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South Korea: Old Feuds Forgotten as Koreans React to Japan Quake

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

As Japan faces the growing possibility of radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, damaged by the earthquake on March 11, 2011, fears grow in its closest neighboring country, South Korea. Among the 910,000 South Koreans who live in Japan, two have been confirmed dead although many more went missing during the quake.

Forgetting old feuds between the two countries, South Korean bloggers and tweeps have expressed both deep concern and support for Japan in its time of crisis. Harsh criticisms meanwhile have been leveled at Korean media for aggravating the already grave situation.

Google Earth Image showing Japan and Korea. Fukushima nuclear power plant location is marked 'A'.

Google Earth Image showing Japan and Korea. Fukushima nuclear power plant location is marked 'A'.

Fear and rumors

There are about 1,300 kilometers between the Fukushima plant to South Korean capital Seoul. Local and international experts have speculated that a catastrophic meltdown at the plant might affect adjacent countries including South Korea, China and Taiwan.

Reflecting public fears of possible radiation leaks, a tweet briefly circulated on March 16, warning that the radiation fallout would reach the Korean peninsula by 4 pm. This was later proven to be a false report, with some even speculating [ko] that the rumor was intentionally spread by financial companies wishing to gain profits by sudden shifts in the stock markets.

Tweeps quickly corrected the bogus message. Kim Jin Seop (@ohappyda) tweeted [ko]:

[...]기상청 이름으로 “4시 이후 외출 자제”라는 문자가 발송되고 있다고 합니다.근거없는 소문이며,기상청에서는 문자를 발송하지 않았습니다.주변분들에게 전달 부탁드립니다. 무한RT!!!”

[...] Text messages which read “Refrain from going outside after 4 pm.” which looked like they were from the Korea Meteorological Office were sent. It is a groundless rumor. The Meteorological Office has never sent any message. Please pass this tweet around. RT it to infinity!!

Between March 12-13, Koreans were speculating on a rumor claiming that “foreigners” were looting stores in Japan (referring to Koreans, in some cases). This brought back unpleasant recollections of the 1923 Kanto earthquake in Japan, whereby malicious rumors and news reporting led to Koreans being falsely accused of poisoning wells and committing arson and robbery. Nearly 7,000 Koreans were slaughtered as a result and many were raped, around Tokyo and Yokohama.

Old feuds forgotten

Poster encouraging donations by KFHI (Korea Food for Hungry International).

Poster encouraging donations by KFHI (Korea Food for Hungry International).

Besides official donations made by organizations such as Red Cross Korea, numerous voluntary donations have been made online by South Koreans in support of Japan. A donation page on the Daum Agora website has already raised around 80 million Korean won (about USD 70,000).

The page states that, “though the emotional distance between Japan and Korea is quite far”, it is still “so painful to watch that these people's lives collapsed into rubbles in fleeting seconds and we can feel their fear when we saw the tsunami rushing over to their villages.”

A student living in Urayasu, in Japan's Chiba prefecture for four years, shared his experience [ko] of the quake and tried to persuade fellow Koreans set aside the old feud between the two countries. His post was viewed more than 50,000 times within just a few days.

When it was also posted [ko] on Nate Pann, another popular Korean public forum, young people wrote down their phone numbers and real names to request to volunteer to help:

정말 이럴때야 말로 “죽지 않고 꼭 살아돌아갈께요” 라는 약속을 드리고 싶네요. [...] 이 일본땅에사는 선량한 시민들이 너무나도 많이 죽었습니다. 제 여자친구의 시누이 가족도 연락두절 상태입니다. 한국에서 인터넷에 댓글 남기시는거 이곳에 여러분 일본이 과거에 많은 만행을 저지르고,독도영해권 등 많은 잘못을 저질렀지만 아직도 일본이 나쁜도시만은 아닙니다. 저도 2년간 살았지만 정말 좋은도시입니다. 사람들도 따뜻한 사람들이였구요.[...] 저도 오늘 오후 4시 쯤 도쿄에서 차를타고 이바라키 – 오아라이 쪽으로 이동하며 피난민 및 사망자 넋을 기리기 위하여 자원봉사를 떠날 예정입니다. 그 이후로 후쿠시마,센다이 미야기 쪽으로 이동하려고 합니다. 이 카페에서도 많은 일본거주 유저분들이 있는것으로 압니다. 그분들에게도 힘내시라는 말씀 하나 전해드리고싶습니다.

I will promise you that “I will return alive”. [...] So many good people have died here in Japan. My girlfriend's relatives’ whereabouts are still unclear. Some Korean net users have written comments reminding people of terrible acts the Japanese committed in the past and how they have constantly claimed the Dokdo islands territory. But still it is not all bad. I have stayed in this good city for two years, and people have been nice. [...] Starting from 4 pm, I will drive from Tokyo to Ibaraki, Oarai to work voluntarily. During the journey, I will comfort the refugees and console the spirits of the dead. Next, I will travel to Fukushima, Sendai and Miyagi. I know that there are many net users from this site who will stay in Japan. I want to say ‘courage to all'.

Besides the legacy of crimes - sex slave practices, experiments on human, torture and massacres – committed during the Japanese military rule, the Dokdo island issue has also fueled endless rifts and tensions between the two countries. Choi Min Jun, a student interested in the Dokdo issue, publicly asked respected South Korean singer Kim Jang Hoon, who spearheads the anti-Japan Dokdo campaign, about his stance on the 2011 earthquake disaster.

Choi said that some net users had called him a ‘pro-Japanese traitor’ when he criticized some comments that saying Japan had deserved the disaster. Kim, after rebuking those insensitive comments as “something that should not be happening in real world”, posted [ko] an article on his Cyworld page entitled ‘Pray for the Japanese People':

제가 독도를 사랑하고 동해를 주장한다고 해서 일본을 싫어하지도 일본사람을 미워하지도 않습니다. 그 일에 대해 우리는 다른 길을 가고 있을뿐. 합리적으로,순리적으로 역사적으로,그 일을 해결하면 되는것이지. 무턱대고 사람이 사람을 미워하는건 아니라고 생각하구요.  저 또한 일본의 지진피해 소식을 듣고 맘이 너무 너무 아팠습니다. 내가 무언가 할수 없나..도 생각해보았구요..진지하게. [...] 한국과 일본은, 급변하고 요동치는 세계사회에서 결국은 함께 손을 잡고 헤쳐 나아가야하는 이웃나라이자 동반자가 아닌가..하는 생각에서입니다.  호사카교수님도 말씀하셨지만, 한일이 그렇게 되기 위한 관계에서 독도문제는 가시입니다. 그 가시를 빨리 뽑고 함께 친구처럼 지냈으면 하는 바람입니다.

The fact that I love Dokdo and stick to the name ‘East Sea’ does not mean that I hate Japan and Japanese people. It simply shows that we Korean and Japanese, taking different stances. What we need to do is to solve this problem reasonably, logically and with historical accuracy, rather than blindly hating people from Japan. I also feel very upset to hear the news about the Japanese earthquake. I am seriously thinking of measures to help Japan. [...] In the rapidly changing modern world, Korea and Japan are neighbors and partners who should hold hands and walk together. As mentioned by Professor Hosaka, the Dokdo issue is clearly a thorn which (blocks the path) to friendship. I hope we remove that thorn as early as possible and become friendly towards each other.

Korean media criticized

An engineering professor and Twitter user @funguypph published [ko] one of his pupil's tweets, which openly criticized the Korean mainstream media's reporting style, while praising the calm and reassuring tone of Japanese reports. The pupil was near Tokyo when the earthquake hit:

슬퍼서 당장 죽을 상황이 아니라 앞으로 헤쳐나갑시다. 우리 모두 하나입니다 라는 방송이 너무 부럽네요. 끔찍한 생방송은 모두 보여주면서도 끝까지 국민들을 안심시키려는 자상함은 정치가 개인이 아닌 나라에서 느껴졌습니다. 우리나라 뉴스에서는 마치 SF영화를 보는듯한 긴박감이 느껴지는 배경음악과 지나친 줌인 화면으로 자극시키는 반면, 여기는 책임자가 밤샘 잠도 안자고 정기적으로 나와 발표를 하고 있습니다. 정말 그 책임자의 건강이 걱정이 될 정도입니다. 겨우 한국구조대 5 명과 개 2 마리를 보내놓고 전세계에서 가장 빨리 보냈다고 으시대는 한국언론이 밉기만 합니다.

Japanese media encouraged people by conveying messages such as 'It is not the time be saddened to the death. We, together, need to get through this'. This makes me all envious. Though they showed all the disasterous images via live broadcast, but they never forgot to reassure people. Korean news coverage was sensationalist, with background music which might have been used in a sci-fi film to increase suspense and extra zoom-ins. Here in Japan, by contrast, one person in charge will be making a regular report on the situation without ever going to sleep. I am really worried about their health. Korean media condescendingly announced that they will dispatch five relief workers and two search dogs and they said that this was the fastest reaction measure taken in the world. This kind of media coverage is detestable.

Korean media, especially mainstream conservative media outlets, are infamous for their over-dramatization of events. When North Korea shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong island back in November 2010, they published extremely provocative headlines along with heavily photoshopped images to make the situation look worse than it was.

On March 12 and 13, some Korean television stations rather insensitively reported that the quake would affect Hallyu (Korean wave) showbusiness through a slowdown in Japanese consumption. This sparked mass criticism from South Koreans and even led some people to encourage a boycott of the media companies’ sponsors.

Celebrity supporters

Many South Korean movie and music stars who have gained huge popularity in Japan have made generous donations to the quake relief efforts. South Korean actor Bae Yong-jun pledged 1 billion won (USD 900,000) to a relief organization in Japan, whilst Kim Hyun-joong, a young actor/singer donated 100 million won (USD 90,000).

Actors Lee Byung-hun, Ryu Si-won and Song Seung-hun also made donations and KARA, a girl group who recently had a hit in Japan, posted hand-written letters (both in Japanese and Korean) on their official website. Korean boy band JYJ, popular in Japan, have posted a video of support.

Ordinary Koreans, though they cannot afford such huge donations, are looking for practical ways to help Japan, and are desperately praying for the Fukushima plant employees working around the clock to minimize radiation leaks for the sake of people across East Asia.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

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