Is it boycotting Korean culture?

South Korea's aversion to Japan is booming again

Japan is removing South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners, while South Koreans are boycotting Japanese products. The economic consequences are manageable, but the dispute has torn historic wounds in Korea.

When 13-year-old Korean Kim Jeong Ju boarded a ferry to Japan in 1944, she hoped to see her siblings again and finish school. Instead, she was put in a barbed wire-fenced factory in Toyama City, where she had to operate heavy machinery for ten hours a day. ”I was forced to work against my free will. I was no better than a slave, ”says the 88-year-old. When she testifies of her experience, the constant hunger and intimidation of the factory managers, she bursts into tears. 74 years after the end of World War II, Ms. Kim has still not found peace. «I need an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for my suffering. I've been waiting for the day for decades. "

Trade as a weapon

The fate of the Korean slave laborers under the Japanese occupation is at the center of the escalating trade dispute between the two neighbors. Last fall, the Seoul Supreme Court sentenced a Japanese company to pay compensation to four former slave laborers. In political retaliation, the Japanese government removed South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners on August 2. A month earlier, Tokyo had tightened its export regulations to Seoul for three chemicals - materials that are essential for the manufacture of semiconductors and flat screens. In South Korea this was seen as a direct attack on the domestic economy: The semiconductor industry of the East Asian tiger state is the second largest in the world with a global market share of over 16 percent.

President Moon Jae In immediately called a crisis meeting and then stepped visibly angry in front of the television cameras. "I would like to point out that the Japanese government will be solely responsible for what happens in the future," said the left-wing politician with threatening pathos. Then he saluted the South Korean flag with his hand in front of his chest. The national anthem sounded in the background. He promised his compatriots that Korea would never again surrender to its neighboring country.

Demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy

Anyone who wants to understand the emotionality of this conflict, which has been smoldering for decades, goes to the Japanese embassy in Seoul on any Wednesday afternoon: Hundreds of activists, high school students, television crews and riot police crowd the sidewalk of the street lined with glass towers. The crowd defies the summer monsoon with umbrellas, chants drown out the noise of taxis and moped suppliers.

Week after week, the demonstrators remember the atrocities of the colonial power Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945: for example, the suffering of the thousands upon thousands of "comfort women" who had to perform sexual services for Japanese soldiers in forced brothels under miserable conditions. The Japanese government has repeatedly apologized and expressed its remorse, but the left-wing demonstrators dismiss this as half-hearted and insincere.

Do without your favorite beer

For the angry demonstrators in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Prime Minister Abe is a history revisionist who does not want to admit his country's historical guilt. Now they want to force him to do it. «Asahi was my favorite beer, but I don't buy it anymore - just like all products from Japan. In this way I can do my part to put pressure on the Abes government, ”says Pang Ju Il, who works for a non-governmental organization in Seoul. Like many others, Pang has brought a poster with him that says “No, Boycott Japan” in large letters.

The progressive politician Kim So Hee, who also protested in front of the Japanese embassy this Wednesday, makes it clear that the action is not directed against the Japanese people: “The past is the past. The people can't help it. We want to defend ourselves against the government of Japan. "

According to a survey by the polling institute Realmeter on Thursday, around 65 percent of all Koreans would now take part in the boycott of Japanese products. "We still sell Japanese products, but our customers no longer buy them," says the manager of a mini-supermarket in downtown Seoul. A saleswoman in the rival branch a stone's throw away said: "The only people who still buy the Japanese Asahi beer are foreigners."

When the history teacher starts to curse

How deep the anti-Japanese popular anger is in South Korea can be seen in education. "Whenever we talked about Japan in class, my history teacher - a level-headed man in and of itself - began to swear wildly and use swear words," says 26-year-old Alex Kim, who works as a designer. Her generation is more relaxed about Japan, but there is social pressure: “Many of my friends have canceled their vacation in Japan. They are afraid of being pilloried - for example when they post holiday photos from Japan on Instagram. "

The historical conflict is much more complex than it is represented by the political left in South Korea: The Japanese government argues that the basic treaty signed in 1965 settled the demands for compensation for the victims of the occupation. However, the South Korean military regime of that time did not pass the funds on to those affected, but instead used them to modernize the economy.

Politically, the conflict is currently rocking again. For example, President Moon has already threatened to dissolve an agreement with Japan on the exchange of intelligence information, which is considered an important pillar of the triangular alliance between the USA, South Korea and Japan. Military cooperation with North Korea is particularly important.

From an economic point of view, the hysterical mood is by no means justified. Sanjeev Rana, technology analyst at the CLSA Korea investment group, says: "The removal of South Korea from the white list will initially not be accompanied by any export bans, but only with longer approval procedures and minor inconveniences."

Political games

Many politicians - especially those from the nationalist left - are trying to make political capital out of the anti-Japanese sentiment. The local government of Jung-no, a district in downtown Seoul, tried to position itself at the forefront of the boycott movement. She had over a thousand posters put up in tourist places saying, "I will not travel to Japan, I will not buy Japanese products!" was standing.

But the citizens saw through the cheap game. In no time at all, over 20,000 angry Koreans signed an online petition - after five hours the posters had to be taken down again. "The boycott should be based on individual decision-making and not be a government-controlled anti-Japan campaign," wrote one signatory. And another said: "Japanese tourists are not our enemies."