Koreans dream of revenge on Japan

IN APRIL, a South Korean television company showed a drama series in which a Korean travels to Japan and tries to assassinate the emperor. On the surface it was a soap opera fantasy, but it immediately drew an official protest from the Japanese ambassador in Seoul, and developed into a diplomatic incident.

What aggravated the Japanese most was that the television company, MBC, had used newsreel footage of Emperor Akihito's enthronement parade in 1990 in the drama. MBC blithely asserted that the whole story was fiction, and that political sensitivities between Seoul and Tokyo should not interfere with drama productions. But as the Japanese embassy knew well, the underlying intention of the drama was to tap into the strong anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea.

It is one of Asia's many paradoxes that its two most dynamic economies, Japan and South Korea, get on so badly. And although Japan's brutal colonisation of Korea ended 47 years ago, surveys indicate relations are getting worse. In February, 67 per cent of South Koreans surveyed said they disliked Japan, and only 18 per cent said their country should try to establish friendly relations with their former coloniser.

'Never in the last 10 years have relations between Japan and South Korea become so chilled,' said an editorial in Chosun Ilbo, one of Seoul's main daily papers, last month. 'Let's stop extending a hand to Japan,' the paper said. The level of ill-feeling and inflammatory rhetoric, much of it originating in Korea, does not augur well for the post-Cold War era in Asia, as the US scales down its military presence in a region seething with ethnic animosities.

Any Korean, from senior government official to the lowliest of farmers, can cite a long list of reasons for the country's dislike of its neighbour across the Sea of Japan. Japan has invaded Korea twice. For six years from 1592, Toyotomi Hideoshi laid waste to the Korean peninsula and deported thousands of Korean artisans back to Japan, where they became the leading potters and temple builders, a fact the Japanese rarely acknowledge today.

In 1910 Japan again took over the Korean peninsula, and for 35 years tried to absorb it into the Japanese empire, forcing the Koreans to speak Japanese and to assume Japanese customs.

The Japanese occupation became particularly oppressive after Tokyo's all-out invasion of Asia in the Second World War. A quarter of a million Koreans were deported to Japan as forced labourers, and between 100,000 and 200,000 Korean women were abducted to serve as prostitutes, or 'comfort women', for the Japanese army.

Since three former 'comfort women' sued the Japanese government for compensation last year, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have become even worse. That Japan still refuses to apologise outright for its wartime atrocities in general, and is reluctant to accept responsibility for the 'comfort women' in particular, infuriates the Koreans.

South Korea's resentment of Japan extends to the economic and military fields. Last year South Korea had a dollars 9bn ( pounds 4.5bn) trade deficit with Japan, even though Japanese cars and many electronic goods are banned in South Korea.

Seoul has often complained that Japan refuses to sell up-to-date technology to Korean companies seeking to modernise. Japanese companies privately argue that it makes no sense to help a potential competitor.

Seoul has been one of the main critics of Japan's decision to send its troops to Cambodia in October as part of the United Nations peace-keeping operations, breaking the post-war taboo on sending Japanese soldiers overseas. South Korea has linked this to other developments, such as a recent plan by the Japanese navy to expand its fleet to protect sea lanes outside Japan's territorial waters, to argue that Japan is on the verge of another military build-up.

Seoul has also expressed concern about Japan's intention to amass huge quantities of plutonium. Tokyo says this is strictly for electricity generation, but scientists in South Korea and elsewhere believe Japan could easily develop nuclear weapons technology if it chose to do so.

But perhaps most galling to the Koreans in their otherwise black portrayal of their neighbour is the grudging admiration for Japan's successful economic reconstruction, and South Korea's blatant attempt to mimic the Japanese model. Tokyo's policies of giving long-term support to strategic industries at the expense of consumers have all been faithfully copied by Seoul - albeit with a 10-year time lag due to the Korean war in the 1950s, and the ever-present technology gap.

Deep down, the Koreans know that shooting the Japanese emperor will not help them achieve their real goal: the economic Holy Grail of 'beating the Japanese', which fires the imagination of every economic planner in government and industry in the country.