Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Nationalist outrage, 2019 edition: Flag ripping and boycotts target Japan

As Japan-Korea relations spiral downwards, a primer on the direction it may go can be found by looking at the 2002 candlelight protests aimed at the US. To be sure, similar scripts are appearing as nationalist reactions are being stoked, though there are differences. As Robert Kelly has noted, usually there are forces that would slow the momentum of anti-Japanese furor in Korea, but at the moment Korean conservatives are out of power and the US will likely not be bothered to intervene. Thus this is, as he put it, "a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time."

Another difference is that in the past (particularly in the anti-American cases), it was opposition activists who stoked the flames of nationalism, but this time the government and ruling party have taken the lead in this capacity. For example, on Monday Democratic Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan said that "Following Abe’s election victory, Japan will intensify 'its attempts to invade the Korean economy,' (in Korean, "이제 우리나라에 대한 경제침략이 본격화될 것"). The same day Cho Kuk, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, wrote in a Facebook post that "It is not proper to advocate Japan's assertion at a time when Korea's legitimacy and judicial power are under attack by Japan, which nullified South Korea's sovereignty in the past." Of course Japan complicating export processes is just like being colonized by Japan all over again! How helpful of him to offer such reasoned, thoughtful commentary.

Luckily, Cho noted that under the current government, "Anyone can criticize without fear of retaliation. In 2019, South Korea has a higher freedom of press index than the United States and Japan." This would be more reassuring, however, if Won Il-hee, a news anchor for South Korea's SBS CNBC, hadn't been called a 친일파 ('pro-Japanese) and fired for suggesting that South Korean leaders, policy makers, diplomats, and the media should remain level-headed and seek rational and diplomatic solutions. (See here; hat tip to John Lee.)

Level-headedness has, of course been eschewed for anti-Japanese boycotts which have affected the sales of Japanese goods (though it can at times be difficult to determine what, exactly, is a Japanese product). Protests calling for these boycotts and engaging in giant flag ripping have taken place, and have also equated Japan with the conservative Liberty Korea Party (as has KBS news). Students who held a protest in the Japanese consulate in Busan were detained by police after they "shouted slogans and held banners that read, 'We denounce Japan's re-invasion,' 'We condemn economic provocations,' and 'Abe must apologize.' I fail to see how referring to the 1965 agreement in the face of the ROK's Surpreme Court decision on forced laborers and complicating export procedures is "Japan's re-invasion," but I'm sure the phrase has great utility in whipping up negative emotions in graduates of the ROK public education system who hear it.

One rather inane voice may have inadvertently highlighted one of the Moon government's aims when he wrote, "Nothing spoke for me better than some North Korean media outlets in rebuking the Japanese government," and offered this example:
"The South Korean Supreme Court's ruling, which called for Japan to compensate the victims of forced labor during the Japanese occupation, was more than justified. Tokyo's export controls are shameless acts like the thief turning on the master with a club," said Meari (Echo), the North's government mouthpiece targeting the international audience. "Regarding the imperishable crimes Japan committed against the Korean people ― sex slavery, forced labor and genocide* ― Tokyo will not be able to repay fully even if it sells off the entire archipelago."
What better way to encourage a feeling of brotherhood with those north of the DMZ than by rallying against the eternal race enemy, America Japan? In another broadside directed at the conservatives, the reason to abrogate the 1965 Normalization Treaty upon which Japanese - ROK diplomatic relations are built, it is said, is because in 1965 "Korea was governed by a general-turned-dictator who had only economic growth and his continuous grip on power in mind." While the latter two assertions may be true, in 1965 Park was arguably in the least-dictatorial phase of his rule; open dictatorship would not arrive until 1972.

I'm sure there will be more frustrating days of this ahead.

*(I'm not sure how 'genocide' is to be reconciled with Korea's population doubling between 1910 and 1945, but whatever stokes people's anger is worthy of inclusion, right?

Update, July 28

An update, plus subway unions plan to post 20,000 anti-Japanese stickers in Seoul's subway cars. It's nice to see productive action being taken.

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