By Joseph Yi

On March 9, South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol administration announced a bilateral agreement with Japan to compensate former wartime laborers through a Seoul-backed public foundation, with voluntary contributions from Japanese companies. The opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) rejected the agreement as "the biggest humiliation in Korea's diplomatic history. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration seems to have ultimately chosen the path of betraying historical justice," said DPK Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung. "The humiliating resolution will never be accepted by the public."

Even as some left-leaning DPK members criticized Yoon's ruling People Power Party (PPP) as pro-Japan traitors ("chinilpa" faction), right-leaning PPP leaders implicitly criticized the opposition as pro-North Korea traitors. During a luncheon with PPP lawmakers on Oct. 19, 2022, President Yoon described North Korea sympathizers ("jusa" faction) as a national security threat and "impossible to work with." Yoon denied he was referring to the DPK, but other PPP politicians such as labor council chief Kim Moon-soo made the connection explicit.

The reasons for Seoul's tortured relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo are complex and much debated. But one factor is rival, transnational campaigns that frame either the North Korean and Japanese governments as the greatest threat to the values and security of democratic South Korea, and stigmatize and suppress their alleged apologists.

The anti-North campaign is supported by South Korea's political right and the "anti-Japan" campaign by the left. Members of each campaign propagate empirically credible information about their target regime's current or past human rights violations. Some also, at times deliberately, propagate selective or non-corroborated information to negatively frame the target regime, and its supporters.

Non-corroborated claims include North Korean defector Lee Soon-ok's that she witnessed security officers killing Christian prisoners "by pouring molten iron on them one by one," and former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo, who said that she was forcibly dragged out of her home in the middle of the night by Japanese soldiers.

Yonsei University professor 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." South Korean media often refrain from critiquing the claims of victims' advocates, especially those against Japan. Rather, they help tarnish the reputations of critical scholars, partly by disseminating misleading and selective information.

For instance, after I coauthored a 2021 essay calling for "debating, not censuring" Harvard professor Ramseyer, who wrote a provocative thesis about comfort women contracts, the social science student council released an edited recording of my 2019 class lecture that "Korean historians are a bunch of nationalist liars," implying that I was a right-wing scholar at best and anti-Korean at worst.

However, 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 I quoted Dr. Lee Young-hoon, author of the bestseller "Anti-Japan Tribalism."

This tactic is reminiscent of that commonly 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 activist deleted the 500,000 statement from the video clip.

In both countries, the mainstream media widely disseminated the selectively edited quote (Yi in Korea, Song in China), without asking for an explanation or rebuttal from the targeted professor. Activists and their media allies justify these tactics as necessary to combat the larger evil that is North Korean communism or Japanese fascism.

Stigmatization of dissenters is often followed by bureaucratic-institutional suppression. 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. 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.

Since 2017, the right-wing suppression of pro-DPKR discourse has been surpassed by left-wing suppression of pro-Japan scholars who challenge the dominant narratives on forced laborers and comfort women. Invoking criminal defamation laws, prosecutors have demanded prison sentences of one and a half years for Yonsei University professor Lew Seok-choon and three years for Sejong University's Park Yu-ha.

President Yoon's inaugural address on May 24 2022 called for healing national divisions and supporting individual freedoms, especially intellectual ones. To fulfill the twin goals of unity and freedom, President Yoon and DPK Chairman Lee should help retire 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 appoint judges who will not repress dissenting scholarship on colonial historiography.

Reducing legal restrictions on public discourse and encouraging open, rational debate empower citizens to develop nuanced, informed views and support corresponding policies. The public may come to agree with Prof. Hazel Smith's claim that North Korea is "oppressive" but "not uniquely oppressive" and that contemporary North Korea is comparable to China and Vietnam during their early market openings; Ikuhiko Hata's that the Japanese military brothel system incurred human rights violations, but not uniquely, compared to the brothels that served the U.S. military in post-1945 South Korea and U.S. and Korean soldiers in Vietnam; and Bruce Cumings' that the Japanese colonial regime in Korea was often repressive, but perhaps not uniquely so, compared to the regimes that came before (Joseon) and afterward (Kim Il-sung, Syngman Rhee).

A more nuanced view of their neighbors may support more humanitarian and economic cooperation with North Korea, and 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.


Joseph Yi (joychicago@yahoo.com) is associate professor of political science at Hanyang University, a member of Heterodox Academy and founding member of Heterodox East Asia Community (HEAC).



QOSHE - Obstacles to South Korea's relations with North Korea and Japan - Guest Column
menu_open
Columnists Actual . Favourites . Archive
We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

Obstacles to South Korea's relations with North Korea and Japan

24 0
26.03.2023

By Joseph Yi

On March 9, South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol administration announced a bilateral agreement with Japan to compensate former wartime laborers through a Seoul-backed public foundation, with voluntary contributions from Japanese companies. The opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) rejected the agreement as "the biggest humiliation in Korea's diplomatic history. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration seems to have ultimately chosen the path of betraying historical justice," said DPK Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung. "The humiliating resolution will never be accepted by the public."

Even as some left-leaning DPK members criticized Yoon's ruling People Power Party (PPP) as pro-Japan traitors ("chinilpa" faction), right-leaning PPP leaders implicitly criticized the opposition as pro-North Korea traitors. During a luncheon with PPP lawmakers on Oct. 19, 2022, President Yoon described North Korea sympathizers ("jusa" faction) as a national security threat and "impossible to work with." Yoon denied he was referring to the DPK, but other PPP politicians such as labor council chief Kim Moon-soo made the connection explicit.

The reasons for Seoul's tortured relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo are complex and much debated. But one factor is rival, transnational campaigns that frame either the North Korean and Japanese governments as the greatest threat to the values and security of democratic South Korea, and stigmatize and suppress their alleged apologists.

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

© The Korea Times


Get it on Google Play