South Korea’s Will to Power – The Story of the Shrimp and the Whales

Korea has an old saying about a shrimp between two whales - but Korea is no longer a shrimp (Image by Michael Roy)

[su_heading]Historically, when describing their geostrategic position between China and Japan, Koreans have a saying: “A shrimp’s back breaks in a fight among whales.” But is Korea still a shrimp?[/su_heading]

Who doesn’t love a good proverb? A pleasant bit of pith that crystallizes even the most complex issue into a neat little package we can easily wrap our heads around. Every culture has them, and Korea is no different.

Those of us reared in the West will quickly identify most Korean proverbs with those passed down along our own lineage. When there are too many boatmen, the boat goes to the mountain is basically the same as “Too many cooks in the kitchen”; Better in the grave than be a slave sounds a lot like “Live free or die”; and If you speak of the tiger, it will come is essentially “Be careful what you wish for.”

One of the more interesting Korean proverbs is the adage, Goh-rae-ssah-oom-ae-sae-oo deung-teo-jin-dah, or, “A shrimp’s back breaks in a fight among whales.”

That is to say that, over the millennia, Koreans have been locked in an ongoing struggle with their larger and more powerful neighbors, Japan and China; struggles in the form of attacks and occupation, as a partner in unequal treaties or as staging ground for battles between the two.

Though scholars point out that Koreans have suffered no more than most, it’s fair to say, if you’ll pardon the patchwork of proverbs, that Koreans have long had to swallow the bitter pill of coming up on the short end of the stick when dealing with aggressive straws that break the shrimp’s backs.

“Peace cannot be secured with words. It can only be maintained when backed up by power that is sufficient to punish the forces breaking the peace. We have sufficient power to defend ourselves.”

From Jurchen and Khitan nomads attacking from the north to Japanese pirates on the coasts to the devastating late 16th-century invasion by Japan’s General Hideyoshi that for seven years cut a swath from Busan to Seoul, the soils of Korea have absorbed their share of blood and destruction. (Interestingly, were it not for the havoc wrought on Hideyoshi’s navy by the brilliant naval strategies of admiral Yi Sun-shin, it might very well be Apple suing Sony rather than Samsung.)

Just under 30 years later, in 1627 and 1637, successive blitzkrieg-style invasions fielded by China’s Manchu rulers reestablished the Sino-Korean tribute system that had existed between them in differing forms and kingdoms since the 5th century. This arrangement was finally broken by the Japanese in 1895 following their victory in the first Sino-Japanese war. It was not a war of liberation, but rather the initial step in the total annexation of Korea in 1910.

Five years of nominal independence following the Japanese defeat in 1945, was followed by the Korean War, a ruinous proxy conflict between the American, Soviet and Chinese whales that, at war’s end, left a divided and devastated peninsula with a fully independent Republic of Korea at its southern end.

From the 60’s through the €˜90’s, there was little in the way of threats from their Chinese neighbors who, along with Korea itself, were busy trying to rebuild themselves. And to the east there stood a Japanese democracy reigned in by a pacifist constitution and a public wary of anything other than economic empire.

The Turning of the Shrimp

Fast-forward to the turn of our present century: old contentions with Japan once again flare up with territorial disputes over the tiny group of islets known internationally as Liancourt Rocks, as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan. Even the water surrounding the Korean-administered islets is disputed, with Koreans calling it the East Sea, while most maps label it the Sea of Japan.

Seoul has made moves to back up its defiant war of words with its former colonial occupier with an increasing show of strength. In doing so they are rapidly departing from six decades of maintaining the status quo encouraged by their American ally.

In 2005, in response to continued badgering by right-wing Japanese activists laying claims on Dokdo/Takeshima (with Tokyo’s tacit approval), then-president Roh Mu-hyun gave a speech benchmarking a new, terse diplomatic tone with Korea’s neighbors to the east.


Peace cannot be secured with words. It can only be maintained when backed up by power that is sufficient to punish the forces breaking the peace, Roh said, adding, We have sufficient power to defend ourselves.

To underline this bold stance, Seoul sent four air force fighters to intercept a Japanese plane, which Korean radar picked up flying towards the disputed isles. Roh’s firm response marked a renunciation of Seoul’s standard of quiet diplomacy regarding dealings with Japan.

While the outside world might catch the occasional headline about the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute and think to themselves, Geez, it’s just a bunch of rocks, these rocks are not only home to resource-rich waters, but also a fair share of historical baggage.

As Kookmin University professor Hyun Dae-song told a group of reporters in Tokyo last August:

Any claim by Japan toward the Dokdo Islands is seen like an invasion and reminds Koreans of Japanese colonial rule.

Following the emboldened tenure of President Roh, was the even more aggressive presidency of current Blue House resident Lee Myung-bak. While adhering to a more stringent path than the left-leaning Roh in dealing with North Korea, Lee has remained in lockstep with his predecessor’s defiant stand against Tokyo.

Over the summer, Lee became the first Korean president to visit the disputed islands €”inflaming relations with his Japanese counterparts. Further raising tensions, Lee insisted that Japan’s revered Emperor Akihito must sincerely apologize for his country’s colonial occupation before he would be allowed to visit Seoul again.

In the carefully worded art of diplomacy, Lee let it rip: If he wants to visit Korea, he should visit the deceased independence fighters here and sincerely apologize to them, Lee said. If he would come here with [vague] words of regret, there is no need for him to come.

He went on to stress that ‘victimizers can forget the past, victims cannot. *

Walking the Walk

Seoul has made moves to back up its defiant war of words with its former colonial master with an increasing show of strength. In doing so they are rapidly departing from six decades of maintaining the status quo encouraged by their American ally (the orca).

This emboldened strategic move has been dubbed the Defense Reform Plan 2020, a government initiative that will increase military spending by 11.1 percent annually through 2015, and just over seven percent through 2020, totaling roughly US$556 billion.

Following the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan and artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, the Lee administration introduced Defense Reform 307, a spending package more narrowly aimed at medium- to long-term defense requirements to counter North Korea.

While Seoul’s roughly $30 billion in current annual military expenditures seems small in light of Japan’s $60 billion or China’s reported $143 billion, it does represent nearly three percent of South Korean GDP, compared to one percent for Japan and two percent for China.

While strategic Realists would applaud Korea’s moves, it’s one thing to present yourself as a regional power and yet another for your neighbors to recognize you as one.

As China and Japan face off over their own territorial claims in increasingly blunt diplomatic fashion, historical sensibilities would lead one to conclude that Korea could, once again, get caught up in the middle. But for contemporary Korea, well-armed and newly confident, this might not be the case. And while China will likely never fear South Korean military might, Japan has recently started to acknowledge it.

In a historic first last June, Tokyo and Seoul announced a landmark military pact dubbed the General Security of Military Information Agreement. The stated intent of the deal was to increase the sharing of classified military data regarding both of their major common concerns: North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s increasing military might.

The move was applauded by military analysts worldwide as an obvious fit.

Then came a call from the attendant at historical baggage claim: the South Korean public erupted in protest that the unpopular Lee administration would have the gall to make such a deal with Japan, a country that popular polls rank an even greater threat than their neighbors to the north who, within an eight-month span in 2010, sunk a naval vessel, while killing 46 on board, and shelled a civilian-inhabited island.

The opposition party, who all along knew that the information sharing pact was being brokered, quickly seized on public sentiment. Rather than educating the populace of the prudence in signing the pact, they instead rallied against the partnership between Tokyo and Seoul. It is, after all, a presidential election year on the peninsula.

While there is well-earned Blue House braggadocio tied to the newly minted position of strength, whichever party takes the helm next February would be wise to work with others (including Japan) against common enemies.

Some suggest that if neither Tokyo or Seoul can walk back the nationalist pot they’ve stirred, then sealing the militarily-essential pact in secrecy might be just the right remedy.

‘What we don’t want for sure is for this agreement to go up and be shot down and become a cause célèbre for nationalistic politics inside South Korea and Japan, said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program, in a June interview with World Politics Review.

I would encourage these governments to do the same things they would do under the pact secretly until they can get the public support they need, which may not come until after the election.’

Until then, Cronin adds, we are living dangerously.

We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out with the former ‘shrimp’ and its long adversarial whale to the east. Be they brought together over a nuclear North Korea or concerns over China’s widening net.

Illustrations for Haps by Michael Roy. See more of his work at:

*It should be noted that the Emperor expressed his willingness to apologize, though nothing has yet come of it.





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