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Korean peninsula

Why China, not Japan, should be the real worry for South Korea

John Power says Beijing’s willingness to stamp all over Seoul’s interests is all too clear. So while South Korea’s historical resentment against Japan is human, it has reason to seek closer defence ties with Tokyo, amid mutual concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear quest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 5:37pm

More than 70 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb brought the Japanese empire to its knees, South Koreans still harbour bitter memories of Tokyo’s colonial rule.

The colonial authorities, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945, were unquestionably repressive and cruel. Their policy of assimilation suppressed the Korean language and customs, even forcing colonial subjects to adopt Japanese names.

During and leading up to the second world war, the imperial government forcibly drafted millions of Korean men to work at Japanese factories or fight on the front lines, and coerced as many as 200,000 Korean “comfort women” into sexual servitude for its troops.

Most Koreans don’t believe Japan has earned absolution – a conviction reinforced whenever a Japanese politician refers to the comfort women as willing prostitutes or Tokyo reasserts its territorial claims to the disputed Dokdo islets in the Sea of Japan.

Just 25 per cent of South Koreans had a favourable view of Japan in a 2015 poll

Just 25 per cent of South Koreans had a favourable view of Japan, a fellow liberal democracy and US ally, in a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Centre. And a survey in November, by Tokyo’s Genron NPO think tank and the Seoul-based East Asia Institute, had 76 per cent saying Japan was an unreliable partner. By contrast, 61 per cent viewed China positively, while just 53 per cent saw South Korea’s top trading partner as unreliable.

And yet, considered dispassionately, it’s difficult not to think South Koreans have it backwards. To find a prime example of a consistently bad neighbour, they’d be better off looking west, not east, to China.

Just look at Beijing’s bullying of Seoul over its decision to allow the American THAAD anti-missile system on its soil to guard against North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missile capabilities. Furious at the prospect of the US having access to a powerful radar system on its doorstep, China has banned K-pop from TV and streaming sites, grounded South Korean charter flights, and closed dozens of Lotte Mart stores on the questionable premise of fire safety.

Watch: Why is China so angry about South Korea?

Why the real quarrel between Beijing and Seoul isn’t about THAAD

Beijing’s willingness to stamp all over Seoul’s interests isn’t new. Even as Pyongyang has continued its illegal development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, threatening the South’s security, China has refused to seriously rein in its ally, by most accounts only patchily enforcing international sanctions against the regime. Moreover, the Chinese continue to repatriate North Korean defectors to their repressive homeland, consigning them to a labour camp or worse, despite repeated pleas from South Korea for compassion towards its ethnic brethren.

Beijing even appears incapable of good-faith cooperation to prevent illegal fishing in South Korean waters, periodically leading to violent or even fatal clashes between its fishermen and Korean coastguard.

All of which is to say that Japan’s slights against South Korea are mostly in the past, while China’s are occurring on a daily basis.

Watch: North Korea fires four missiles into waters off Japan

South Korean perceptions of its neighbours appear especially incoherent following the North’s recent launch of four ballistic missiles into waters off the Japanese coast, and amid the policy uncertainty created by its constitutional court’s confirmation of President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment over a massive corruption scandal.

Unlike Beijing, Tokyo has a visceral appreciation of the threat posed by the North

Unlike Beijing, Tokyo has a visceral appreciation of the threat posed by the North, which has openly threatened to strike US bases in its territory. With Pyongyang posing a greater danger by the day as Beijing stands idly by, it makes more sense than ever for South Korea to boost defence cooperation with Japan as part of a trilateral alliance with the US.

While it’s human for Koreans to remain sensitive to historical wounds, it’s becoming less and less plausible to see Japan as less of a friend or partner than China, much less an adversary.

If South Koreans can’t bring themselves to see Japan as a true friend, they can perhaps at least heed the advice of the American diplomat Henry Kissinger. Speaking about his own country, he famously said there were no friends or enemies, just common interests. Whatever else divides them, South Korea and Japan have plenty of those.

John Power is an Australia-based journalist who reported from South Korea between 2010 and March of this year