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Conspiracy theories spreading in South Korea

  • Between Japan and South Korea, a strange state of high emotions is spreading.

By Kan Kimura

Strong opposition to Japan’s export control measures has continued in South Korea since the measures were announced by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on July 1.

As is well known, the Moon Jae-in administration has clarified its opposition to Japan’s measures, and discussions on the matter have already begun at the WTO.

The South Korean government’s opposition has also spread to the public, leading to boycotts of Japanese products and travel to Japan.

Japan’s measures have clearly functioned to increase support in Korea for the Moon Jae-in administration, which is taking its own strong export control measures against Japan, rather than seeking reconciliation.

For example, according to a Gallup Korea survey announced on July 26, not only has support for Moon Jae-in remained high at 48%, but the most common reason given for this support is that Moon is successfully implementing foreign policy, with 36% selecting this reason – a 12% increase from the week before.

In other words, the export control measures by Japan have ironically become the biggest reason for support of the Moon Jae-in administration, which is taking a hard line against the measures. On the other hand, the widespread fear in South Korea that the economy would be hurt by Japan’s measures is dwindling.

In the same Gallup survey, 31% of respondents gave solutions for economic and public problems are insufficient as their reason for not supporting Moon Jae-in — a 5% decrease from the week before.

Ultimately, the situation in South Korea is one in which a hardline government is being driven on by even stronger public opinion, rather than a situation in which the government or public has been sent into turmoil by Japanese measures.

During the past four weeks, the conservative opposition and the media, which temporarily showed agitation towards the measures, have been in the process of establishing an anti-Japanese hardline stance, and calls for the Moon Jae-in administration to seek a compromise with Japan are becoming less common.

It is still unclear what kind of influence the Moon Jae-in administration’s anti-Japanese hardline stance and Korean public opinion support for it will have on South Korea’s future direction. However, there are already clear signs of trouble ahead.

The increase of crude statements about Japan is one such sign.

For example, the Democratic Party of Korea, the ruling party of the Moon administration, posted an article on its website criticizing the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party as being pro-Japanese for blaming the administration for a lack of policy.

The Moon administration and ruling party’s criticism of the opposition party, which followed in the wake of the Park Geun-hye administration and her party, as being a product of pro-Japanese influence from Japanese colonial rule has been seen many times before.

It may be understood that this line of criticism is being used to bash the opposing party with elections for the National Assembly in April next year just around the corner. In response, the Liberty Korea Party has tried to argue that, instead, it is the ruling party that has the most pro-Japanese members.

What is clear is that the ruling and opposition parties of Korea, specifically the current administration, are attempting to use the present state of Japan-Korea relations stemming from Japan’s export control measures as an opportunity to increase their power. Entering the 2010s, interest in Japanese relations fell in South Korea, and issues related to recognition of history, including the comfort women and former conscripted factory workers, no longer had an influence on the approval ratings of the president or of the ruling and opposition parties.

Today, nearly seventy-four years since colonial rule ended, issues of historical recognition have become mere problems of the past for many Koreans and disconnected from their lives.

However, Japan’s recent export control measures have come to be connected to these past issues of historical recognition and with the economic problems that Koreans of today fear the most. The current level of interest in Japan-South Korea relations has not been seen in Korea for more than ten years.

This is why representatives of the ruling and opposition parties in South Korea have begun to make aggressive remarks, using the opportunity to increase their standing as politicians.

However, while the domestic politicization of these problems has been beneficial to the politicians’ own political standing, it has also led to an oversimplification of the nature of the problems themselves. For example, it was reported a few days ago in South Korea that Cho Kook, the head of the country’s civil affairs department, brought a book entitled A Study on the Japan Conference, a journalistic report on the grassroots right-wing force, to a meeting at the President’s office.

His act of bringing the book was used as an attempt to trivialize and push Japan’s measures into a stereotypical framework, presented as part of a plot by the far-right Abe administration (as it is known by the Moon administration), with no attempt being made to seriously analyze the issue.

The Korean media also spread rumors about the transfer of the aforementioned Cho Kook to head up the legal affairs department – the department that was involved in the former conscripted factory workers issue. I am afraid that the impact of simple, stereotypical perceptions on Japanese-Korean relations will not be minor.

Between Japan and South Korea, a strange state of high emotions is spreading through mutual opposition with hardline stances on both sides. However, the time may have come for us to realize that this state of high emotions could be the cause of misjudging the other side’s actions.

(Kan Kimura is Professor at Kobe University, Japan.)

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