Here’s my latest article over at Social Matter. Modern America could use a bit of the Napoleonic touch.
In the sea between Korea and Japan there sit two craggy rocks. These islands, more aptly called islets, are steep and molded from rigid volcanic rock. To untrained eyes the wildlife here is mostly just some seagulls screeching overhead. There are moss and vines. Trees are said to grow somewhere on the two islets though you would be hard-pressed to find them in any brochure photos. The trees are called ‘spindle trees’, and since they are growing up the side of a volcanic rock face, they are said to look a lot more like bushes than trees. There is a grand total of ten of them. If you have not already gotten the idea that these rocks are remote and naturally hostile to human life, let me spell it out for you: these rocks are right in the middle of nowhere.
So why have these middle-of-nowhere rocks birthed a controversy as wholly unpleasant as the rocks themselves? To get a clearer picture, let’s look at the man-made landscape.
A lighthouse that houses thirty-seven guardsmen juts proudly from the top of the shorter islet. Half a dozen buildings cling to the steep slope beneath the lighthouse: a post office, some research buildings, a tower, a helicopter pad. A small dock rests on the water down below. From the taller of the two islets an oversized South Korean flag waves in the wind. According to credible sources, two South Korean citizens of no special importance also live on the islands. It is clear that Korea wants the world to know that Korea owns these rocks and is immensely proud of it.
In the Western world we call these rocks the Liancourt Rocks. The Japanese call them ‘Takeshima’, or the Bamboo Islands. The Koreans call them ‘Dokdo’, or the Rocky Islands. With all this hustle and bustle you might think that South Korea is making an elixir of youth from the algae in the water; you might think the government is signaling aliens with their pompously big flag; you might think they are doing something important — and you would be wrong on all counts. Korea has no apparent motivation except proving to outsiders that Korea owns these rocks. If you have not figured it out by now maybe the promotional medallions, the brochures, the TV programs, and the occasional street demonstrations will convince you: Korea owns these rocks.
What nation, other than South Korea, would want to own a worthless pair of rocks in the middle of nowhere? If you were to ask around you might not find too many volunteers. The Koreans, however, are quick to point fingers at their neighbors.
The Empire of Japan had annexed Korea in 1910 without asking too many Koreans how they felt about it. The Japanese later called their Empire the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which is such a stunning example of Orwellian double-speak it must have given Joseph Goebbels a pang of envy for having not thought of such a name himself. The Japanese censored the press, quashed dissent, and fueled their war machine with Korean coal and rice.
This has left bad blood between the two neighbors. Japan keeps its apologies tight against its chest and Korea wears its heart on its sleeve. This makes for one potent diplomatic situation.
Korea takes every opportunity to vilify Japan; and to be fair to the Korean perspective, Japan of seventy years ago was certainly villainous. We need not dredge up Unit 731 here. We need not dig up the mass graves Japan’s armies left littered across Asia. If you know nothing about these things, and if you are looking for good reasons to put yourself in a bad mood, you can do some research on Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.
In Seoul, there is a prison Japan had used to hold dissidents and rebels. The Koreans preserved it as a record of the atrocities they endured but also, I suspect, to have something to do on Sunday afternoons. Seodaemun Prison is bleak and bare: the bricks are drab and the roof tiles are grayish-black. The guards would cram the tiny cells with a dozen prisoners who then had to sleep on top of one another at night. Toilets were never installed so prisoners had to squat over a filthy hole in the wall. Stubborn prisoners were tossed into narrow boxes filled with spikes. Others were locked in upright boxes that prevented the prisoner from ever lying down or moving more than a few inches. In the most extreme cases, a prisoner would be taken to a musty shed with two low beams. The hangman would string his rope between the beams and the prisoner hung until he suffocated; the executed were not given the luxury of a snapped neck.
Given the nature of this prison, you might think a somber attitude of silence and respect would be enforced there, much like at the death camp museums in Poland. But if you want a deep and soulful remembrance of the dead you might as well search your own soul for that — you will not find it at Seodaemun.
Before entering the gate, I was greeted with bubbly K-pop blaring on a pair of concert speakers. Inside the prison itself, to cool down from the summer heat, kids were zipping in and out of a sprinkler. A few vendors sold pizza slices and Coke. Teenagers with their caps cocked to the side puckered up their lips and snapped selfies from inside some of the wooden torture boxes. It is a former prison, a testament to the dead, and a second rate theme park, too!
It occurred to me after my trip to Seodaemun that Koreans were not as concerned about the suffering of their ancestors, but rather, they were more concerned about finding a narrative to entertain themselves — a tale with clear good guys, the Koreans, and even clearer villains, the Japanese. The mood of this tale is not so much comparable to East Asian, Zen-like stoicism but rather one reminiscent of Puritanical finger-wagging.
The idea that the bad guys of their narrative were genuinely bad is not hard for the Koreans to understand. But the idea that the good guys were not so genuinely good eludes them entirely.
In the Philippines, 1945, the Japanese left behind mountains of corpses as they retreated. The prisoners under their care had been left to die slow deaths from starvation and disease during the war. The survivors then had to face potential execution for no reason other than spite. These men may like to have a word or two with Korea concerning Korea’s good-as-gold narrative. Not only were the majority of prison guards in the Philippines ethnic Koreans, their leader was no less than a lieutenant general named Hong Sa-ik — a Korean.
In total, Korea gave birth to seven generals and countless officers who served in the Japanese armed forces. Many of the men credited with rebuilding Korea after the Second World War had also served in the Japanese military. Korea’s controversial strong-arm president, Park Chung-hee, had been an officer in the Japanese army. Chung Il-kwon, a post-war prime minister — Japanese army. The general who helped UN forces hold off North Korea around the Busan perimeter, Paik Sun-yup — Japanese army. And last but not least, the crown prince Yi-eun, the last of Korean royalty, had been a general in the Japanese army and was a member of Japan’s Supreme War Council.
In 1943, long after the Japanese Empire had revealed its true colors to the world, over three hundred thousand Korean men applied to join the Japanese army. Koreans very deftly and very quietly choose to forget statistics like these; you will not find these figures in their history books and Korean movies would have you believe that Koreans resisted the Japanese every moment of the occupation. The reality is much murkier.
Another sore spot for Koreans is the issue of comfort women. Yet again, no one disputes the moral indecency of wrestling women from their homes and using them as sex slaves for soldiers. It is not hard at all to see the evil in such acts. The issue in question is whether these women were forced into prostitution or if they willingly chose to sell their bodies. And much like the issue of Koreans in the Japanese army, the reality is much murkier than Koreans claim it to be.
In late 1944, early ‘45, the British army beat the Japanese into a speedy retreat from Burma. In the chaos of this hasty withdrawal, the Japanese left behind large numbers of munitions and war supplies, among those were some of their comfort women.
Agents from the USA’s Office of War Information were dispatched to interview some twenty Korean comfort women who had been captured. The interview revealed some curious facts — facts that poke a dozen potholes in the traditional narrative of Korea’s comfort women.
The report mentioned that several of the women had been prostitutes in Korea before joining the comfort corps. In Burma, the women would attend sporting events, picnics, and social dinners. They would strut around town in fine clothes they had bought from either plying their trade or from gifts that soldiers had given to them. Although the women worked hard and served dozens of men per day, they were given the right to refuse clients and often did so in cases when a client was too drunk to remain civil. Some of the women had even returned home to Korea after paying their debts to the house master.
A medical examination revealed that these women were also healthy and had been well trained in and well stocked with contraceptives. Japanese doctors examined the women once a week and any signs of disease were met with immediate treatment in the same fashion that the Japanese soldiers were treated for diseases.
To be sure, a job in the comforts corps was not to be envied. Recruiters sometimes used questionable and deceptive tactics to get the women to volunteer for the service. With that said, however, the reality of comfort women is not as morally black and white as Koreans paint the picture to be. There was far too much cooperation between the soldiers and the comfort women to classify the service as “systematized rape”. The women were not using their cash to secretly buy passage to safe countries or to sneak home in the night — they were buying dresses, cigarettes, and handbags. The women were not tied up and taken advantage of, they were actually allowed to refuse clients. They socialized with and even married men from the Japanese army. Comfort women from other Asian countries would have envied the state of those Korean women in Burma.
One of the most damning facts is that even after the Japanese relinquished control of Korea, the Koreans themselves continued to use comfort women for their troops. During the Korean War, women were assigned to comfort corps which had served Korean military men similar to how they had served the Japanese soldiers. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, Korea had no moral misgivings about it. To Koreans, this practice looked more less like business as usual. The outrage and self-righteous fury of modern-day Korea was nowhere to be found.
Some might say that since this time around the clients were Korean, the women did not need to be forced. But a different conclusion can also be drawn. The comfort corps was a common way for prostitutes to find safe and stable johns, and this holds just as true for those women who serviced the Japanese. Home rule or foreign rule — what was the difference to a woman who had mouths to feed?
These facts can only darken the bright image Korean historians try so passionately to paint. Korea was not a noble, fight-to-the-last-man beacon of resistance against Japan. The Koreans were human like the rest of us. They wanted clean order and comfort. They wanted opportunities and they wanted an escape from the thankless poverty caused by years of self-imposed isolation. They did what many of us would do in that situation — they made deals with the devil.
If Korea were to take its hat in its hand, lower its head for a minute or two, and just come clean — if Korea would just admit to its human frailties, there would be no shame in its collaboration. Korea would be another nation that did what it had to do to survive troubled times. But Korea has never prized honesty. It prefers to spit across the sea at the nation it so willingly served and it works hard to stifle facts with vitriol.
Now, to bring us back to the present, Korea’s fury over the Liancourt Rocks is not because Japan has quietly slipped some islands in its pocket hoping that nobody would notice — Korea has owned the Liancourt Rocks since 1948. The outrage comes because Japan has the gall to question Korea’s claim on the islets and is willing to hand over documents to prove its case. Korea, of course, has old and musty documents of its own. But the issue, to the Koreans at least, is that Japan has no right to question Korea’s sovereignty nor any right to question anything that Korea does. Koreans often question Japan for its actions both during and after the Second World War. It has practically become a national pastime of Koreans. But Japan cannot question Korea about anything.
In 2012, when Japan offered to take the Liancourt dispute to the International Court of Justice, Korea flatly refused.
This leads us deeper into an already absurd state of affairs: Koreans are protesting loudly over islands that they own and control and they claim that no one can question their rightful ownership, yet they refuse any attempts to reach the truth and to put those ever-so-offensive questions to rest.
Inevitably, we can see that the spat over the Liancourt Rocks has very little to do with the Liancourt Rocks. We can see that all the smoke and bluster about Japanese ministers visiting traditional shrines is maybe not about the shrines at all. Protests over history books that are not chock full of apologies might also not be about the truth of the history in those books. In international relations, as in marriage, the fight is never about what the fight is about.
Korea needs an enemy and not just any enemy will do. In Europe, the Nazis have been used for decades as a moral punching bag; a whole industry was born by extorting money from the German sense of shame. Korea needs a punching bag of its own. North Korea’s leadership is despicable and cruel but they share a common blood with those in the south and because of this they are not half as vilified as the Japanese. The Chinese helped to secure and currently help to sustain the regime in the north, their pollution stinks up the entire Korean peninsula, and their ships show little respect for international maritime borders but even they can do wrong — they fought the Japanese, after all. No, the Chinese will not do.
Korea desperately needs its old enemy. Korea longs for a tried and true boogey man. Korea needs a villainous Japan, because for Korea, maybe the only thing more frightening than Japan is a mirror.