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Why South Korea Faces Obstacles to Better Relations with North Korea and Japan

South Korea has had tortured relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo. The author discusses them and offers suggestions on some complex factors behind the problem.



South Korea
South Korean President Yoon Sung-ryeol (left) and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands after the joint press conference at the Prime Minister's Office on the afternoon of March 16 (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

On March 9, 2023, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration of South Korea announced a bilateral agreement with Japan to compensate former Korean wartime laborers through a Seoul-backed public foundation. The overall plan would include voluntary contributions from Japanese companies. 

South Korea's opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) rejected the agreement as "the biggest humiliation in South Korea's diplomatic history." 

"The Yoon Suk-yeol administration seems to have ultimately chosen the path of betraying historical justice," said DPK Chairman Representative Lee Jae-myung. "The humiliating resolution will never be accepted by the public" 

59% of the South Korean public expressed their opposition to the agreement, fueling concerns that a future DPK administration may reject it, as they did the 2015 comfort women agreement

Even as some left-leaning DPK members criticized Yoon's ruling People Power Party (PPP) as pro-Japan traitors (chinilpa 친일파 faction), right-leaning PPP leaders implicitly criticized the opposition as pro-North Korea traitors.

During a luncheon with PPP lawmakers on October 19, 2022, President Yoon described North Korea sympathizers (jusa 주사 faction) as a national security threat. Moreover, he said that it is "impossible to work with" them. Yoon denied he was referring to the DPK, but other PPP politicians such as labor council chief Kim Moon-soo made the connection explicit

comfort women South Korea
Then South Korean President Moon Jae In (right) and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.

Behind the Tortured Relations 

The reasons for Seoul's tortured relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo are complex and much debated. But one factor is competing groups of activists. They respectively frame either the North Korean or the Japanese governments as the major threat to the values and security of democratic South Korea. Furthermore, they stigmatize and censor their respective alleged apologists. 

The "anti-North'" campaign is largely supported by South Korea's political right. And the "anti-Japan" campaign is similarly supported by the left. Members of each campaign propagate empirically credible information about their target regime's current or past human rights violations. 

Some also propagate selective or non-corroborated information to negatively frame the target regime and its supporters. 

Uncorroborated claims include North Korean defector Lee Soon-ok's statement that she witnessed security officers killing Christian prisoners "by pouring molten iron on them one by one." Another example is former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo's allegation that she was forcibly dragged out of her home in the middle of the night by Japanese soldiers. 


The Media's Role

Yonsei scholar Kim Jong-dae argues, "Any idea becomes akin to witchcraft when it is treated as something to be wholeheartedly believed in, rather than to be analyzed and examined critically." But rather than critically analyzing the claims of victims' advocates, the media often amplify their attack against critical scholars. The media do that by means such as disseminating misleading, selective information. 

For instance, after Hanyang professor Joseph Yi co authored an 2021 essay calling for "debating not censuring" Harvard Professor J Mark Ramseyer, who wrote a provocative thesis about comfort women contracts. After the essay was published, the social science student council released an edited recording of Yi's 2019 class lecture. 

The edited recording said, "Korean historians are a bunch of nationalist liars." It implied that Yi was a right-wing scholar at best and anti-Korea at worst. But the full sentence, as originally recorded, states: "Lee Young-hoon […] he says that Korean historians are a bunch of nationalist liars." 

The 2019 class discussion was on paradigm shifts and Yi had quoted Dr Lee Young-hoon, author of the bestseller "Anti-Japan Tribalism." 

This tactic is reminiscent of that used in China. Shanghai Aurora College's Song Gengyi lectured that estimates of the Nanjing massacre ranged from 500,000 to 300,000 to 30,000 to 3,000. But a student deleted the 500,000 statement from the video clip. 

In both countries, the mainstream media widely disseminated the selectively edited quotes (Yi in Korea, Song in China), without asking for rebuttal from the targeted professors. 

South Korea
Anti-Japan protesters in Seoul rally around a comfort woman statue.

Expulsions and Imprisonment from Left and Right

Activists and their media allies justify these tactics as necessary to combat a larger evil. By that, they mean North Korean communism and Japanese fascism.  

Stigmatization of dissenters further helps justify bureaucratic-institutional censorship. In 2015, the right-leaning Park Geun-hye administration deported Korean-American Shin Eun-mi, who had favorably spoken about her visits to North Korea and challenged some defector testimonies. 

Also, in 2016, invoking the National Security Law, a court sentenced a college professor to a suspended prison term for sharing with his students excerpts from the memoir of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung

Subsequently, since 2017, prosecutors have invoked criminal defamation laws to punish "pro-Japan" scholars who challenge dominant narratives on forced or wartime labor and comfort women. On April 26, 2017, a Sunchon National University professor identified only by his surname, Song, told his class that some comfort women "probably" volunteered. Song was subsequently fired and sentenced to six months in prison. 

Prosecutors have also demanded prison sentences of one and half years for Yonsei University professor Lew Seok-choon and three years for Sejong University's Park Yuha


Left and Right Responsible for Healing Divisions

President Yoon's inaugural address on May 24, 2022, called for healing national divisions and supporting individual freedoms, especially intellectual freedom. 

To fulfill the twin goals of unity and freedom, President Yoon and DPK Chairman Lee could help by retiring stigmatizing labels such as chinilpa and jusapa

They could further reform the National Security Act to allow the free distribution and discussion of official North Korea propaganda, including Kim Il Sung's autobiography. And they could appoint judges who will not repress dissenting scholarship on colonial historiography. 

South Korea
South Korea is shown below North Korea and just to the east of Western Japan on the map.

Changing Public Opinion

Reducing legal restrictions on public discourse and encouraging open, rational debate would empower citizens to develop nuanced, informed views. And it would support corresponding policies. 

The public may come to agree with Professor Hazel Smith's claim that North Korea is "oppressive" but "not uniquely oppressive." And they may evaluate that contemporary North Korea is comparable to China and Vietnam during their early market openings. 

Open academic discourse may lead the public to agree with Ikuhiko Hata's assessment in his book, Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone (Hamilton books, 2018). Hata proffers that the Japanese military brothel system incurred human rights violations, but not uniquely so. He compares them to the brothels that served the United States military in post-1945 South Korea and the US and Korean soldiers in Vietnam. 

South Koreans may even find interest in Bruce Cumings' analysis, in his book Korea's Place in the Sun (WW Norton, 2005), that the Japanese colonial regime in Korea was repressive, but perhaps not uniquely. Cummings implicitly compares the Japanese colonial era to the regimes that came before (Joseon) and afterwards (Kim Il Sung, Syngman Rhee), and explicitly to other colonial empires (e.g., Portuguese in Africa). 

A more nuanced view of their neighbors may support more humanitarian and economic cooperation with North Korea. What's more, it could facilitate compliance with past and current bilateral agreements, the products of long negotiations, with Japan. 

Ultimately, the people of South Korea shall decide how to relate to their neighbors. And free, open debate shall empower them to do what is in their best values and interests. 


Author: Joseph Yi


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