Seoul’s Colonial Boomerang

Protesters rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul after the comfort women agreement was announced in December. Credit Yang Ji-Woong/European Pressphoto Agency
Protesters rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul after the comfort women agreement was announced in December. Credit Yang Ji-Woong/European Pressphoto Agency

On Dec. 28, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan announced the “final, irreversible” resolution of the controversy over the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese military from the early 1930s until the end of World War II. They said neither government will raise the issue ever again.

While foreign media organizations praised the deal and a minority of South Koreans accepted it, there was a strong backlash here across the political spectrum. The main opposition Minjoo Party condemned “President Park Geun-hye’s complacent historical consciousness” for calling on the public to accept the agreement. One survivor, speaking to the left-leaning outlet OhmyNews, was blunt, “We need to replace the president — that pro-Japanese collaborator’s daughter, Park Geun-hye.” Even some conservative papers normally supportive of Ms. Park grumbled that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s apology felt insincere. Protests continue at the Japanese Embassy.

The reaction to the agreement from both the right and left shows how much the history of the colonial period continues to shape South Korea’s domestic politics. Politicians and ideologues of all stripes have long fanned anti-Japanese sentiment simply to further their own agendas. They don’t appear to care that this obsession with the past is holding their country back.

South Korea has become an economic powerhouse, but much of the postwar era has been dominated by poverty and dictatorial rule. External entities like North Korea, the United States and Japan are routinely blamed for the nation’s ills. But feelings toward Pyongyang and Washington are more complicated; the anti-Japanese sentiment, however, is shared by almost everyone and informs the national narrative: Korea’s glory was thwarted by Japan, a morally and culturally inferior country.

Talking to South Koreans about Japan today, you might think they are still fighting an occupying force. Starting in elementary school, children learn to dislike Japan. Many South Koreans of a certain age use pejorative language when they refer to the Japanese. Books like the best seller “Japan’s Got Nothing,” published in 1993, and “The Lie That Japan Is an Advanced Nation,” translated from Japanese in 2008, have pandered to the crowd. A 2015 survey showed that more than 72 percent of South Koreans had unfavorable impressions of Japan.

The anti-Japanese sentiment serves the left particularly well in discrediting the right. Many wartime collaborators morphed into pro-American, pro-business, anti-Communist figures in the post-independence era and became active in conservative politics. It’s easy to make the charge — perhaps fairly — that today’s conservatives and business elites are the biological and ideological offspring of collaborators.

In an era when the occupiers forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names, Ms. Park’s father, Gen. Park Chung-hee, who served in the Japanese Imperial Army, allegedly changed his name a second time to make it sound even more authentically Japanese. During the war, the father of Kim Moo-sung, the current leader of the governing Saenuri Party, was a collaborator who reportedly urged Koreans to make donations to finance Japan’s war machine.

Conservatives are equally guilty of exploiting the anti-Japanese sentiment. In the throes of dismal approval ratings, Ms. Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, unexpectedly brought up the issue of comfort women during a trip to Japan in 2011, and visited the islets of Dokdo, contested by South Korea and Japan, in 2012.

Despite the approval of the Dec. 28 accord, Ms. Park is hardly innocent of capitulating to anti-Japanese sentiment: Her government’s Justice Ministry is prosecuting a scholar on a criminal defamation charge for writing a book that challenges the mainstream view of the comfort women issue in South Korea. The book may be flawed, but the government’s signals are clear: No one should besmirch the nationalist cause, and Ms. Park is no pro-Japanese collaborator.

This game of who-better-confronts-Japan contributes to the breakdown of our politics. While certain Japanese politicians provoke South Koreans by questioning established historical truths, Japan provides a convenient excuse for politicians to ignore more important matters.

The opposition sunk Ms. Park’s nominee for prime minister in 2014 for once remarking that the colonization of Korea was “God’s will,” and that Japan wasn’t obliged to compensate comfort women, based on a 1965 bilateral treaty. Even though the nominee later withdrew under pressure, the government had to counter the accusation that he was pro-Japanese, which it did by spending 15 months investigating the man’s grandfather simply to prove that he had fought for independence.

The last general election in 2012 was also muddled by a focus on certain candidates’ links to Japan. A ruling party candidate was grilled over the fact that, years ago, he had written that colonial-era Koreans “might have thought of the Japanese Empire as their fatherland.” An opposition candidate, in turn, had his fitness to run for office questioned because he was the grandson of a collaborator. This unfortunate trend is expected to worsen in the run up to the general election in April.

Anti-Japanese emotions also trump security. Despite the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, South Korea and Japan failed to sign an intelligence-sharing pact in 2012; the Lee administration backed out at the 11th hour over the usual tensions. The two countries pledged in December 2014 to share information about North Korea’s weapons, but only through the United States. Last July, South Korea ruled out any possibility of a formal military intelligence pact with Japan.

Other domestic issues are getting sidelined. The administration and opposition bicker over what the government really meant by offering to “solve” Tokyo’s concerns over the memorial statue to comfort women in front of the Japanese embassy. South Korean media assailed Mr. Abe’s insistence in Parliament on Jan. 18 that there had been no forcible recruitment of comfort women during the colonial era. Two survivors flew to Tokyo on Jan. 25 to argue for nullifying the deal. Again, more recriminations ensued.

The victims of the colonial regime should continue to press their claims, and Japan ought to try making better apologies. There is ample evidence that the system was a crime against humanity. But after decades under a political class that has pointed its fingers at Japan for myriad problems, anti-Japanese sentiment has taken on a life of its own. South Korea stands in a perpetual state of heightened emotions. Its leaders constantly cater to these feelings, seemingly at the expense of all else. All that hate boomerangs to hurt South Koreans.

Se-Woong Koo is the editor in chief of Korea Exposé, an online magazine specializing in the Korean Peninsula. He is writing a book on contemporary South Korean society and politics.

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