Protests, trade wars and unrest

Is this South Korea’s Krexit?

Noah Yim

Politics, Society and culture, International relations, Economics | Asia, East Asia

10 October 2019

Unresolved historical grievances are filling the vacuum left by a downturn of US involvement in the region, creating ramifications for the security of the Asia-Pacific, Noah Yim writes.

South Korea has seen a flurry of protests and activism over the past few years.

The latest chapter in this series is a movement against the purchase of Japanese products. This came after Japan’s government placed onerous procedures on the export of some chemicals. Sold mostly to South Korea, those chemicals are key to the manufacture of the country’s main export, integrated circuits.

This movement has a distinctive anti-Japanese flavour to it. And it’s not the first. The prologue in this genre was South Korea’s largest ever protests, the ‘candlelight protests’ in 2016/17, which impeached disgraced former president Park Geun-Hye. Park Geun-Hye is the daughter to general Park Chung-Hee, a former lieutenant of the Japanese Army until the end of World War II, who ascended to the presidency by masterminding the 1961 coup d’état that overthrew the incumbent.

More recently, tensions had sparked about the multiple statues placed outside Japanese consulates and embassies in South Korea, erected in memory of the hundreds of thousands of Korean girls and women who fell victim to sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during its occupation of the peninsula. Protestors flocked to prevent the removal of these statues after pressure from the Japanese government and wrapped them in scarves and hats on particularly cold days.

The thread that weaves through all these grassroots movements is a resentment of Japan – specifically, a simmering, post-imperialist ire.

Since the end of WW2, South Korea and Japan have gotten along remarkably well, especially when considering that one was a colony of the other for 50 years immediately preceding that time. The driving force for this cooperation was mostly US influence.

However, that influence is now waning. As the US faces relative decline against China’s growth and pursues a generally more inward-looking foreign policy, it has scaled back its ties to the region, and particularly South Korea: it did not appoint an ambassador for one and a half years into the Trump administration and has not continued some joint military exercises.

Against the backdrop of a growing anti-US sentiment amongst the youth of South Korea, these developments are all the more concerning.

In that context, it’s not surprising that this delayed, but highly emotional, post-imperialist sentiment is surfacing as US influence declines.

More on this: Burning the playbook: US-China trade war is rewriting the rules

The most potent ramification will likely be on the security regime that has bound the Asia-Pacific since the start of the Cold War – the ‘hub and spokes’ model. In it, the US was the ‘hub’, with ‘spokes’ leading out to allied countries, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Along these spokes were bilateral mutual defence agreements and strong economic ties.

Today, the Philippines-US relationship has deteriorated, especially under the Duterte and Trump administrations; Taiwan does not even enjoy statehood recognition from the US. South Korea, Japan, and Australia are the last bastions of this order left in the region.

However, South Korea has made it clear through its successive protests that it can no longer closely cooperate with Japan. This appears to be compromising the South’s ties to a US that shows no intention of forgoing any intimacy with Japan.

This could be monumental – of the bilateral US partners in the hub and spokes model, South Korea has the second largest economy and the most powerful military according to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index.

South Korea’s string of protests is a sign that the nation is reaching out to the divorce papers. Such an estrangement – a Krexit, as it may – will be the last nail in the coffin for the order that has underpinned the region for the last half-century. Brexit, the US’ exit from UNESCO, and other breakdowns of traditional institutions, has come to Asia.

South Korea, ever the early adopter, seems to be taking it and making it its own.

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