On September 6th 2020, a famous TikTok user by the name of Bella Poarch tweeted an apology directed at her Korean fans. The apology was in light of her then tattoo which bore a resemblance to the Rising Sun Flag, the flag of imperial Japan that continues to be used in a slightly modified version today by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Because the flag is viewed as a glorification of Japan’s wartime past, Korean fans of Poarch had voiced their opposition.
The tattoo that sparked the debate. Photo: Screenshot from TikTok
Yet after this, some comments went beyond criticism and started to attack Poarch’s Filipina-American background, calling the Philippines “a poor country” and its people “uneducated and small.” This prompted a wave of the hashtag #CancelKorea to trend on various social media platforms, as outraged Filipinos protested against blatant xenophobia and discrimination, reaching almost 30,000 posts in 6 hours. Counter-movements such as #SorryPhilippines and #CancelRacism showed numerous Korean netizens attempted to apologize and the two countries’ online users quickly ended the conflict.
To outsiders, it may seem surprising that the two countries would have a dispute in the first place as they share so much in common. Both nations are victims of colonialism, with Korea being colonized by Japan for 35 years and the Philippines being colonized by Spain, America and Japan for 381 years in total. Christianity is the major religion in both countries, with Catholicism making up 82.5% of the population of the Philippines, while Protestants make up a majority of religious people in Korea (although Atheists are a slight majority of the total population), making the two anomalies in East Asia along with Timor-Leste. And finally, both countries have embraced the American postcolonial world order, choosing to integrate their political, military and economic systems with that of Washington’s. In fact, a sizable Filipino contingent of 1,500 soldiers fought in the Korean War, contributing to the protection of South Korea’s democracy. Currently, large populations of both live in each others’ countries.
Differing historical narratives play a part in the argument. Many Koreans were surprised at how comparatively little the Japanese colonial memory is within Filipino society, despite the fact that both countries experienced colonial tragedies, such as being coerced into serving as wartime sexual slaves and brutally forced to relocate prisoners. Perhaps the difference between the two can be traced to our different histories. Unlike Korea which had a single polity occupying much of the Korean peninsula since 668 AD, the Philippines’ diversity can be seen in the numerous kingdoms that occupied the archipelago prior to Spanish colonization and subsequent unification of the islands. As a result, although proto-nationalism may have existed in Korea after the formation of a unitary state, Filipino nationalism emerged in the context of unification of the islands under a foreign power. Thus the two countries ended up having diverse perspective regarding colonization. Although it is a good opportunity to conduct intercultural dialogue in regard to colonial legacy between our two countries, it is up to Filipinos, not just Koreans, to decide for themselves whether this conversation is necessary.
Due to this nationalism, I often observe what can be called the weaponization of culture. This refers to culture becoming a nationalist asset as it is used to determine a country’s “power,” and as such must be protected at all costs. Bella Poarch’s tattoo, therefore, was interpreted as not only a historical offense but as an attack on the Korean culture that formed around that historical legacy of colonization. In Korea, the popularity of Korean culture, including music, tv shows, film, food and cosmetics among others has become a source of national pride. Yet the globalization of Korean culture and national prestige from the consumption of cultural products by foreign populations does not necessarily translate to respect and acceptance of those populations themselves. Although this lack of respect and acceptance can go both ways, there are reasons why this conversation must be had among Koreans in particular.
We often look to our rapid industrialization as a source of pride. Part of our uniqueness is that we were able to achieve a huge leap and became a developed country within a single generation. Those who grew up under Japanese colonization and the Korean War used to live in one of the poorest countries. Now, those Koreans are still alive and are currently living in the same county, yet Korea has already progressed into the 12th largest economy in the world. But instead of using this unique experience as a role model for the rest of the developing countries who share similar colonized and exploited past, we now engage in the same behaviors we were once subject to. For instance, Korean corporations take root in Southeast Asia, using the cheaper costs of labor as foreign companies once did with Korean laborers several decades ago. Korea’s power plants are built overseas at the cost of the local environment. Foreign migrant workers, as Korean overseas workers endured decades ago, are subject to xenophobia and discrimination. The most troubling issue, in my opinion, is the condescending and ignorant attitude many Koreans still have towards countries that are often the most welcoming of Korean culture and products.
This is alarming in terms of security as well. South Korea is effectively an island, as the northern half of the peninsula is occupied by Pyongyang. Yet excluding the US, Seoul has few real allies. The relationships with its immediate neighbors are tense at best, with frequent diplomatic disputes arising from historical and political conflicts. Beyond these countries, Southeast Asia is the closest region with close ties to Seoul and strong presence of Korean Wave. Yet how much longer will favorable views of Korea last if Koreans continue to build a coal plant in Indonesia against the will of the locals, beat Cambodian women who are married to Korean husbands, and insult Filipinos over different historical perspectives? Will the Korean Wave endure these constant aggressions? If it does eventually fade, who will be our friends then?
One of Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration goals is the New Southern Policy, which is designed to increase cooperation among Korea, the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India. Both Korea and ASEAN are middle powers with a history of Chinese, Japanese, and Western exploitation, meaning there is more potential for equal partnership and a shared future as a counterbalance to these forces. But instead of relying on the traditional aspects of economic investment and trade, it is now time for increased efforts for the people of Korea and ASEAN to solidify this government bond by recognizing each other as partners, and most importantly, as friends.