Amid a massive police presence, tens of thousands of Koreans massed for thunderous protests in central Seoul on Thursday, August 15, a national holiday that this year marks the 74th anniversary of their liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule.
However, the highly vocal citizens who staked out downtown Seoul’s most iconic boulevard were far from united in their messages.
This disunity reflects a yawning chasm bisecting the South Korean body politic. One group demanded apologies from Japan and the ouster of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while the other called for a strengthened US alliance and the resignation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Earlier, Moon had delivered a Liberation Day speech that offered only subdued criticism of Japan, suggesting hopes for rapprochement at a time when the ties between Japan and South Korea and its neighbor are more frayed than at any time since the Northeast Asian democracies established relations in 1965.
Amid a prolonged dispute over reparations for wartime forced laborers, the two manufacturing giants are waging a war of tit-for-tat export restrictions.
Last month, Japan placed new regulations on the export of three materials that are critical to South Korea’s semiconductor and display sectors. This month, both have withdrawn privileged export status from the other, prompting a likely slowdown in product flow and raising concerns over imminent bottlenecks in high-tech product supplies globally.
Gwanghwamun Plaza, a broad boulevard in the very center of Seoul, is flanked by ministries and embassies, and offers excellent views of the medieval Gyeongbok Palace. At its northern end, thousands of protesters from multiple civic groups nationwide had gathered. They were predominantly young and largely leftist.
Much messaging, on placards and t-shirts, was anti-Japan, with a “No” design urging a boycott of Japanese brands. Some t-shirts had “No Abe” on the front, and South Korean President Moon on the back.
“We like Japanese people, but not Abe!” said Lee Hwa-ju, a 65-year-old demonstrator. “We want Abe to apologize and to stop all the trade issues.”
Reproductions of blood-stained independence banners flapped over stalls set up at the side of the plaza. One stall offered handouts, including a postcard showing a graphic of Japanese brands to boycott, and a brochure for an upcoming feature film about a Japanese wartime atrocity.
Some protesters even offered punching bags illustrated with Abe’s face.
“The Japanese government should apologize and compensate for forced labor and the ‘comfort women,’” said Yong Su-bin, a 20-something who said she has joined the anti-Japanese boycott movement. “I am not going to Japan and I am not buying Japanese products.”
Although Abe has apologized to and offered compensation for the comfort women, many Koreans insist the apology was insincere and Moon has frozen the compensation fund. And although Japan paid governmental compensation to forced laborers in 1965, Korean courts last year found in favor of victims’ individual claims against Japanese firms.
Other protesters alleged that Abe was seeking to suppress South Korea’s economy. “We have heard that South Korea’s GDP has reached one third of Japan’s, so South Korea is a competitor,” said June Kyu-kin, 26. “The US is trying to suppress China, and Japan is trying to suppress Korea.”
Many protesters at the north end of the plaza were not simply anti-Japan: They are also pro-reunification, perhaps even pro-North Korea.
Giant models of Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, both beaming, were raised in the plaza. A much smaller caricature of Abe, hands raised in apparent surrender, lay at the feet of the two Koreans.
“Today is Liberation Day, but only for half of the country – South Korea,” said Kim Chae-hong, 58, who had traveled to Seoul for the day from the southern city of Mokpo. “There are lots of issues because of the partition of Korea. This is 74 years of separation.”
Nearby, a group displayed images of various US war atrocities, from conflicts including Vietnam and the Gulf. On one stand, reproductions of North Korean propaganda paintings showed American troops engaging in purported tortures and massacres of civilians during the Korean War.
Still, the most virulous indignation was directed toward the atrocities of the former colonial power.
“I am very angry with Japan, because of [biological warfare unit] Unit 731 and the sex slaves: They have done all these horrible things and have not given a real apology,” said Seo Won-chul, 51, a street musician who said he always protested on August 15. “I want to get out of the shadow of the US and Japan; we, North and South Korea, have to do things on our own.”
At the southern end of the plaza – separated from those in the north by barriers and by ranks of police – a very different group of protesters gathered under fluttering Korean and US flags.
Demographically they were largely in their 60s and politically conservative. Many males wore old military uniforms, often from South Korea’s toughest military units, such as the Marine Corps; Asia Times saw one, in naval commando gear, being questioned by police about his replica weaponry.
These “Taegguki”(“Korean flag”) protesters are highly critical of the Moon administration. They have been demonstrating regularly in support of conservative ex-president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017. Her ouster paved the way for Moon’s election; she is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence for corruption and abuse of power.
Protesters were critical of Moon’s anti-Japan stance.
“They should not cling to the past! The most important thing is that Korea and Japan used to be friends,” said one protester, who was with a group of friends from his old army unit. “If you leave the past to the past, that is best for the future.”
“In the past, Japan did bad things – that’s history; I don’t deny it – but Moon Jae-in is using history for policy,” added Chong Il-um, a 60-year-old demonstrator. “If South Korea is torn from the US-Japan-South Korea alliance, South Korea’s position will be very weak.”
Among pro-US signage, some protesters wore vests on which was written, “Fucking China Get Out!” Others alleged that Moon’s anti-Japanese stance was designed to win votes in next year’s National Assembly elections.
“Anti-Japanese sentiment is helpful for [Moon’s] Democratic Party: “No Japan” is made up for next year’s elections,” said Lee Ah-reum, a 20-something translator. “People are saying if you don’t joint the ‘Boycott Japan’ movement, you are a traitor.”
A whimper, not a bang
After dark, the protesters at the north end of the plaza gathered into a column, lit candles – a symbol of protest since 2002 – and marched, under banners, around a downtown city block, past the Japanese embassy offices, and across a major intersection to the offices of the Chosun Ilbo. The Chosun, Korea’s best-selling daily newspaper, is of a conservative bent and critical of the Moon administration.
They then peacefully dispersed at around 10:00pm. Asia Times was surprised at the affability of both grouups of protester. There were spirited arguments outside a downtown subway station between different groups of protesters, but the day had been almost astonishingly good natured: There was zero apparent violence.
With the emotive Liberation Day now over, the question is where the Japan-Korea dispute will go next.
A mandate for policy?
Some had expected today’s protest to be a weather vane of the strength of anti-Japanese sentiment. Despite the noise and the passion of the anti-Japan protesters, their numbers had been in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands.
“There was not as much as I had heard,” admitted June, the 26-year-old protester. “This is not a good time for people who are rather indifferent, or who may be going on holiday.”
The weather also may not have helped: The day was rainy, the evening muggy.
But in a country where millions had protested for the ouster of the conservative President Park in 2016, Thursday’s modest numbers suggests that the mandate for an aggressive anti-Japan line may not be as strong as some media and online commentary suggests.
Moon himself had largely held back from Japan bashing in his Independence Day speech. After referring to independence movement figures, he said, “If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands. We will strive with Japan to create an East Asia that engages in fair trade and cooperation.
He focused on South Korea’s potential, urging his citizens to be diligent, confident and ambitious. He vowed to stick to globalized, open markets, to promote peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia, and to cooperate with North Korea to build a “peace economy” – a united market of 80 million Koreans.
However, he ended his speech on a pan-nationalist note, asserting that Korean unification would provide, “the road to overtake Japan.”