2016: Reactive Nationalism - Korea

Security in East Asia  -  China - USA - Japan - Korea usw
Mit freundlicher Erlaubnis von Japan Focus
Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 14 | Issue 9 | Number 5, May 1, 2016

Reactive Nationalism and its Effect on South Korea’s Public Policy and Foreign Affairs¹

Jonson N. Porteux

In 2013 Sejong University Professor Park Yu-ha published a widely criticized book titled "Comfort Women of the Empire." In her thesis, Park calls for a more complex and nuanced understanding of Korean involvement in the recruitment of comfort women and their varied experiences that challenges the prevailing victim's narrative about this system operated by the Japanese military in the 1930s and 1940s (Park 2013).2 Leaving aside judgments as to the accuracy, or not, of Park`s research and assertions, the response was highly predictable, with massive grassroots and national-level condemnation quickly emerging given its direct challenge to the generally accepted conventional wisdom in South Korea regarding Japan`s colonial and war-time transgressions. Widespread, vocal disapproval was followed by a court order to pay 10 million won (roughly $8,262) to each of the remaining survivors for defamation of character (Choe 2016).

While Park Yu-ha was a political outsider, the next well-publicized, significant affront to the average Korean`s sensibilities came from the political establishment itself, when government representatives under President Park Geun-hye agreed to a deal with their former colonizer on December 28th 2015. In return for a new apology and $8.3 million in care assistance for the remaining survivors, South Korea, promised to not make future claims on Japan with regard to the Comfort Women issue. Yet again, the widespread negative reaction by grassroots organizations and opposition political elites in South Korea was not surprising given the sensitive, 'powder keg'-like nature of this topic. While supporters might highlight the pragmatic nature of the agreement, general sentiment on the ground characterized it as an insult to national pride (see for example, Jun and Martin 2015). It appears President Park paid a steep political price as her party was hammered in the April legislative elections, losing a majority as disaffected voters gave a thumbs-down on her ruling style, the stagnant economy and what was regarded as an ignominious capitulation on the comfort women that injures national pride.

While Park Yu-ha`s book and the December 28th agreement went against popular nationalist sentiments in South Korea, political activist Kim Ki-jong`s attack on Mark Lippert in March of 2015, in protest at joint American-South Korean military exercises, arguably won him at least more moral support than the previously mentioned examples. Kim Ki-jong had earlier been convicted in 2010 for assaulting a Japanese envoy (Choe and Sheer 2015).

To be sure, Park Yu-ha`s publication, coupled with the bi-lateral agreement on the issue of Comfort Women, and the actions of Kim Ki-jong are largely on opposite sides of the left-right political spectrum. Collectively however, they highlight the passions that drive nationalism in modern Korea, and the significance thereof, which is the topic of this article. More specifically, this article examines the emergence, evolution, and political salience of South Korean nationalism in the post-1945 era with a focus on how it has, in all its dynamic forms, manifested itself prior to, and following, democratization in the 1980s. The first section elucidates how nationalistic passions were both manipulated and suppressed by successive authoritarian regimes. The second section deals with democratic South Korea and how grassroots nationalism influences domestic politics and government policies regarding the inter-Korean conflict, anti-Japanese sentiments over historical legacies of colonialism, and the emergence of anti-American activism.

Manipulation and the Suppression of Passions: 1945-1987

Having served much of its early history as a tributary state to China, Korean national identity emerged as a politically salient, modern manifestation of, and reaction to, Japan's 35 years of colonial rule (1910-1945). Post-colonial political development in Korea is thus intrinsically affected by a collective sense of injustice inspired by unresolved grievances of colonial subjugation.

Following Japan's wartime capitulation and liberation from colonial rule in 1945, the peninsula was thrown into what can be characterized as a stateless period .....


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