Is South Korea Leaning Toward China? Questioning the Contemporary Application of the Japanese Narrative About the Historical Korean Peninsula–China Linkage

Seung Hyok Lee, Wooyeal Paik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The Japanese often frame the history of East Asia in a “Japan versus China” dichotomy, and they have long embraced a “national narrative” that emphasizes the linkage between the Korean Peninsula and China in the traditional Confucian worldview. The narrative asserts that the peninsula has been culturally and geopolitically “attached” to China, and it has served as an important ideational backdrop to Japan's positioning in the changing regional security environment. In this article, we analyze the origin and contents of the Japanese national narrative, and examine how it has influenced both the Japanese view of the peninsula and policy-making. We focus on how it has reemerged in the post-Cold War and the rising China era, and how it has been particularly applied to frame current South Korea–China relations. We then turn to analyze whether contemporary South Korean policies toward China offer evidence in support of the narrative. We conclude that the Japanese concern that South Korea could eventually “get pulled into China's orbit” is a highly unlikely scenario, and that the Japanese narrative exhibits a time lag in incorporating contemporary factors into its historically generated storyline. South Korea's understanding of regional politics is intrinsically different from that of the pre-modern periods, and its relations with China are more complex than this particular Japanese narrative would suggest. Its interactions with China are guided by contemporary economic, political, and sociocultural considerations about the national interest, and the reality of the divided peninsula in the post-Cold War period.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)237-259
Number of pages23
JournalPacific Focus
Volume33
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Aug 1

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South Korea
narrative
China
cold war
Japan
worldview
scenario
politics
history
interaction
evidence
economics

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations

Cite this

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abstract = "The Japanese often frame the history of East Asia in a “Japan versus China” dichotomy, and they have long embraced a “national narrative” that emphasizes the linkage between the Korean Peninsula and China in the traditional Confucian worldview. The narrative asserts that the peninsula has been culturally and geopolitically “attached” to China, and it has served as an important ideational backdrop to Japan's positioning in the changing regional security environment. In this article, we analyze the origin and contents of the Japanese national narrative, and examine how it has influenced both the Japanese view of the peninsula and policy-making. We focus on how it has reemerged in the post-Cold War and the rising China era, and how it has been particularly applied to frame current South Korea–China relations. We then turn to analyze whether contemporary South Korean policies toward China offer evidence in support of the narrative. We conclude that the Japanese concern that South Korea could eventually “get pulled into China's orbit” is a highly unlikely scenario, and that the Japanese narrative exhibits a time lag in incorporating contemporary factors into its historically generated storyline. South Korea's understanding of regional politics is intrinsically different from that of the pre-modern periods, and its relations with China are more complex than this particular Japanese narrative would suggest. Its interactions with China are guided by contemporary economic, political, and sociocultural considerations about the national interest, and the reality of the divided peninsula in the post-Cold War period.",
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