By Hwan Kang
South Koreans are proud of their history. After a period of colonization, South Korea grew to become an independent and powerful nation, reclaim its sovereignty, and developed a role on the world stage that was confined to greater powers during the Cold War period. However, such sense of triumph is now being questioned as South Koreans sense it is being left out of decisions related to North Korea.
Yoo Seong-min, one of the prominent conservative politicians of South Korea’s Bareun Party (바른정당), commented after North Korea’s Sep. 15 missile launch that:
“As the North Korean nuclear threat against [the] U.S. escalates, [the] possibility of [the] U.S. and North Korea reaching a consensus of their own also rises……Korea is not being heard by Washington now. President Moon may deny it, but ‘Korea Passing’ is becoming more real.”
The expression “Korea Passing” is being used more frequently these days by politicians and scholars in South Korea because they feel insecure while North Korea and the U.S. are talking mostly to each other. For example, when President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un exchanged mockery calling each other “Little Rocket Man” and “Mentally Deranged Man,” respectively, last week, it may have looked like the two countries are not letting South Korea join the party like they did in the past. “Korea Passing” does a good job in representing this sentiment. So what exactly is “Korea Passing”?
The Maeil Business News recently defined the term as “neighboring countries discussing Korean Peninsula issues without South Korea.” It also adds that this expression originated from “Japan Passing,” which was used to criticize former President Bill Clinton visiting China without stopping in Japan in 1998. South Koreans constantly feel that they are not included as a major player, especially as U.S. officials continue to hint at their plans against North Korea, such as the potential use of force, that do not resonate with President Moon’s initial inclination toward a peaceful resolution. People suspect that the U.S. is working alone, or prioritizes China and Japan over South Korea, on matters that are related to North Korea. This is especially difficult considering that many in South Korea consider those above the DMZ as part their people (민족). After all, it is the South Koreans who share the peninsula with the rogue nation, and feel a complicated mixture of threat and sympathy, so they think they should at least get a say on what to do next. The Wall Street Journal described this expression as “a healthy mix of frustration, resignation and irony,” and many Koreans would agree to that.
This sentiment is evident in many of the cases where the expression “Korea Passing” was used domestically. Most notable cases involve military issues and criticism against the Moon administration like this article by the Hankook Ilbo (Korea Times), which points out that Korea’s reaction to the North Korean missile launch was slower than Japan, and added that President Moon is not showing enough attention to the matter. The Donga Ilbo used it in a little different context, when it pointed out that the Japanese media is aggravating the idea of “Korea Passing” with an inappropriate summarization of the Sep. 21st U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateral Summit. Apparently, many Japanese newspapers described the President Moon as “powerless” and “traitor to the U.S. and Japan” with his decision to continue the humanitarian aid to the North Korea as opposed to the U.S. and Japan’s more muscular approach.
Politicians also use it as an attention grabbing phrase when attacking the President. For instance, Hong Jun-pyo, the main conservative contender against President Moon, mentioned it when he said the security problem has to do with “’Moon Jae-in Passing’, not ‘Korea Passing.’”
The government apparently has some mixed feelings over this recent phenomenon. Officials, including the President, are doing their best to avoid its usage, but some have used it in a careful manner. Prime Minister Lee Nak-Yeon, for example, mentioned it during an Interpellation Session at National Assembly on Sep.12th saying that “There is no such thing as “Korea Passing” and there should not be such a thing in the future as well.” He also emphasized that the U.S.-ROK alliance is still effective and denied any future tactical nuclear deployment. The Minister of Unification, Cho Myung-gyun, used it with a more negative nuance, hinting at the possibility of “Korea passing” if the North succeeds in developing “complete nuclear weapons.”
The expression is not just limited to diplomacy or security, though. One article described Apple excluding South Korea from its initial release of the iPhone X as another form of “Korea Passing.” Apple is already notorious in Korea for constantly leaving Korea out of its products’ initial release, so it is not exactly a news for the Korean people. The article is perhaps playing off of readers’ overdue frustration by putting a new label on it.
Nobody likes to be ignored, especially on issues that are directly relevant to one’s future. However, “Korea Passing” should not be considered as mere overreaction, since it may be deeply rooted in Korea’s fear of being left powerless amidst greater powers, as has happened many times in its long and turbulent history.
Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Marcelo Druck’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.