• Timothy Han

Israel and Korea: the Long Shadow of the 20th Century

In 1948, two peoples, having escaped genocide by the Axis powers, declared the formations of their nations. In the eastern Mediterranean, Israel was born. In East Asia, South Korea came to be. Both nations became pro-Western military camps on the front lines of the Cold War. And for both peoples, victims of history, the 20th century imposed a single imperative: survive.


Linked by modern history, geopolitics, and faith, Israel and South Korea’s stories often mirror each other in ways that Americans rarely discuss, except in the narrow, foreign policy conversations of war hawks. Over the last year, while taking time off at home, I’ve been invited by friends to participate in some of Slifka’s Israel programming. Each time I fill out the application form for a seminar or conference, I’ve struggled to articulate why I want to learn more about Israel. I think perhaps I am curious because the story of Israel sounds like a broadly familiar story. As an American who is also a member of the Korean diaspora, I can understand the feelings of many of my American Jewish friends toward the idea of Israel: sorrow at the long 20th century, frustration with corrupt politicians governing the state, and simultaneous admiration for the ideal, if not the political reality, of what the state represented.


Of course, the comparison is not perfect. As evidenced from the above, I do not want to lionize or offer apologia for each state’s reality. But I do want to articulate what I’ve been considering over the course of the semester: those elements of each state’s national story that I find admirable. The modern success of both states, despite every adversity (Korea’s economic success is often dubbed “The Miracle of the Han River”), demonstrates a remarkable capacity on the parts of both peoples to persevere, to dream, and to sacrifice so that one’s children will live better lives than one’s own.


In the first half of the 20th century, the Nazi Empire began the Holocaust, a systematic campaign to destroy the Jewish people. Meanwhile, in Asia, the other great Axis power––the Japanese Empire––colonized Korea, and attempted to erase Korean personhood by mandating the use of Japanese names and language, criminalizing the teaching of Korean language and history, and kidnapping hundreds of thousands of girls to be raped in military camps. The list of atrocities by the Imperial Japanese Army is too long to recount.


But in 1945, after surviving the Holocaust and Japanese occupation, a bittersweet reward greeted both peoples. In the West, Germany had started World War II. Afterwards, the Allies partitioned Palestine. In the East, Japan had started World War II. Afterwards, the Allies partitioned Korea. In the state of Israel, the world crammed two nations into the space of one. In Korea, the world divided one nation into two. Almost immediately, Israel and South Korea, children of the post-World War II reshuffle, found themselves forced to defend their land against much better-equipped, Soviet-backed invading armies. What tragedy: to escape genocide and war, only to face an enemy intent on driving your friends and family into the sea.


And even after liberating themselves against their aggressors with American support, for what had these two peoples fought? Israel received the one patch of land in the Middle East without a drop of oil. South Korea, cut off from the fertile north, lost every natural resource the Korean peninsula held. Both states built up their military capacity with a mandatory draft and American arms. Both states developed their economic capacity by using education to build up their human capital and directing state-sponsored industrialization projects.



In Israel, the early generations of socialist immigrants organized kibbutzim to provide for the community while developing the arid countryside into a self-sufficient agriculture sector. The state channeled war reparations and bond revenue into subsidized development projects to establish energy and water independence, laying the foundation for Israel’s current robust market economy.


Meanwhile, in South Korea, the Park Chung Hee regime picked state-backed winners, subsidizing the costs of key companies to create monopolies that could compete at a global scale. These ‘chaebol’ became family-owned business empires that span the world: Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, and LG, to name a few. Both countries had to rebuild their peoples and states after a devastating genocide decimated their populations and a devastating war ruined the country. Both countries used state-backed, targeted investments to rapidly develop their economies in select industries.


Just as remarkable as the economic success itself was the fact that both nations had to develop their economies despite the financial burdens of maintaining powerful militaries. Each of them could have been invaded at any time. Israel has been in a continuous series of wars ever since its establishment. The Korean War, on the other hand, never ended. One is reminded of the story of Nehemiah’s harassed refugees hurriedly rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls with bricks in one hand and a spear in the other. Even today, Israel has the Iron Dome to protect against Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s rockets. South Korea has THAAD––nominally, at least––to protect against North Korea’s nuclear missiles.


Both nations are small republics backed up against the sea, surrounded by enemies, situated at the crossroads of empires ancient and modern. But, against all odds, both peoples persevered and succeeded. In just three generations, both Israel and South Korea have become wealthy, capitalist democracies and leaders in high-tech innovation.

For both countries, establishing economic self-reliance and a vibrant democracy in un-democratic parts of the world were also made possible in large part by a union of Abrahamic faith and tolerant pluralism. In Israel, secular socialists aligned with religious Zionists to work out a fraught and controversial but necessary framework for civil society. In South Korea, generations of Christian leaders and student radicals marched, arm in arm, against successive military juntas to fulfill their dreams of democracy.


It is a small miracle of national solidarity and American arms that Israel and South Korea not only survived, but have thrived in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. But, having achieved strength, both nations now face the problems of being a strong country. In Israel, a nation that was once militarily weak now finds itself strong. That strength brought the onus of responsibility. After first having been invaded by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, Israel has now invaded parts of all four countries it borders and remains the dominant power in an unending conflict with Palestine.


In South Korea, where, for a long time, economic survival was the only goal, the nation fed itself by spending state subsidies building up hegemonic titans of industry. Through an autocratic capitalism, South Korea survived. Now, having survived, a country that was once poor and now finds itself wealthy must deal with the second-order problem of how to equitably distribute that wealth. The antics of ‘chaebol’ heirs regularly spark outrage in a nation where most struggle to afford basic housing while a select few command the world’s 10th-largest economy.


For all their wealth, both Israelis and South Koreans face many of the same challenges. Young people in both countries face a late start to adult life, due to the time taken by mandatory military service and a common culture of pursuing higher education. Compounding the problems of a late start to professional life, young Israelis and South Koreans alike face exorbitant housing costs due to overcrowding. Israel and Palestine squeeze 9 million Israelis and 5 million Palestinians in a landmass smaller than Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the South Korean capital of Seoul squeezes 25 million people––three times the population of New York City––into one metropolitan area.



Finally, both nations face the fundamental problem of what happens when you have lived your entire life struggling to see tomorrow, and tomorrow has come. Israel has largely stabilized its position on the global map, including normalizing relations with a majority of Arab states and even securing an alliance with Saudi Arabia and regional partners against Iran. South Korea, after 40 years of successive military juntas, now has a vibrant democracy. Despite widespread corruption, that democracy was resilient enough to formally prosecute most junta leaders and even to impeach and imprison two Presidents within the last five years. The fact that everyday South Koreans were able to expose the corruption and punish the wrongdoing of two Presidents demonstrates that the democratic process does work.


Both countries are now nations in conflict about how they should conceive of themselves. In Israel, the strengthening of religious Zionist parties in the national government, especially under Prime Minister Netanyahu, has reignited a conflict once thought resolved by David Ben Gurion’s deal with the ultra-orthodox minority. The high birthrates of ultra-orthodox families (6.5 children per woman) and comparatively low birth rates of secular families (2.1 children) signal that a once-secular, socialist state may become a firmly right-wing, religiously Zionist state.


Meanwhile, in South Korea, after years of suffering under Japanese suppression, Christianity exploded in popularity after the end of World War II, going from 8% of national religious share in 1950 to 26% in 1995. This rapid growth, alongside the prominence of Christian leaders in the Korean independence and democratization movements, seemed to signal a Christian, capitalist, democratic future. But since 1995, Christian faith has largely stagnated, and may even be in decline, after church scandals and the common secularization of capitalist economies. In addition to questions of religious character, generational transition has also changed attitudes toward reunification with North Korea. In South Korea’s early history, the pens of Moscow and DC bureaucrats separated a country that had been united for 1300 years. But today, after 75 years of violent history, most young South Koreans no longer wish to reunify with North Koreans and no longer see their cousins across the border as part of the same nation. Moreover, after being a consistent ally of the United States, South Korea now has to confront the geopolitical reality of a rising China. 30,000 US soldiers garrison South Korea, but neighboring China is its largest trading partner, by far. The idea of unified Korean nationhood and South Korea’s status as an American bulwark in the East, once unshakable dogma, are both being challenged.


For both Israel and South Korea, birthed in warfare and raised under the constant threat of invasion, surviving was the only goal. Now that they have not only survived the latter 20th century, but thrived, what will the 21st century bring?



Timothy Han is a rising junior ('22+1) in Silliman College, majoring in Comparative Literature. On campus, he is involved in the Tour Guides program, Political Union, and Christian Union.


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