My latest Korea Times article, "Reacting to Vietnamese 'anti-Koreanism' in 1967", examines the reaction of the Korean media to reports that anti-Korean feeling was spreading in Vietnam after the Korean soccer team was booed by Vietnamese spectators at a tournament there. I couldn't help noting the way some newspapers tried to explain away the negative feelings engendered by the ROK military presence, and particularly the actions of Korean civilian contractors who acted rudely and "fooled" Vietnamese women (shades of negative perceptions of GIs and English teachers in Korea), by calling it a "misunderstanding" - the kind of response that has resulted in bitter commentary in the Korean media when the US military or Americans have responded similarly. The icing on the cake came when I asked William Nguyen about the topic and found out that the main reason for the booing at the soccer game was that Korea had knocked the Vietnamese team out of the championship, something the Korean media completely ignored, obsessed as they were with the slights to their reputation by "ungrateful" Vietnamese.
I decided to link that story to that of Korean netizens angering Filipinos after Filipino American influencer Bella Poarch was seen sporting a tattoo with a design similar to the Japanese rising sun flag, apologized, and then was the target of racist comments by some Korean netizens. This led to a brief "Cancel Korea" movement among Filipinos. (See here and here for more details.) One comment, quoted here, had some pertinent criticism: "We feel betrayed by you guys. Let me remind you that 112 filipino soldiers died in action during korean war. The philippines was the FIRST asian country to SEND combat troops to your country." Though some Korean netizens may not have been aware of this fact, the Korean government certainly is.
What amazes me about this story is the way in which Koreans felt the need to explain that the rising sun flag has negative connotations for Koreans due to the actions of the Japanese military... to people from a country that was invaded by Imperial Japan and whose citizens resisted the invasion. Korea, it should be remembered, never fought a war with Japan. Japanese troops landed in Korea in February 1904 and Emperor Gojong quickly signed a treaty of alliance with Japan. Yes, from 1906 to 1909 the Righteous Armies waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese, and tens of thousands of people rose up against Japanese rule in 1919, and there were sporadic acts of resistance in the following years, but Korea never fought a war against the Japanese in 1904 or any time after. The same can't be said for the Philippines, where hundreds of thousands died (particularly during the Manila massacre in 1945). The time period when Koreans suffered the most under Japan was during WWII when they were forced to toil or fight for the Japanese war machine that oppressed the Philippines. The number of Koreans who died during the entire colonial period is almost certainly less than the number of Filipinos who died during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.
Another uncomfortable fact is that the theater with the largest number of deaths of Korean soldiers serving in the Japanese army during WWII was... the Philippines (according to the Japanese records quoted in Brandon Palmer's book, Fighting for the Enemy: Koreans in Japan's War, 1937-1945, 2,156 of 5,870 Korean soldiers recorded as having died during WWII fell in the Philippines). Needless to say, these soldiers certainly didn't die fighting on behalf of Filipinos (as Filipinos did fighting on behalf of Koreans during the Korean War).
That Korean netizens feel the need to explain to Filipinos the nature of the brutality of Imperial Japan just goes to show how narrowly Korean textbooks and popular culture depict colonial era history, with, for example, high school textbooks spending only two pages on World War II. On top of that, only one of those pages is on the Pacific War, a fact that helps to obscure the role the Allied armies played in Korea's liberation (a role never mentioned in annual presidential Liberation Day speeches). But then I suppose that makes sense, since digging too deeply threatens to turn up some uncomfortable truths about just how many people made their peace with the status quo at the time - hence efforts to portray those who signed up to be prison guards and mistreated Allied prisoners as "victims" of the Japanese and the unfair Allied war crimes trials.
Netizens of the sort that hurl racist insults at a country their ancestors once helped invade have been busy in recent months. While some think cancel culture in the West has gone a bit overboard (but what's not to like about tearing down statues of abolitionists in the name of decrying white supremacy?), in Korea the exact opposite trend has been on display: instead of canceling racists, it's those decrying racism (or blackface) who get canceled.
Ghanaian television personality Sam Okyere commented on the above photo of high school students, writing
I feel regret and sadness to see something like this in 2020. This is not funny! From the stance of black people, this is very insulting.[...] You put in so much effort to educate people here in Korea and make them understand that you can appreciate a culture without making a mockery of the people. This has to stop in Korea!!! This ignorance cannot continue!!!!!
Though he noted in a later interview that he initially had meaningful conversations with some Korean netizens, these were soon replaced by people who had no desire to have a conversation and "just wanted to attack." I ended a recent post on the history of blackface in Korea by saying that I could understand Koreans bristling at white foreign netizens criticizing blackface in Korea - a practice almost certainly learned from Americans. But a black, African man criticizing it? That would be the time time to listen.
That's not what happened, of course. Criticism of Okyere's criticism soon led to a posting on the Blue House petition page, which castigated Okyere for "infringing upon the students' portrait rights," as if the very thing that caused offense - blackface, along with sunglasses and hats - wasn't obscuring their identities already. It then criticized Okyere, an "influencer" with many followers, for making Korea look bad, and said in summary:
I petition that Okyere, who insulted Koreans by calling them ignorant and, despite it infringing upon the students' portrait rights, shared photos that induced international embarrassment and exposed Koreans to the danger of degrading our national dignity, be banned from broadcasting.
While thankfully only a few thousand people signed the petition, it, as well as an attempt to misrepresent an old post of his as "sexual harassment," ultimately achieved its goal when Okyere "voluntarily stepped down" from the quiz show "South Korean Foreigners." On the one hand, this has much to do with the role of entertainers in Korea, and the belief they should not say anything controversial or face a period of exile. On the other hand, Okyere's status as a foreigner who "criticized Korea" is likely the more important aspect to consider.
What I find interesting about this stance - that foreigners mustn't criticize Korea - is one of its sources. To be sure, neo-colonial or ignorant attitudes on the part of foreigners have justifiably rubbed Koreans the wrong way for decades, as can be seen, for example, here and here in 1975. But other forms of foreign criticism were also attacked in the Korean media that year. A New York Times article titled “U.S. Press is part of Seoul politics” (Sept. 8, 1975) quoted a column in the Korea Herald which said that unnamed American veterans of the Korean War who had recently visited Korea believed "the American news coverage of the Korean situation is mostly crooked and irresponsible, resulting in negligence in showing the true picture of Korea and Koreans."
The news coverage they were referring to, however, was of the sort that was criticizing the Korean government for things like kidnapping its citizens from foreign countries, torturing its citizens to death, suppressing the media, and all those unpleasant things that dictatorships tend to do to maintain power. What was rather jaw-dropping was reading the Korea Herald – then the voice of the South Korean government – as saying that "distorted" reports about Korea's dictatorship in the American press were rooted in "the colonialism of the American white media." You almost have to admire the way the dictatorship used such language to defend its behavior and attack foreign commentators for criticizing it. Needless to say, watching Korean netizens use the President's website to force a foreigner to resign from a TV show for saying he was offended by blackface was... unexpected.
Not particularly unexpected was a story about another branch of the Korean government. The Justice Ministry, under the umbrella of which sits Korea's Immigration Service, caused offense due to a guide it published that is used in a course for Koreans marrying foreign spouses.
Koreans who are marrying a foreign national from one of the seven countries officially designated by the government ― China, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Thailand ― must take the course as a prerequisite to applying for a marriage visa for their spouse. [...]
Published in 2019, the guidebook titled "Understanding the social customs and marriage culture of foreign countries" purports to explain particular characteristics of people of nationalities that commonly come to Korea through and for marriage to Korean nationals. [...]
The guidebook describes Vietnamese as not easily admitting to wrongdoings and tending to make excuses for their mistakes rather than apologizing.
"Insulting Filipinos with high self-esteem may lead to unexpected violence. It is advisable to refrain from commenting about their skin color or curly hair since they have feelings of inferiority about their looks," the book reads.
"Chinese tend to perceive other neighboring ethnic groups as barbarians based on their Sinocentric mindset. Thais may lack deep thinking. They focus on getting things done quickly, without caring about quality. Cambodians are usually shy and quiet, but they change their attitude radically when they are insulted, leading to violence or shootings in some cases."
Unsurprisingly, people of these nationalities were offended by these portrayals. In response, the MOJ responded by saying, "We are deeply sorry to have included negative expressions which may lead to stereotypes of certain nationalities, and will entirely revise the book based on opinions from human rights experts."
One wonders why they need human rights experts to tell them not to traffic in gross generalizations about entire nations of people. Then again, this is the same ministry (at the time under Roh Moo-hyun) that held a policy meeting to decide on new regulations for E-2 visa holders in 2007 and chose to invite the leader of a
xenophobic patriotic group of netizens devoted to expelling "unfit" foreign teachers (who did drugs or had consensual sex with Korean women) from the country. It then defended the HIV testing for E-2 visa holders it put into place at that meeting for years (to the point that for seven years E-2 visa-holders were the only foreigners being officially tested for HIV) and waited more than two years after a ruling by the UN Committee for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination that called for the abolishment of HIV testing to do so.
These cases are very much related to perception, which is often shaped by government policy or media reports. In one case, the perception is that Japan is the greatest source of evil in Korea's modern history, and anyone who is ignorant of this should be taught so with great urgency. It's clear the rising sun flag has been shaped into a symbol of evil in Korea, but apparently not in the Philippines, despite its great suffering at the hands of Imperial Japan. While the ROK government has long encouraged that negative nationalist feeling be directed at Japan, the current government has done so more than most. As for the second case, the perception that blackface is fine because no offense was intended and foreigners should not criticize Korea was essentially legitimized by it appearing on the Blue House petition page. As for the HIV tests I mentioned, they were instituted in part due to negative media coverage, but this ebbs and flows. This story from June of a middle school native-speaking teacher in Suwon who was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for recording nude photos and videos of teenagers via a chatting app might have appeared to be - particularly coming after all the media coverage of foreign teachers as potential disease spreaders in Itaewon - the perfect kind of story for the media to amplify, but there were only about a dozen articles, so clearly there wasn't interest in doing so at the time.
Needless to say, that netizens or government ministries attack or portray negatively (respectively) Southeast Asians or Africans while the media takes a pass at highlighting crimes by more privileged foreigners in Korea like English teachers seems different from how things were in the past, and I don't think that's a good thing.