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Korea: Shame & Chauvinism

The main focus of han is of course Japan. It is easy to see why. Many historical sites in Korea, especially Buddhist temples, have a conspicuous sign telling the visitor how soldiers of Hideyoshi’s invasion army destroyed the original building in 1592. The results of the second wave of Japanese domination of Korea, which began in the last decade of the nineteenth century and was consolidated by formal annexation in 1910, are even more apparent. Japanese colonialism in Korea was a mixture of brutal military rule and a mission civilatrice, of callous exploitation and remarkably efficient economic modernization. Of these elements it was the civilizing mission that hurt the Koreans most. Being forced to adopt Japanese names, bow to the emperor, worship at Shinto shrines, learn Japanese, they rightly saw as assaults on the Korean cultural identity. Centuries of learning to be more civilized than the Japanese by being “purer” adherents of the culture of the Chinese metropole were undone.

Most painful of all was the fact that much of the Korean elite was recruited by the Japanese rulers and, within strict limits, benefited from Japanese modernization. This aspect of the past is being deleted from the national memory: there is little mention in South Korean textbooks of the extensive pro-Japanese movement, the Ilchinhoe, in the first decade of this century, described by Gregory Henderson as “Korea’s first successful political party.” Instead there are many pages emphasizing “National Suffering.” When a Japanese brings up the subject of Korean ambivalence and collaboration, as the former education minister Fujio did recently in a rather crude manner, it is met with outrage in South Korea. Fujio had to resign. Japanese education left such a mark on educated Koreans now in their fifties and sixties that hating the Japanese seems also to mean hating part of themselves. To wipe out the national shame young South Koreans must oppose their fathers and grandfathers, who compromised their purity.

A schoolmaster of about sixty kindly offered to help as my interpreter in Kwangju. We spoke in Japanese. I am always a little embarrassed to have to communicate with Koreans in Japanese; it is like using Russian to get around in Poland. But he did not seem to mind. He told me how he had been dragged off to Japan in 1941 to work in a factory in Nagoya. Koreans were treated like animals, he said. When the factory was bombed by the Americans, Japanese got clothes and rice rations, while Koreans were left to fend for themselves. He ended up in a camp, where he was half starved and regularly beaten by bullying guards. There were tears in his eyes as he told his story, but after a moment of silence he cheered up and asked about a Japanese film star popular during the war. He had loved her films. Was she still alive? And what about Hasegawa Kazuo or Iriye Takako or Yamaguchi Yoshiko? It was somewhat as if a Jewish former inmate of a German camp had asked after Emil Jannings or Zarah Leander. He complained about the price of subscribing to Japanese periodicals these days. He loved Japanese literature, which he preferred to Korean books. He apologized profusely, to me, a European, for his rusty Japanese.

Koreans try to hide or blot out the Japanese past in a number of symbolic ways. The old Japanese capitol building, built in the shape of the first of two Chinese characters that we translate as “Japan,” was erected by the Japanese right in front of the royal palace in Seoul. After the Japanese left, an old Korean gate was put up in front of the capitol, to obscure it from the public view. After much debate whether the capitol should be pulled down it was decided to turn it into the National Museum instead. This seemed sensible until the latest controversy: one of the murals in the building depicts an old Japanese legend. It will have to be deleted somehow, just as a number of handsome cherry-blossom trees had to be uprooted recently from a palace garden when it became known that they were planted by the Japanese.

But no matter how hard Koreans try to blot it out, Japan keeps on rearing its head. Modern Seoul looks more like Tokyo every day. Not only are the police force, the military, and the bureaucracy modeled after the prewar Japanese system, but Japanese modernity is to be seen everywhere. Magazine and newspaper layouts follow the Japanese pattern. Even the various forms of “Westernization” are often filtered through Japan: the coffee shops, fashion, popular music, TV shows, baseball. The only two habits that are recognizably American in Korea are the chewing of gum and the regretable use of mayonnaise on salads—and even that may have come from Japan. There can be few peoples in the world so influenced by a country they profess to hate so much. The Japanese have a large cultural center in Seoul. Many Koreans make use of its facilities. But it must be guarded day and night, lest feelings of han get out of control.

The sense of historical victimhood, the constant undercurrent of resentment, quickly leads to neurotic xenophobia. There is a book widely read by students, written by Paek Ki Won, entitled (literally translated) “Theory of the Racial Anti-Japanese Struggle.” It is, as the title implies, mostly an anti-Japanese diatribe. But in the chapter on reunification of the Korean peninsula the discussion becomes antiforeign in a much wider sense. The chapter is addressed to the author’s mother, who was separated from him during the Korean War.

Mother, why did we have to suffer for so long? We went out to buy a pair of football boots and never saw each other again. Why did this happen? Our simple love has been smashed. Mother, who is our common enemy? It is those damned foreigners!‌ When the unified life of our country is cut in two, our race will cease to exist. Our race can no longer contribute to the development of world history. On the contrary, our country will be like a nail stuck into the flow of history. Mother, who will be happiest about this and use it to their advantage? Those damned foreigners!

During a campus riot at Korea University in Seoul I asked a student whether he spoke English. “This is Korea, you must speak Korean!” he screamed and stomped off. Some of his friends were more forthcoming. They explained why they thought reunification was not just desirable but inevitable: The Vietnamese did it, so why can’t we? I pointed out the sad plight of southern Vietnamese today. “That won’t happen to us. We are strong people.” How can the two economic and political systems be reconciled? “Nationalism!”

These students were not voicing sympathy for communism. They did not even seem especially radical. But they were tired of government propaganda and tired of having foreign troops running all over their country, defending them against people to whom they still feel emotionally tied. This may be naive, and such feelings may not yet be shared by the majority of South Koreans. But there is a problem here which cannot be solved simply by “restoring democracy” under Kim Dae Jung. Kim looks every foreign reporter in the eye and says how much he likes America. He expresses his worries about the students and claims that only he can do something about their growing anti-Americanism. Some of his followers in Kwangju, where a student uprising was violently crushed in 1980 by Korean troops backed, the students claim, by the US Eighth Army command, made the threat more emphatic: If the US does not help us topple this government and restore democracy, we will end up like South Vietnam.

A more liberal civilian government would certainly be better. It would give people more political responsibility and thus more of a stake in national affairs. People who actually profess to like the present regime are hard to find. Most want to see the soldiers return to their barracks. But a Philippine-style People Power revolt is unlikely. If there is one thing the middle class fears more than military crackdowns it is disorder. This would not only pose a security risk vis-Ă -vis the North, but it would interfere with business, which is making people better off all the time. One cannot wish the threat from North Korea away, or the formidable political force of the military. No civilian government could survive without military backing, which makes a takeover by Kim Dae Jung virtually impossible. Expansion of freedom is more likely to result from compromise than from confrontation, Kim’s usual tactic.

Kim provides good copy for journalists eager to meet a democratic hero battling an evil dictatorship, but he is resented by many opposition figures who say that by dominating his party behind the scenes he stands in the way of younger leaders with a better chance of forming a workable government. This is why the respected Catholic primate, Cardinal Kim, has asked him to let go of his ambitions. Kim Dong Gil, an influential history professor jailed by President Park for demanding the restoration of free speech and press, said both Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam should get out of the way and go fishing.

Anxiety about social disorder is such in South Korea that even under a purely civilian government freedoms would be limited. While practice of torture is obviously intolerable in any civilized state, one should point out that even the Japanese police are wont to beat prisoners to get confessions or apologies. This unpleasant aspect of Confucian authoritarianism is not likely to disappear soon from either society. But at least a civilian government could tolerate a freer press and generally create a less regimental atmosphere. Would this automatically curb extremism and anti-Americanism, as the two Kims say? Only up to a point. Trade disputes will continue to feed an anti-American mood, often encouraged by the government itself. When South Korea finally allowed a 1 percent quota of American cigarettes on the domestic market, there were huge nationalist demonstrations against this move. And there remains the fundamental problem of the dependence of a sophisticated people on foreigners to defend them against a country with which they wish ultimately to be united. Even Kim agrees that a high degree of vigilance is necessary toward the North at the same time that any discussions of reunification take place. Are Olympic medals, anti-communist leagues, and folk dance contests enough to satisfy nationalist aspirations? One would think not.

As for extremism, a potentially dangerous situation is made worse by the growth of an intellectual Lumpenproletariat. There are too many universities, producing too many graduates who cannot be absorbed by the economy. This year 154,000 graduates and 50,000 repeaters will be looking for jobs. An estimated 39 percent will find one (a figure compiled by the Financial Aid Section of Chonnam University in Kwangju). Among the unemployed are many former campus radicals, kicked out of their universities for not attending lectures or barred from suitable jobs because of their political records. These people no longer have much stake in defending a system from which they feel isolated. They go underground or work in factories, where they try to organize antigovernment activities among their fellow workers. For them rebellion is no longer a matter of youthful purity or ritualistic posturing, it is a way of life.

What about Kim Dae Jung’s rebellion? Is that still a way of life, or has it been reduced, after years in prison, house arrest, and exile, to publicizing his cause? He has promised not to stand as candidate if the government accepts direct presidential elections, but few people take his promise at face value. The last time I saw him, in November 1986, he was on his way to a forty-eight-hour sitin demonstrating at the office of the Council for Promotion of Democracy. The strike was a protest against the forced disbanding of a dissident organization called the People’s Movement for Democracy and Unification.

The sit-in consisted of several dozen men in blue suits, wearing Japanese-style headbands emblazoned with battle slogans as an expression of their resolve to fight for democracy. They gave speeches and sang songs. Kim’s attendance would have done the government little harm.

Nonetheless, his car was stopped by three police cars in the center of Seoul. Kim declared that he would rather face jail than be forced to go back home. American and Japanese TV crews arrived on the scene, as did several opposition members of parliament who linked arms and looked fiercely into the cameras. Local TV crews were chased away as “government toadies.” The members of Kim’s entourage, tough men in suits, sat down around the car and shouted at the policemen. Traffic in one of the busiest intersections in Seoul was completely paralyzed. At least three hundred riot policemen turned up in armored vans. For three hours nobody moved except the camera crews. Office workers peered at the scene from their ultramodern buildings.

Then the police decided enough was enough and one by one Kim’s supporters were dragged into the police vans, kicking and screaming about freedom and democracy. Kim decided that enough was enough too, made the V-sign to the cameras, and was escorted home. Had he made a small dent in the wall of steely authoritarianism? Or was it yet another turn in the continuing cycle of confrontation-met-with-overkill that makes Korean politics so exasperating? Perhaps both, but I could not help suspecting that the latter possibility was the stronger one. For South Korea to reach political maturity, somebody must break this cycle. That person seems unlikely to be Kim Dae Jung.

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