Asia Pacific

Money, Not Justice, Matters Most to South Koreans

South Korean

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March 13, 2016 14:36 EDT

With nearly 1.1 million unemployed youth, is the burying of “historical hatchets” a way of distracting locals from domestic economic woes?

A fervent disciple of the capitalist system, where social admiration revolves around material gain, modern South Korea has become a victim of its own success. In a country where it has become commonplace for every child to aspire to work for prestigious conglomerates like Samsung or Hyundai, the rat race for jobs is what really concerns Korean citizens. Despite all the media attention, historical atrocities and “landmark” arrangements—such as the comfort woman deal with Japan of December 2015—remain secondary concerns.

With poor economic returns expected, both Presidents Park Guen-hye and Lee Myung-bak (Park’s predecessor) have responded to South Korea’s meager performance by calling for the country’s employment culture to undergo “major surgery”—in essence trying to reign in of an insatiable appetite for college credentials.

Statistics, though rarely reliable just by themselves, are noticeable in this regard, as the financial toll for South Koreans who have chosen to pursue higher education has proved to produce more detriments than benefits. Tuition fees and other related costs have accounted for over a 10th of national household debt in South Korea. Figures from South Korea’s own Student Aid Foundation have also reported outstanding debts to have reached more than $10 billion in the first half of 2015, linking it with other concerns afflicting the country’s demographics, such as the rising age of marriage and decreasing birth rates.

Strangely, despite South Korea’s overwhelming preoccupation with employment, the picture shown by certain commentaries these days would have us believe that a historical sentimental boogieman is just waiting to pounce. Some have argued that the “domestic backlash” from such an abrupt deal with Japan could backfire, as oppositional forces get ready for the coming elections.

While such insights certainly deserve their place in the sun, increased bandwidth to such narratives may wind up creating blind spots for the rest of the world, whereby the real concerns of South Korean locals are glossed over. The deal may give the impression of a “last-minute trade-off between national honor and mediocre financial gains,” but resentments such as these would seem to be only peripheral when compared to the sheer frustration pent up by South Korea’s unemployed.

With an estimated 1.1 million youth having difficulty finding jobs, the economy, not social justice, is what truly reoccupies South Korean politics.

In the end, in spite of South Korea and Japan’s “milestone achievement” from 2015, observers might do well to take a step back to see if anything of consequence has actually occurred.

Of course, advocates and detractors alike would be quick to point out that such a deal was more about foreign policy progress than domestic political achievement. Alarmists stating that the loss of momentum for this issue, which has been watered down as a “concession” on Park’s part, would appear to refute the notion that historical pressure points actually made a huge dent in foreign affairs. Though undoubtedly a sensitive nerve in the immediate term, South Korean policies in relation to its security (vis-à-vis the United States) and overall economy (vis-à-vis China), not to mention its frail ties with Japan, all remain nevertheless.

The South Korea-US alliance continues to be the bedrock for security on the Korean Peninsula, while Chinese economic interests—now being South Korea’s top trading partner—continuously force the country to play a careful diplomatic balancing act. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate then had such alarmists described “tensions” with Japan as inertia rather than a backward slippage into the abyss.

Adding to all this is the fact that the North Korean problem remains intact and a possible strike is still a prospect for which no one can rule out. Granted that no headway has been made, or will likely be made with South Korea’s new rapprochement, East Asia’s Kim dilemma will linger on for years, if not generations to come.

The options that remain are a toss between this trio: military action, which will always be a last resort; some form of diplomatic compromise; or strategic patience. The last option pertains to South Korea waiting to see if North Korea will eventually take after China to subscribe to a socialist model with Chinese characteristics and eventually open up its markets.

Of Old Wounds, and Bread and Butter Anxieties

In the end, in spite of South Korea and Japan’s “milestone achievement” from 2015, observers might do well to take a step back to see if anything of consequence has actually occurred. While genuine transformation may certainly be in the works for Japan-South Korea relations, one must consider if such transformation occurs due to the emotional healing of old wounds, or everyday bread and butter anxieties.

To be clear, the argument here is not that the comfort women deal does not matter, nor is it that a domestic price will not be paid for President Park’s actions. The point is rather that the burying of historical hatchets does not inevitably take center-stage when one examines it more deeply. At best, historical scars left by Japan created sparks to set things in motion and, at its worst, are distractions that keep us from noticing what everyday South Koreans truly worry about: domestic economic woes and high youth unemployment rates.

One must recall that despite all the yearnings for a fair deal, it was not until the 1990s that the unforgivable crimes against these women started to gain media traction—leaving one to wonder what exactly caused most South Koreans after independence in 1945 to remain silent till then. Was it a social taboo of some form that kept people away from assisting these women, or could it be just that South Koreans, like most people tragically, tend to be moved by their wallets and pragmatic calculations more so than their hearts?

After all, even after the horrors of Japanese occupation, South Korean officials themselves have been accused of managing prostitution rings of their own, save for this time, to satisfy the needs of US soldiers stationed to protect South Korea.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Meunierd /

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