was one of the few Koreans who recognized North Korean nuclear crisis was more serious than any dispute with Japan would. At first, Park asked for China’s intervention in North Korea but China remained – still is – reluctant to curb the North Korean dictator’s nuclear ambition. Park’s next move was quick and resolute: she agreed the deployment of the THAAD. Yet, it was not the only surprise for Beijing and Pyongyang: Park reached the settlement with Japan over the prolonged Comfort Women dispute in 2015, then signed the preliminary intelligence-sharing pact on North Korea with Japan in 2016.
In 2017, Park was ousted from presidency after the series of highly questionable political scandals. The Koreans have elected Moon Jae-in as their new leader. Former ardent anti-American activist and the right-hand man (the Blue House Chief of Staff) of Roh Mu-hyun, Moon represents everything that is not Park Geun-hye. As a matter of fact, anti-Japanese nationalism was his bread-and-butter when he was the leader of the opposing party. Most notably, he was one of the most ardent critics of the Comfort Women deal in 2015, and installed the Statue of Peace, aka the Statue of a Victim Girl, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Busan, on Dec 30, 2016. In 2016 when the authority of Park Geun-hye was extremely shaky, Moon did not hold any public office, but he was a presidential hopeful. The Japanese Embassy filed a grievance with the Busan Police Department to remove the statue. The statue was removed temporarily on Dec 28, 2016. However, as Moon publicly denounced the Busan Police Department, the statue was re-installed after 2 days. It was when Moon Jae-in emerged as the Anti-Japanese Superstar. Now the Statue of Peace is an anti-American sign and a symbol of endorsement of Moon Jae-in.
Now the Anti-Japanese Superstar is the new president of South Korea. His foreign policy still remains obscure: one of few obvious things about it is he will employ the time-proven anti-Japanese nationalism to cling to power in an extremely similar way Nicolas Maduro speaks of the United States. Nationalism blinds so many people so easily – you are warned.