The recent attack on the US ambassador Mark Lippert by Kim Ki-jong, a radical Korean nationalist, made headlines worldwide. Actually, the event itself is probably less politically significant than it might appear - anti-Americanism is clearly waning in South Korea today. It is remarkable, though, that Kim already has a history of resorting to violence in dealing with foreign diplomats: In 2010, he received a suspended jail sentence for throwing a concrete block at the Japanese envoy to South Korea at a lecture.

Kim is a nationalist activist, and most of his activism has been related to the fate of two islands known in English as the "Liancourt Rocks" (known as "Dokdo" in Korean, and as "Takeshima" in Japanese). These islands are located in a sea Koreans call "Eastern Sea", but the world prefers to describe it as "Sea of Japan", some 200 km away from the Korean coast.

US ambassador attacked in South Korea

The history of the Liancourt Rocks is pretty simple. Though both the Koreans and Japanese have done what they can to find some kind of historical basis for their claims and counter-claims to the islands, until the early 1900s, these tiny and hitherto uninhabitable rocks attracted little attention.

In 1905, the rocks were unilaterally occupied by the Japanese who were taking advantage of Korea's geopolitical weakness. A few decades later, the tables were turned, and soon after the Japanese defeat in World War II, the Koreans established control over the islands. Since 1954, the South Koreans have maintained a small police force there.

Verbal protests

Thus, for more than 60 years, the islands have been under the secure control of South Korea. The Japanese authorities do not recognise this control, but they usually limit themselves to purely verbal protests. Nonetheless, in the fantasy world of radical Korean nationalists, Japan perpetually stands poised to attack South Korea and start a major war in order to re-establish its control over two errant rocky outposts. This would sound ridiculous had not such opinions been so widespread within Korea where the "Dokdo issues" has given birth to a minor cottage industry: countless booklets, exhibits and videos are produced to support Korean claims on the islands.

This reflects one important feature of the Korean national psyche - a deep antipathy towards Japan. Anti-Japanese sentiment provides the glue that keeps the otherwise quarrelsome and polarised world of Korean politics. Indeed, no South Korean politician can lose votes by being excessively tough on Japan. Therefore, endless rounds of Japan-bashing have long been de rigueur for political campaigning in South Korea.

It is often argued that the sheer intensity of such feeling is driven by bitter memories of the colonial era. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and indeed this rule was brutal and repressive. Among other things, in the last years of this rule, the Japanese colonial administration banned the official use of the Korean language, and forced Koreans to accept Japanese-style names. Of special significance was the outrageous policy of recruiting Korean girls to be sent to the brothels of the Japanese Imperial army as so-called "Comfort Women".

In the fantasy world of radical Korean nationalists, Japan perpetually stands poised to attack South Korea and start a major war in order to re-establish its control over two errant rocky outposts.

 

Thus, the current narrative says that, since the Japanese were exceptionally cruel and have not expressed sufficient remorse, Koreans, naturally enough, are bound to mistrust and despise their neighbour. However, in real life things are a good deal more complex. To start with, the colonial period brought not only repression, but also economic and social growth (for example, the average life expectancy nearly doubled under Japanese rule). The Korean language was tolerated until the late 1930s, too. Things turned really ugly only in the mid-1930s when Japan itself became a semi-fascist state.

Stories of Japanese atrocities

Nonetheless, these complexities are always overlooked, and stories of Japanese atrocities have long been the staple of Korean education and mass culture, and the noisy anti-Japanese rallies have long been a part of Korean political life.

Sometimes, the nationalists get creative: In July 2008 in front of the Japanese embassy they hammered to death two birds whom they mistaken for Phasianus versicolor, a pheasant which is a symbol of the Japanese Imperial House (later it was discovered that the rally participants tortured to death birds which belong to a different species).

It is instructive to consider the case of Taiwan whose modern history is very similar to that of Korea. Taiwanese are not known for anti-Japanese sentiments, even though the Taiwan was also colonised by the Japanese, who forced locals to change their names and subjected them to many kinds of humiliation, including sexual slavery in the Japanese military in the early 1940s. Nonetheless, in Taiwan, the ugly past is not a part of daily politics any more.

The reason why anti-Japanese sentiment is so strong in South Korea is its political usefulness. The militant anti-Japanese sentiment is the vital part of contemporary Korean nationalism, so all major political groupings in South Korea encourage such sentiments and benefit from them. Nationalism is good for social cohesion, and every nationalism needs an evil and scheming outsider. Japan fills the void in case of Korean nationalism.

Sometimes, as Kim Ki-jong's penchant for attacking ambassadors has demonstrated, the nationalist passions can even damage South Korea's foreign policy interests. Nonetheless, it appears that the South Korean elite still want to kindle the flame of righteous hatred towards Japan, however large the diplomatic cost of such policies might sometimes be. It pays off.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera