Skip to main content

Manufacturing Contempt: State-Linked Populism in South Korea

Abstract

The current crisis in South Korea-Japan relations partly originates from a South Korean state that is neither fully authoritarian nor liberal. In the past, right-wing, authoritarian regimes in Seoul fomented populist-nationalist contempt against Japan and North Korea, with biased and censored public discourse, but ignored public sentiments when negotiating with the target states. Since the democratic transition in the 1990s, South Korean governments no longer ignore public sentiments. Left-wing leaders and groups have pluralized public discourse about North Korea, exposing citizens to various views and information, and generated public support for Seoul to pursue rapprochement; but, no comparable groups generate counter-narratives about Japan. Instead, left-wing groups have accelerated negative portrayals and coopted state officials to censor dissenting views. Korean censorship follows illiberal trends in western democracies to ban certain public expressions considered offensive to historically victimized groups. The Korean case demonstrates that, without meaningful opposition and counter-narratives, activists for populist causes link with state power to infringe on the rights of domestic citizens and foreign entities. The remedy is liberalized public discourse that critically discusses complex realities.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. National Archives of Korea, accessed at http://theme.archives.go.kr/next/collection/viewJapaneseIntro1.do, 5 April 2019.

  2. “Japan should foster ‘more humble’ attitude: South Korea’s Moon,” Al Jazeera, 10 Jan 2019.

  3. Bart Bonikowski, “Ethno-nationalist populism and the mobilization of collective resentment,” British Journal of Sociology 68 (Nov 2017, S1): 181–213.

  4. Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 151.

  5. Richard Kagan, Matthew Oh, and Davis Weissbrodt, Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Washington DC: Minnesota Lawyers International and Asia Watch, 1988).

  6. “Settlement Support for North Korean Defectors,” Ministry of Unification, accessed at https://www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/whatwedo/support, 21 April 2019.

  7. “Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee,” U.S. Senate, 21 June 2002, accessed at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/lee_testimony_06_21_02.pdf.

  8. Yeonmi Park, “Escaping from North Korea in Search of Freedom,” One Young World (YouTube), 18 Oct. 2014, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufhKWfPSQOw.

  9. Norman D. Levin and Yong-Sup Han, Sunshine in Korea: The South Korean Debate over Policies toward North Korea (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2002), 77, 102.

  10. Nicola Smith and Junho Lee, “South Korea’s Kim Jong-un Fan Clubs Prepare Welcome as North Korean Leader Vows Visit to Seoul,” The Telegraph, 30 Dec 2018, accessed at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/30/south-koreas-kim-jong-un-fan-clubs-prepare-welcome-north-korean.

  11. Jeongmin Kim, “As North and South Korea Cosy Up, Human Rights Groups Struggle for Cash,” Reuters, 27 June 2018, accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-southkorea-rights/as-north-and-south-korea-cosy-up-human-rights-groups-struggle-for-cash-idUSKBN1JN0ON.

  12. Jiyoung Song, “Why do North Korean Defector Testimonies So Often Fall Apart?” The Guardian, 13 October 2015; Song, “Unreliable Witnesses: The Challenge of Separating Truth from Fiction When It Comes to North Korea,” Apps Policy Forum, 2 Aug 2015, accessed at https://www.policyforum.net/unreliable-witnesses.

  13. Helen Nianias, “Shin Dong-hyuk: What You Need to Know about the North Korean Prisoner who Admitted Claims in Bestseller Escape From Camp 14 were False,” The Independent, 19 Jan 2015, accessed at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/shin-dong-hyuk-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-north-korean-prisoner-who-admitted-claims-in-9987573.html.

  14. “North Korean Human Rights,” Ministry of Unification, accessed at https://www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/whatwedo/NorthKoreanHumanRights/humanrights, 21 April 2019.

  15. Joanna Hosaniak, “NGOs as Discursive Catalysts at the UN and Beyond,” North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks, ed. Andrew Yeo and Danielle Chubb (Cambridge University Press, 2018), 131–153.

  16. Ri-taek Kim, “The Every Persistent Cancer of Japanese Collaborators in Modern S. Korean History,” Hankyoreh, 26 Feb 2019, accessed at http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_editorial/883678.html.

  17. “Korean Textbook for 6th Graders Shows an Irrelevant Photo as that of Forced Laborers,” Sankei News, 19 March 2019.

  18. Hyon-hee Shin, “Despite Apology, Japan Denies Mobilizing WWII Sex Slaves,” Korea Herald, 31 Jan 2016, accessed at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160131000310.

  19. Young-jin Oh, “Holocaust vs. Comfort Women,” The Korea Times, 2 June 2017, accessed at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2017/06/667_230509.html.

  20. Seon-hee Yoo, “‘Herstory’ Opens New Chapter in Painful Tale of Comfort Women Victims,” Hankyoreh, 11 June 2018, accessed at http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/848605.html; Min-sik Yoon, “‘My Name Is Kim Bok-dong’ tells tale of comfort women, champion of human rights,” Korea Herald, 25 July 2019, accessed at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20190725000505.

  21. Yonhap News, “S. Korea to Hike Support for ‘Comfort Women’ by 21 pct in 2016,” Yonhap News, 22 Dec 2015, accessed at https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20151222002200320.

  22. Eun-ji Bahk, “South Korea Delivers Slap to Japan via Trump Dinner [Photo],” Korea Times, 8 Nov 2017, accessed at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/11/356_238954.html.

  23. Min-ho Jung, “Korean Students up in Arms over ‘Rising Sun’ Flag in Canadian Classroom,” Korea Times, 19 Nov 2018, accessed at http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/11/120_258922.html.

  24. C. Sarah Soh, The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 102.

  25. Yuha Park, Jegug-ui wianbu [Comfort Women of the Empire] (Seoul: Puriwa Ipari, 2015).

  26. “South Korean Academic Convicted of Defaming ‘Comfort Women,’” The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2017, accessed at https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/south-korean-academic-convicted-of-defaming-comfort-women.

  27. Tae-hee Lee, “Professor Gets Prison for Insulting Comfort Women,” Korea Times¸15 Nov 2018, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20181115000669.

  28. Communication with author, 20 July 2019. A version of the rejected article was later published in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (1 August 2019), “South Korea’s left and Japan’s right have crushed alternative viewpoints, setting up a trade dispute that may not be resolved,” https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3020771/south-koreas-left-and-japans-right-have-crushed-alternative

  29. Sangmi Cha and Ju-min Park, “South Korean YouTubers Lure Japanese Audience with Attacks on Moon,” Reuters, 23 July 2019, https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1UI2W1; Tae-jun Kang, “South Korean Right’s YouTube Dominance Catches North Korea’s Eye,” The Diplomat, 17 Sept 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/south-korean-rights-youtube-dominance-catches-north-koreas-eye; PenNMike, accessed at https://www.pennmike.com; Syngman Rhee Academy, accessed at http://syngmanrhee.kr, 4 Aug 2019.

  30. 반일민족주의를 반대하는 모임[Group Against Anti-Japanese Nationalism], accessed at https://www.facebook.com/groups/274155953441706; 위안부와 노무동원노동자 동상 설치를 반대하는 모임 [Group Opposing the Establishment of Comfort Women and Forced Labor Workers Statues], accessed at https://www.facebook.com/groups/114841242534428, 10 April 2019.

  31. Asan Institute, “South Koreans’ Perceptions of Neighboring Countries,” accessed at http://en.asaninst.org/contents/u-s-north-korea-summit-and-south-koreans-perceptions-of-neighboring-countries/, 6 July 2018.

  32. Tae-jun Kang, “One South Korean Province Wants to Tag Japanese Firms as ‘War Criminals,’” Diplomat, 22 March 2019, accessed at https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/one-south-korean-province-wants-to-tag-japanese-firms-as-war-criminals.

  33. Paul Krugman, “Can Europe Be Saved?” New York Times Magazine, 16 Jan 2016; Cas Mudde, “Europe’s Populist Surge: A Long Time in the Making,” Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2016); Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, “Britain After Brexit: A Nation Divided,” Journal of Democracy 28(1) (2017): 17–30.

  34. Choe Sang-Hun, “Ex-Chief Justice of South Korea Is Arrested on Case-Rigging Charges,” The New York Times, 23 Jan 2019, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/world/asia/south-korea-chief-justice-japan.html.

  35. “Symposium on ‘Comfort Women’ in China Postponed, not Cancelled,” Global Times, 8 Aug 2018, accessed at http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1114478.shtml; Leo Lin, “Will the China-Japan Reset Continue in 2019?” The Diplomat, 31 January 2019, accessed at https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/will-the-china-japan-reset-continue-in-2019.

  36. Norm Coleman, “Don’t let North Korea Divide U.S. Allies in Asia,” The Hill, 11 Aug 2016, accessed at https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/291169-dont-let-north-korea-divide-us-allies-in-asia.

  37. Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1983): 205–235.

  38. The German theorist Carol Schmitt defined politics as distinguishing between one’s friends and enemies. Carol Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996). Also see Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos “Illiberal Means to Liberal Ends? Understanding Recent Immigrant Integration Policies in Europe,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37(6): 861–88.

  39. Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12(3) (1983): 208, n. 4.

  40. Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, Free Speech on Campus (Yale University Press 2017), 9.

Acknowledgements

This article was supported by Hanyang University Research Fund.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joe Phillips.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Yi, J., Phillips, J. & Lee, W. Manufacturing Contempt: State-Linked Populism in South Korea. Soc 56, 494–501 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-019-00404-2

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-019-00404-2

Keywords

  • Korea
  • Japan
  • Diplomacy
  • Liberal
  • Authoritarian
  • Populism
  • Nationalism
  • Public discourse
  • Media
  • Censorship