Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Korean media stays classy in aftermath of earthquake

I wrote a few weeks ago, the day after the Japan earthquake, of the Korean media's near-immediate obsession with the popularity of its dramas and singers in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake.

This week has been my first chance to see up-close the obsession of Korean nationalism with Dokdo, and it has been amazing. Japanese middle school textbooks will, as expected by anyone with half a brain, refer to Dokdo, two tiny islands controlled by South Korea, as part of Japan. This reaction is not all that uncommon from what I've read:

"We made warmhearted donations, and all we got in return is a distortion of history," lead activist Choi Jae-ik shouted during the rally. "We deplore Japan's ungrateful behaviour."

The corollary of this line of reasoning is that if Japan ever donated to Korea in the aftermath of a disaster, Japan would be reasonable in expecting a grateful Korea to give away Korea. If Korean nationalism never has to yield, why should Japanese nationalism be any more malleable?

One Korean official was quoted as saying that the two issues were not linked, but so many Koreans seemed surprised and hurt that Japan would publish the textbooks after Koreans donated money, which is not only unrealistic but stunningly callous: would Americans only donate money to Afghanistan if the Taliban promised to stop trying to kill American soldiers?

Anyway, the media naturally had a field day writing anything half-related to Dokdo, and Korean president Lee Myung-bak made an emergency visit to Dokdo, letting those Japs know, as overmatched nationalists with limited English skills proclaim, that Dokdo is the Korea land.

These are screenshots of the homepages of the three major Korean dailies (all conservative). The Chosun Ilbo and Donga Ilbo led with news about a regional airport, followed by a half-dozen articles about Dokdo, with the ongoing crisis in Japan buried way down the page.

This is the Donga Ilbo:

The Joongang Ilbo didn't bother writing about anything else, they went all-out on this one.

As far as these newspapers were concerned, there was simply nothing happening anywhere else in the world that was worthy of attention, certainly not anything in Japan.

Even the Communist mouthpiece China Daily comes out looking reasonable here, with some international coverage and no garish propaganda pieces today, though dozens of dissidents have been arrested in the background to the crises in Asia and the Middle East.

For further comparison, here are the Asia-Pacific sections of the BBC and the New York Times. The Times is a little "all tsunami, all the time", but that's a separate topic of criticism.

Finally, it's worth mentioning for the record, that Japan isn't the only foreign country claiming a part of South Korea. North Korea has, for the past sixty years, claimed all of South Korea, including Dokdo, Seoul, Busan, Gyeongju, Jeju and even Suwon as part of North Korea. What's more, unlike Japan, North Korea launched a war to realize its territorial claims, resulting in the deaths of about a million Koreans.

One more note: I had a student last year who identified Yeouido, an island in central Seoul, as Dokdo, which is a few hundred kilometres off the Korean mainland. This is roughly like a child in New York confusing Long Island with Hawaii, an unsurprising result of hearing incessantly about Hawaii all your life.

1 comment:

The Accidental Ajumma said...

I loved this post. I'm pretty sure from what I've seen and heard (I live in Japan) that the average Japanese person couldn't give a monkey's about Dokdo/Takeshima. It's a shame that the Japanese government feels it can't abandon the slightly hollow (in my, admittedly uninformed, opinion - I mean, Korea, um, occupies the damn things) claim to these islands on account of feeling that this would (i) set a bad precedent for their more serious claim to the disputed islands near Hokkaido, and (ii) drive the minority idiots on the far right nuts, but it's also a shame that certain parties in Korea can't get some perspective and play like the big, grown up country they are. The massive banner hanging in Seoul Station last time I was there proclaiming, in English, that Dokdo is Korean was one of the stranger things I have seen in my life. I should say I am not bashing Korea here. I am married to a Korean (who is pretty adamant that Dokdo is Korean) and I know there is a lot of history that is still being worked through here, but I am still shocked at how flagrant the nationalism, and the insecurity, is sometimes. I guess that's what comes from such massive development over the course of 30 years.