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South Korean Views of Japan: A Polarizing Split in Coverage
Published June 24, 2020
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South Korean views of Japan are neither uniform nor unified. Considering that national strategic identities are competing even within a single country, it is not strange at all that South Koreans have complex and fragmented views of Japan. Depending on their ideological and dispositional orientations, South Koreans hold varying perceptions about Japan. It is much more so in the age of ideological polarization. Not only in the United States, but also in South Korea, identity politics more and more dominate. Widespread social networking service communications made tribal communications, instead of mass communications, permeate the society, which strengthened the trend of polarization. Increasingly people do not cross over ideological divides or social cleavage lines, creating islands of tribes to convince themselves in a particular way. The combination of ideological divide and tribal communications opens an unexplored political domain of contending views in a society.

This chapter aims to delineate the development of complex and divided South Korean views of Japan, especially under the Moon administration. It shows South Korea divided within. Then it analyzes the rise of anti-Japanese elements in Moon’s handling of Japan affairs after 2017. Careful analysis of the Moon government’s posture toward Japan reveals that such aspects can be visibly identified. I also analyze the political background of rising anti- Japanese elements within the ruling party of South Korea, while attempting to show that alternative views of Japan are widely available despite the Moon government’s generally negative posture toward Japan. Based on a review of newspaper columns and civic initiatives for reconciling with Japan, this study further illustrates the existence of modest alternative views that are different from the government position. This clearly reflects that South Korea’s discursive space remains relatively democratic and plural. Finally, I address the question of whether political and diplomatic tensions would increase or decrease in the process of South Korean and Japanese interactions. Prescriptions are highly conditional in a sense that the level of tensions will be determined by the way interactions address the issues in contention. 

I take the position that there is not a single view but multiple and divided views of Japan in South Korea, particularly under the Moon administration. Although the Moon government contains a strong anti-Japanese and nationalist orientation, conservative intellectuals keep a moderate, cooperative stance toward Japan. One can find increasing diversity despite intense bilateral controversies over contemporary and past issues. I conclude that tensions between South Korea and Japan originate from political elites, rather than the general populace. Narrowing the perception gap between political leaders may be easier to do in bettering the relationship.

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