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South Korea: The Unloved Republic?

Brian R. Myers speaking in Seoul on September 14, 2010. (Asia Society Korea Center)

Brian R. Myers speaking in Seoul on September 14, 2010. (Asia Society Korea Center)

Myers pointed out that neither Korea was fundamentally anti-collaborator. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung got rid of land owners—whether pro- or anti-Japanese—but he was very welcoming of collaborator intellectuals.

As an example, Myers cited Choi Seung-hui, the famous modern dancer. She was given control of all dance in North Korea after speaking proudly during the Second World War of being a Japanese citizen. Likewise, the dramatist Song Yeong had penned works encouraging Korean men to give up their lives for the emperor; in North Korea, he was put in charge of the drama association. Therefore both Koreas are equally tainted by the stain of collaborationism.

And yet the left, Myers, continued, feels that South Korea is inherently lacking in legitimacy, loyalty, and so on. All bad things are blamed on the republic, while all good things are ascribed to the race (minjok).

The New Right in South Korea believes at last that an official state patriotism is needed. They are trying to revise history textbooks and to change August 15 into a national "founding day," not a liberation day anymore. In Myers's opinion, this is the worst way to instill patriotism in the populace.

But for now, both right and left still preach race nationalism. The right pretends that it supported the United States after the accidental deaths of two schoolgirls in 2002, but it was right-wing presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang who wanted then-President Bush to apologize to the Korean nation, not Roh Moo-hyun.

Myers's clear message was that South Korean authorities and political parties must abandon blood nationalism.

With regard to North Korea's leadership, Myers suggested that a young, urbane leader will make it hard for young people in South Korea to maintain any sense of loyalty to the southern Republic and its corrupt old political scene.

The most imminent danger of all is the response to the Cheonan sinking—that South Koreans barely reacted in anger at all. In Myers's view, this kind of apathy can only encourage the North to continue such gambits.

How to deter another attack by peaceful means? The political left and right need to join together to move away from a focus on the 1940s and post-colonial heritage and shape a healthy loyalty to the Republic of Korea. Patriotism is not the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson famously suggested; nationalism is.