The Korean Peninsula rests in the center of Northeast Asia, forming a natural boundary between Eastern China, Russia, and Japan. It is a land of immense strategic value, yet circumscribed by the nations of great empires, who’ve historically subjugated the peninsula in order to dichotomize the region.
To comprehend modern politics in Northeast Asia, it is necessary to examine the historical manipulation of Korean sovereignty as emblematic of the greater political divides within the area itself. And by unearthing these histories we are able to contextualize the discord preventing regional integration in the North Pacific.
In part, this acrimony is a byproduct of the failure of post-colonial reconciliation; whose victims in China and Korea have long been overshadowed by the prestige and influence of modern Japan. However, this incongruity is often lost on the West, making its perspective of the region consistently biased and incomplete. Therefore, understanding the region’s hegemonic legacies is required to properly observe the discourse between these nations.
Historically, Northeast Asian intra-regional relationships were governed by the Confucian tributary system: a Sino-centric order, which employed vassal states in an economic and cultural union, in exchange for their allegiance to the Chinese Emperor.
Due to its proximity to the ‘Central Kingdom’, Koreans were able to conduct trade missions to China more frequently than any other tributary state within the Imperial system, and in turn, became the preeminent heirs to Sino culture, art, and innovation (Joseon Dynasty). Furthermore, the geography of the peninsula also acted as a bulwark against foreign encroachment, which greatly augmented political ties between these two nations (see here).
However, the kinship between China and Korea began to fray once Japan defied its position within the international hierarchy, by invading the Korean Peninsula at the end of the 16th century (The Imjin War). In his attempt to dethrone the Chinese Emperor, the Japanese Daimyo (Hideyoshi Toyotomi), demonstrated that the security of China’s protectorates was no longer absolute – thereby exposing a critical vulnerability within the Sino-centric order.
Yet the collapse of dynastic rule didn’t arrive until Western imperialism expanded into China (The Opium Wars), during the mid-19th century – at which point the capitulation of Confucian leadership seemed imminent. However, in the absence of Chinese influence, Western hegemony did not settle the region as it had in India or Indochina, but instead gave rise to a new order, dominated by an emergent Japanese Empire (Meiji Period).
The economic reform and industrial militarization of Japan (Meiji Restoration) spared the Japanese from Western colonization, and transformed their society into Asia’s prevailing nation-state. However, it wasn’t until the country had defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), and later Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), that it became an internationally recognized world power, and granted the authority to annex the Korean Peninsula (1910).
As Asia’s first modern power, Japan sought to supplant the political influence of Chinese society with its own interpretation of Western Imperialism. Believing that it had the legal jurisdiction, if not right, to reign over the continent under a banner of Pan-Asianism. However, where the Chinese Empire had tolerated the political autonomy of its protectorates, the Empire of Japan saw little value in the social continuity of its foreign territories. And sought to completely vanquish their cultures, languages, and histories through slavery and violence.
The victims of colonization were effectively forced to become Japanese; conscripted for any service required by the Empire, under the guise that they had been betrothed to a divine race. While the inclusive cultural greatness of ancient China vastly superseded its military influence, Japanese Imperialism was instead predicated on ethnic nationalism and military dominance.
By the mid-20th century Japan had conquered nearly all of East Asia and was allied to European fascism (Tripartite Pact), believing that Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini would become the dominant Western leaders of their time. However, Japan’s decision to confront the West in the Pacific ultimately proved to be its undoing, as it would go on to be toppled by Allied forces at the end of the Second World War.
The End of World War II:
When the United States and Soviet Union forced the surrender of Japan in 1945, they believed they had finally expunged fascism from Asia, and secured world peace. As retribution for their belligerence, Japan – like Germany – was forced to relinquish their foreign territories, and dismantle their war economy. However, the terms of reconciliation for both countries did not converge, due to a variety of economic and cultural factors, shaping the geopolitical landscape of post-war Europe and Asia.
During the war, the fall of European democracy resonated far more deeply with the United States than the spread of Japanese Imperialism, due to the country’s proximity to the European front, and its dismissal of Asian hegemony. The Pacific War was an act of retribution, isolated at the edge of the world, against a seemingly racially inferior foe. Whereas, the rise of European fascism unequivocally threatened the heterogeneity of Western civilization.
The decision by the United States to use an atomic weapon to end the Second World War revealed both its strategy and conviction against the Japanese Empire – insofar that it refused to fight the same war in the Pacific as it had in Europe. The subsequent destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the shrewd pragmatism that would be used to both re-build Japan, and define the strategy of post-war governance in the region for generations.
One can only speculate the influence of race, culture, and history on US military tactics in the Pacific; but in regards to the post-war political re-education of Germany and Japan, the disparity is absolute.
Post-War Redevelopment & Reconciliation:
The post-war occupation of Germany and Japan varied greatly as illustrated by the Allies’ treatment of surviving political, military, and economic leadership in both countries. This distinction was due primarily to the dynamics shaping international cooperation at the time, such as the spread of communism and the restoration of global markets.
In Europe, the influence of the United States was measured in terms of economic aid and armed security (Truman Doctrine). But in regards to the reconstruction of German society, each Allied power had considerable influence over the direction of reform, as seen by the division and re-zoning of the country. The purpose of this strategy was to ensure the complete and total destruction of not only fascism, but also war mongering of any kind – a task that required great sacrifice and generosity in order to successfully implement. However, in Asia, the United States was the sole arbiter of Japanese redevelopment and utilized a far less pluralistic form of governance.
The greatest example of this approach was the United States’ decision to spare the Japanese Emperor from execution, in order to establish its hegemony over the people of Japan. At the time, the US feared that the death of the Emperor would amount to the killing of a god, and without its spiritual leader the country would descend into anarchy. Naturally, both the victims of Japanese colonization and military aggression summarily rejected this view. However, without contextual knowledge (Area Studies), or at least a shared history to draw upon, the United States chose to rely heavily on anecdotal evidence to support its Northeast Asian reconciliation policies. The ultimate effect being the continuation of the imperial system as a facet of Japanese culture.
The decision to accommodate Japan was also emboldened by the fear of communism spreading into the country as it had in China during World War II. The outbreak of the Korean War was a decisive factor in suppressing the purge of the zaibatsu, as well as other economic and political elites from the imperial regime. In turn, Japan's post-war society was organized primarily to rebuke communism via ‘hard state’ economic development – a feat made possible by a mixture of Shōwa era and Western policies.
In regards to the the region's new international order, both South Korea and Japan supported cooperative economic development, however these post-war relations were borne out of convenience, if not mandated by the Allied leadership (1965 Normalization). For once both nations had lifted themselves out of poverty and embraced democracy, issues of post-colonial reconciliation, identity, and justice challenged the utility of an American decreed Cold War alliance.
The failure of the United States to address these historical conflicts in the terms of reconciliation following World War II virtually guaranteed the resurgence of Sino influence over the peninsula, as South Korea would eventually posture itself equally between a hegemon which shared its struggle against Japan, and one that did not.
Today the historical remnants of the Cold War and Japanese colonization continue to deeply affect Korean society, making the possibility of regional integration highly unlikely. From the Korean perspective, this dysfunction stems from the unwillingness of Japan to replicate the contrition espoused by German society as it relates to the cultural legacy of National Socialism.
From a foreign perspective, the claims Korea has made against Japan can appear to be the virtues of nationalism not justice – in large part due to the development of the South Korean economy and democratic system. Furthermore, the current leaders of both countries have each issued educational reforms to promote a singular historical perspective, fearing a cultural malaise in the next generation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seeks to glorify the country's imperial legacy (see here). While South Korean President Park Geun-Hye wishes that the reign of her father's dictatorship be culturally celebrated (see here).
However, these conditions in Korean society emanate from a post-colonial experience administered by Japan. And while some may argue that the influence of Japanese technology, education, and governance should be officially recognized by Koreans; such conditions further reveal the dissimilarities between Japanese and German attitudes towards militarism and colonialism.
For the victims of this history, the resurgence of Japan’s hegemony is incredibly dubious, regardless of its stature as a world leader, innovator, and cultural super power. The public enshrinement of imperial history (Yasukuni Shrine), as well as efforts made by nationalist influences to glorify Japanese colonialism and territorial ambitions (Takeshima and the Sea of Japan), lend credence to reactionary movements throughout Northeast Asia.
To assuage this hostility it is essential for the West to recognize the significance of macro historical trends (Confucian hegemony), and alternative narratives of post-war economic development (containment trade-offs). By acknowledging that the foundational principles of Northeast Asian reconciliation were inferior to the policies implemented in Europe, it may be possible to build the political infrastructure necessary to bridge the divide between these nations.
The existence of a regionally integrated Asia, akin to North America or Europe, may very well determine whether or not the global economy is controlled by trade in the Pacific (Trans-Pacific Partnership), or pushed back towards areas of greater political and economic openness. The opportunity for Northeast Asia is there to be seized, or missed.