Sunday, January 28, 2007

Korean Perceptions of Israel

Sattar Kassem and Hong Mi Jung, near Nablus (

Korea has not entered the Israeli imagination in the same way as Japan and China have. Although Samsung cell phones, LG washing machines, and Kia compacts have become consumer staples, Israelis generally have no real mental map of Korea and its place in East Asia. If they did, they would probably discover many commonalities, in addition to the obvious differences between the countries and their cultures. Indeed, many South Koreans, and not only the zealous evangelicals who send missionaries even to Iraq, see themselves as a chosen people whose fate bears strong resemblances to that of the Jews.

Koreans point to their long history of suffering and to the miraculous rise of the Republic of Korea in the past half-century as bases of comparison. They also view the millions of Koreans dispersed in China, the former Soviet Union, and America as diaspora communities with striking similarities to their Jewish counterparts in the world. In the U.S., Korean-Americans, even more than Chinese- or Indian-Americans, resemble American Jews in terms of their occupational patterns and their investment in education - with the Koreans following a pattern set by the Jewish immigrants nearly a century earlier.

For a long time, Korean perceptions of Israel were overwhelmingly positive. When South Koreans encountered Israel and the Jewish people in their school textbooks and in the media, they were presented with a heroic narrative about Israel's perseverance against all odds in the 1948 and 1967. For Koreans of a certain generation (now in its late 30s and early 40s), the word kibbutz still has romantic resonances.

But Israel's stock is rapidly dwindling. The last half-decade has perhaps done more damage than anything else. As in Europe and elsewhere, Israel is now Goliath with the Palestinians (or even the Arabs as a whole) playing David. Some Koreans now identify more with the Palestinians, and see the experience of the latter as akin to their own history under Japanese occupation - never mind that by any objective standards this is a disturbing fallacy of judgment.

A feature that appeared in a Korean internet newspaper yesterday about the the Hamas-Fatah clashes and the anniversary of Israel's "40-year-long occupation" speaks volumes about current Korean attitudes toward Israel. The article was written by a Korean scholar at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Hong Mi Jung, who has developed close friendships with Palestinian academics and professionals, mostly in the West Bank. Its headline asks,
이스라엘 검문소가 관대해진 이유는?
Why have the Israeli checkpoints been eased?
A certain professor Sattar Kassem, a political scientist at Al-Najah University, who spoke to her in Nablus, told Hong that the checkpoints from Ramallah to Nablus had been relaxed due to the Palestinian infighting but that there had been no change in the number of checkpoints on the reverse route from Nablus to Ramallah.

She also investigated the report of gunfire directed at the Canadian mission in Ramallah, and she asked passersby in the city why they were no longer displaying portraits of Abbas. They respond that
"압바스는 이스라엘과 미국에 협력하고 있다"
Abbas is cooperating with Israel and America.
It should hardly come as a surprise that the article is sympathetic to the friends and acquaintances of the writer. But what is most disturbing is that Israelis only appear as soldiers, and that while Hong talks to many ordinary Palestinians, there is no such investigation of life in Israel. Obviously we shouldn't make too much of this - reporters have limited amounts of time, resources, and connections. However, the net effect of stories like Hong is predictable and disturbing: Koreans are getting a vivid sense of Palestinian society by sympathetic reporters and very little in the way of journalism about ordinary Israelis' fears and hopes.

Growing anti-American sentiments in Korea have only exacerbated views of Israel, which has become increasingly linked in the Korean imagination to the U.S. Combine all this with the fact that Korea, just like China and Japan, will depend heavily on Arab and Iranian oil, and the outlook for the future of Korean-Israeli relations might look grim.

However, there is some hope. Unlike Europe, Korea has no history of antisemitism and no Muslim immigrant population to appease. The country's large Protestant population is also likely to continue supporting Israel - although its fantasies about the Holy Land may actually distort bilateral relations more than fostering them. But what Israel really needs to do is to embark on a campaign to win the minds of Koreans by appealing directly to their history, values, and interests. Israelis ignore Korea at their peril. There are obvious cultural bridges that can be built - for example via comparative studies of Korean Confucian philosophy and rabbinic literature, or through exchanges about diaspora experiences. In less lofty domains, the Korean and Israeli economies have a great deal in common and opportunities abound for partnerships that can benefit both countries.

Thanks to Jun for his translations and for teaching me the Korean alphabet among many other things.

1 comment:

Carmia said...

Very interesting.