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[Bookmark] Alone Among Asian Democracies, Why Does South Korea Choose to Hate Japan?

The logical targets for South Korea’s ire should have been the U.S., China, and Russia, as they brought about the peninsula’s division. Several factors are at play, however.



South Korean protesters stage a rally to denounce Japan's new trade restrictions on South Korea in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Japan's Cabinet on Friday approved the removal of South Korea from a list of countries with preferential trade status, prompting retaliation from Seoul where a senior official summoned the Japanese ambassador and told him that South Koreans may no longer consider Japan a friendly nation. The placards read: "We denounce Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)


Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Vietnam with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc

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Perceptions of Japan are highly positive among Asia-Pacific democracies. Japan is the most trusted major power in the region, in the opinion of Southeast Asian nations. Recent surveys concerning Australia, New Zealand, and India show favorable attitudes as well.  

The sole outlier is South Korea, where the collective stance towards Japan is negative in the extreme

South Korea’s ire stems from Japan’s 35-year annexation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. It is certainly understandable that no nation would appreciate having been under the control of a foreign power, yet South Korea has harbored its grievances to a duration and extent that is not evident among other Asian democracies that were similarly subjected to colonialism. 

To what do we attribute this discrepancy? Was the Japanese occupation uncommonly severe?

Korean assasin Ahn Jung-guen, who killed Japanese Gov General of Korea Hironobu Ito in 1909

The Pacification Period 

According to academic Brandon Palmer, around 17,600 Koreans lost their lives in failed attempts to bring down Japan’s colonial regime. This figure, while at first glance alarming, pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who were contemporaneously killed by the colonial United States administration in the Philippines. The full Philippine tally, including those who died from disease after being herded into concentration camps, is estimated at around one million — a seventh of the population. 

The American media routinely refers to the Japanese occupation of Korea as “brutal,” while taking pride in the relative passivity of the Philippine people during the U.S. colonial era. One suspects, however, that the Korean population may also have been considerably more benign if Japan had carried out pacification with the same level of dedication as the U.S. 

In terms of total Korean years lived, however, the Korean people enjoyed a massive net gain in lifespan. During Japanese colonial rule, Korean life expectancy rose from 26 to 42 years. This compares favorably with the 32 average years that an Indian could enjoy under British rule — a figure which regular famine ensured would only rise after the British had left. There was no famine in Japanese-administered Korea. 

South Koreans oppose Japan and say it is because of the ‘forced labor’ issue in the war era.

War Era Labor

Much is often made of the Japanese dragooning of Koreans onto the Japanese mainland to assist with the war effort during the early 1940s. What is largely forgotten is that, due to their status as Japanese citizens as a result of the outright annexation of the Korean Peninsula, Koreans were free to relocate to Japan, and enjoyed the right to vote and run for office. They exercised this prerogative for the greater opportunities on offer during the full 35 years of the occupation, in the same manner as present-day Puerto Ricans do in respect to the U.S. 

The comparison against the Australian wartime enlistment of its Papua New Guinean colonial subjects, who hauled supplies and Australian wounded along the mountain tracks of their homeland, is particularly stark. The carefully nurtured myth of the problematically termed “fuzzy wuzzy angels” suggests that they performed these duties willingly. Under the tenets of “White Australian Policy,” however, the people of wartime Papua New Guinea, unlike those of the Korean Peninsula, were deemed unworthy of stepping upon their colonial master’s soil. The extent of their willingness might thereby be considered questionable. 

South Korea’s Samsung Corporation, founded in 1938 in the Japanese Colonial era, benefitted from the benevolence of Japanese efforts to build up the Korean economy. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD

Imperial Intent

Japan’s efforts to modernize Korea ultimately led to a net loss for the colonial administration. This was again unprecedented. Ordinarily, the European powers imposed the provision of mandatory crop quotas or taxation, resulting in the necessity to produce cash crops. This not only stripped the colonial possession of its wealth but routinely led to famine. The most stunning example is the Belgium colonization of the Congo in which the population dropped from around 25 million to 8.5 million between 1885 and 1911. 

The British performance in India is also of particular note. It is estimated that the British took the present-day equivalent of several trillion U.S. dollars out of the subcontinent, leaving it divided and destitute. India’s share of the world economy dropped from 27% to 3% during that time. The West’s collective performance within China was equally predatory, the opium trade being the source of much present day “old money” wealth


In Korea, in 1904, there were only a handful of primary schools with a total student number of around 500. Enrollments grew to 20,100 in 1910, the year of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, and then up to 901,200 in 1937. Korea’s first university was set up during the Japanese annexation in 1925. Meanwhile, upon independence at the end of British colonial rule in India, a mere 16% were literate.  

A comfort woman statue used in anti-Japan international propaganda

Sexual Predation

The comfort women program has been widely publicized by South Korea over the past 30 years. These efforts have been embraced in the West, where it is self-servingly viewed as an example of Japanese imperial exceptionalism. Let us avoid the rabbit hole and merely note that, in 1943, the casualty rate for British troops in Asia from sexually transmitted diseases was 16 times greater than from combat. 

From whom were the British troops acquiring them? “Willing” prostitutes, no doubt.

RELATED: Do You Know? There’s a More Inclusive View of the Controversy Over Comfort Women Statues

The Absence of War

A final comparative virtue of the Japanese tenure of Korea was that the peninsula was not a theater of the Asia-Pacific War. The destruction ultimately wrought was as great as any elsewhere, but it transpired during the Korean War, not in opposition to the Japanese presence during the Asia-Pacific War.

In short, had an orderly transition to independence occurred after the defeat of Japan in 1945, Korea would have emerged from its colonial experience in considerably better condition than any of its neighboring nations. 

South Korea, shown below North Korea, in the context of its dangerous regional neighborhood

Korea’s Genuine Grievance

The primary affliction of 20th century Korea arose from the Asia-Pacific War, but had little to do with Japan. It was the division of the peninsula along the 38th parallel.

The origin of the division was the decision by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to mandate the unconditional surrender of Japan at the Casablanca Conference in 1943. This led to an invitation being extended to America’s communist WWII ally, Russia, to assist in the defeat of imperial Japan. The Russians duly arrived and civil war followed. The Chinese stepped in when the Russian puppet regime was in danger of being defeated. 

In the initial decades of the division, there was a general sense that the two Koreas would ultimately reunify. That began to diminish after the failure of the Koreas to emulate German reunification in the early 1990s. There presently exists the real possibility of permanent division. 

In this post-German reunification era, an issue for South Koreans is the means through which they identify themselves, how they express their nationalism. There is much with which South Koreans might ordinarily feel pride, including history, culture, cuisine, and language. Yet, these they share with their mortal enemy to the North. With all that is positive thus downgraded, it would seem that South Korea has chosen to identify itself in negative terms, as a perennial victim. 

The logical targets for South Korea’s ire should have been the U.S., China, and Russia, as they brought about the peninsula’s division. The U.S., however, as the South’s military protector, is essentially off limits, as is China, for economic reasons. Russia, for all of its ills, was nonetheless one of the allied powers. That, it would seem, leaves Japan. 

Hugely successful South Korean Idol pop group BTS, in performance in France. Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS

Idol Diplomacy 

The logical remedy to this negative brand of nationalism is the development of a positive cultural form that is not shared by North Korea. Looking at today’s South Korea, it would appear that an opportunity exists through South Korean idol culture, as strange as this may immediately seem.

South Korea has recently taken idol culture to new heights, with acting skills and proficiency in multiple languages having become essentially prerequisites. This is a far cry from the “girl and boy next door” image of Japanese idols.

Significantly, in addition to generating a singularly southern form of Korean peninsula pride, these idols command massive followings among Japanese youth. Several South Korean idol groups, in fact, have leveraged this popularity by including Japanese members within their number, greatly contributing to a sense of admiration and respect between the younger generations of South Koreans and Japanese.

Speaking as one who grew up in the era of garage bands, I might (somewhat humorously) add that, while the soft power of the idol in Japan-South Korea relations will steadily increase, it may not peak until a few more of my generation retire. Nonetheless, while diplomats toil to repair Japan-South Korea ties and America frets over the lack of goodwill between its two Northeast Asian allies, the soft power of the South Korean idol may be more potent than anything the bureaucrats of those three nations can bring to bear.

Author: Paul de Vries

Find other articles by the author on the history of the region at this link and other articles on the history of the region at this link.

Paul De Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan. His book "Remembering Santayana: the lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan" is available from Amazon. His essays have also appeared in the Japan Times and Asia Times.