On Korean Nationalism and Its Role in the Escalating Japan-South Korea Friction

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South Koreans hold anti-Japanese rally In Seoul.
South Korean protesters hold a placard reading "No Abe" during a rally against Japan's decision to remove South Korea from a "whitelist" of trusted trade partners, in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on August 2, 2019.
Photo credit: 
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Tension and discord in Japan-South Korea relations are nothing new, but the unfortunate, intensifying conflict between the two countries — a manifestation of right-wing Japanese nationalism and left-wing South Korean nationalism — seems headed toward a collision course. To understand the escalating friction between Tokyo and Seoul one must recognize the unique characteristics of Korean nationalism, and particularly its historical origins, development, and political role in shaping Korean attitudes toward Japan.

This is the focus of my article The Perils of Populist Nationalism, published in the September 2019 issue of the Korean magazine Shindonga (New East Asia). In this piece, which has received much attention in South Korea, I analyze the friction between Seoul and Tokyo and explain the attitude among Koreans toward Japan in contrast to their different attitude toward China. The anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea was forged amidst the rise of modern Japan. Through the experience of Japanese colonial rule, Korean nationalism took on an exclusionary form that emphasized one’s ancestry and the ethnic purity of the Korean people. The current tension between Seoul and Tokyo is rooted in this Korean nationalist sentiment.

It is time South Korea moved beyond its psychological complex toward Japan and recognized that ethnic nationalism is obsolete. Korean intellectuals, I argue, must play a critical role in a sustained effort to cultivate rational liberalism and prevent the excesses of nationalism if South Korea is to become a more open society — one that, in Popperian terms, accepts criticism and rejects a monopoly on truth.

The complete English translation of my article is now available.

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