Defund The Occupation: South Koreans and Korean Americans for Palestinian Rights

The Korean and Korean American Civil Society

We are a group of South Koreans and Korean Americans who have formed an international student and teacher organization and civil society to support The Palestinian Right to Self Determination. 

We support a two-state solution for diplomatic reasons while recognizing that it is a charade. We also understand that not all Palestinians support a two-state solution. We’re not here to quibble. Because the reality is that whether one is for a two-state or one-state solution, recognizing the basic rights of Palestinians, implementing international law, and allowing the democratic process to play out are the real goals. We understand that there is a global political and diplomatic process in resolving the conflict. We hope it is resolved in the global court of public opinion and through diplomatic channels like the Algerian case for independence. We also believe in The Right of Return for Palestinians as we do for all refugees. We believe that international humanitarian laws should apply to Palestinians. We do not believe in cherry-picking, buffet style from international laws. 

Contrary to numerous opinion pieces written by non-Koreans, South Koreans and Korean Americans do not have strong affinities to Israel or Jews (we do not conflate the two).  Nor do we with Palestinians. However, there are no published pieces by Palestinians making erroneous claims. For the most part, Koreans are not aware of the conflict. As such, most of us do not have strong opinions about the matter or the peoples involved. The small number of Koreans who are educated about the conflict have overwhelmingly become Pro-Palestinian rights and have demonstrated as such. We are aware that a very small percentage of Evangelical Koreans claim a strong allegiance to Israel. 

However, we want to make it clear that this is based on religious reasons, not cultural or political ones. There numbers are extremely small. Evangelical Christianity is not a major religious sect in South Korea. Of the 44% of South Koreans who profess a religion, less than 30% are Christian with the majority being Protestant or Catholic. Only a small percentage are evangelical and of that small percentage, only a few believe in the apocalypse. The fall out rate of second-generation Korean Americans from Christianity is extremely high. All this is to say that Christianity is a very new religion to Koreans and it is not deeply woven into our psyches or embedded into our cultural norms. Regardless, a Korean evangelical’s religiosity doesn’t override their sense of humanity. They will still listen to and can be swayed by presenting the humanitarian crisis aspects of the Palestinian cause. Korean evangelicals and Koreans in general simply do not vilify Palestinians or Muslims like Americans and Israelis do. Korean Christians believe that all children are children of God. They are aware of Palestinian Christians.

There are many articles about South Korea’s love affair with the Talmud. South Koreans are not reading the full Talmud. They are reading a 40 page or highly condensed version that is heavily laden with images. They are not reading the full version and certainly not participating in “Page of the Day” readings. South Koreans have both philo and antisemitic tendencies. Neither of which are deeply ingrained. Their interest in reading the Talmud is based on stereotypes of Jews as cunning, savvy, and successful. Since most South Koreans have never met a Jew, these stereotypes are not deeply ingrained. A Jewish or Israeli traveler to South Korea will not encounter anti-semitism. Quite the contrary, the chances of a positive reception are high.

We are also aware that the South Korean government advocates for Korean corporate interests in Israel. These business alliances do not represent the opinions of South Koreans or Korean Americans. The South Korean government’s foreign policy tends to be “friends with as many countries as possible.” Since the government’s foreign policies tend to be “soft”, most South Koreans don’t keep up with foreign policy decisions. However, we believe that when Koreans are educated about the Palestinian cause, the majority would be sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians and their suffering.

Koreans are not homogenous in our beliefs. Korean Americans are a self-selected group of immigrants and ex-pats, who do not represent the diversity of opinions that Koreans on the Peninsula have. Regardless, there are a few Koreanisms that override religion and socio-economic status. We offer some background and explanations for Pro-Palestinian advocates to use when stating their case to Koreans. 

  1. Japanese Occupation, The Korean Civil War (a proxy war between the U.S., Russia, and China), the cold war between North and South Korea, the race towards modernity, and the emergence of South Korea as a high tech country are the main forces that have shaped South Korean and Korean American identity in the past 120 years or so. 
  2. Koreans do not consider South and North Korea to be new nations in the sense of America or Israel. Koreans are native to the Peninsula. Koreans have continuously lived on the Peninsula for thousands of years as the sole or majority (over 96% of the population) ethnolinguistic group. The oldest known Korean pottery dates back to 8000 BC. South and North Korea represent one people who were divided by imperial interests into two nation-states. We are not proud of this. Many of us have relatives or friends who have relatives that they have not seen each other since the war. Families being torn apart through conflict is an extremely strong trigger for Koreans. 
  3. As ancient people with texts, Koreans respect other ancient people with texts such as Jews, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Chinese. Korean Christians recognize that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the same God. Neither of these tendencies means that Koreans have a greater affinity for any ancient people over other ancient people or people of the book. South Koreans and Korean Americans are not anti-Muslim like the U.S. or Israel. The South Korean government courts tourists from Muslim countries including Iran, a country that is vilified by both the U.S. and Israel. South Koreans who had contact with Turkish soldiers during the Korean War or with Muslims through jobs in the Middle East during the 1970s and 1980s generally have positive opinions about Muslims. 
  4. South Koreans and Korean Americans tend to be anti-colonial, anti-military intervention, and prefer diplomacy in foreign affairs. While not entirely true, Koreans pride themselves on never having invaded another country. Koreans as a whole pride themselves on never having colonized or subjugated another group of people. We cannot stress enough how anti-colonial Koreans are. 
  5. Koreans have a deep sense of having once been forgotten people during Japanese Occupation and The Korean Civil War. Koreans will retell the story of Japanese Occupation again and again. It is our “never forget.” Koreans have a deep understanding that colonizers do damage well beyond their expiration date. Japanese Occupation stole decades of progress and growth for Koreans. The end of Japanese Occupation invited in Super Powers that triggered a devastating war. Approximately one million Koreans were killed in labor camps during the Japanese occupation. Five million Koreans were killed during the Korean Civil War because it was a proxy war between super powers. Almost the entire Peninsula was decimated. If the Korean Civil War was a war fought between Koreans, it would have been at the level of sticks, stones, and arrows. The proxy war between super powers brought weapons of mass destruction and chemical warfare to the Peninsula and decimated 10% of the total population. It cannot be stressed enough that Koreans do not like super powers intervening militarily. Koreans can commiserate with Palestinians as forgotten people struggling for self-determination.
  6. South Koreans pride themselves on defensive military strategies, not offensive ones. In conflict resolution, it is very common for Koreans to ask, “Who started it?” Judgments against the instigator are often swift. Another common Koreanism is the idea of who came first. “We were here first,” “I have to get their first to stake my claim,” and “If you leave, you lose your place.” In the mind of Koreans, Palestinians have an unbroken, thousands of years old claim on their land nor did Palestinian refugees lose their stake for their land.
  7. David and Goliath. Collectively Koreans identify with David. This goes back thousands and thousands of years as Koreans view ourselves as people inhabiting a very small country surrounded by larger, more powerful countries. The idea that Koreans have constantly defended their right to self-determination is also another deeply ingrained Koreanism. Palestine is David and Israel/US is Goliath. South Koreans are not simple mindedly pro-America. Even Koreans who proclaim to be pro-America are not simple mindedly Pro-America. Koreans have ideas about less bad enemies, frenemies, and necessary allies. South Koreans fought and died for Democracy. South Korea has increasingly become a more progressive country while Israel and America have Netanyahu and Trump. We believe that South Koreans and Korean Americans will stand in solidarity with Palestinians and their right to self-determination once they are educated about the conflict. We believe that the South Korean government can be swayed to recognize The State of Palestine. If anything, South Korea will go with the global tide of public opinion which increasingly recognizes The State of Palestine, The Palestinian Right of Return, the recognition of basic human rights for Palestinians, and implementing international law in the region. The majority of the world and the majority of UN countries support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
  8. Almost 6 million Koreans were killed during Japanese Occupation and the Korean Civil War (Proxy War). Yet Koreans did not create narratives of invincible victimhood or Korean exceptionalism at the expense of another group of people. The obvious reason is that the Korean Peninsula has always belonged to Korean people as long as we have existed as a people. When North and South Korea were created as nation-states, indigenous people were not displaced. Koreans are the natives of the Korean Peninsula and there is no other group of people disputing this. Nor do Koreans use the death toll of Koreans to deny another group’s tragedy or rights. Koreans do not believe in our moral superiority because of our suffering nor do we believe that our suffering was a sign of divine favoritism. Quite the contrary, Koreans can be very existential about our suffering. Finally, Koreans do not believe that our suffering gives us license to create our own moral compass without censure from world conscience.
  9. Koreans are triggered by images and stories of children suffering regardless of the race or religious background of the child. Koreans generally do not dehumanize other groups of people. For example, South Koreans have sent significant aid to North Korea and Japan in times of humanitarian or natural crisis. Koreans love intact families. Speaking to Koreans about Palestinian children suffering and families being torn apart will trigger a great deal of compassion. Tell them stories of young Palestinian children who are essentially arrested in kidnapping fashion by Israeli soldiers. Tell them about young Palestinian schoolchildren wounded by Israeli sniper fire as they were on their way home from school. Safe access to education is a very important issue for South Koreans. South Koreans and Korean Americans associate these types of furtive acts with North Korea and military dictatorships. Please note that South Koreans are savvy about identifying military dictatorships as the country was ruled by one military dictatorship after another until the the late 1980s or even the early 1990s.
  10. Explain that Gaza is an open-air prison where Palestinians are deprived of basic rights, water, electricity, and health care. Older Koreans will remember when Korea was decimated by the Korean War and when South Korea was an extremely poor country. South Koreans will commiserate with Palestinians as oppressed people. Koreans favor underdogs to big powers. Koreans strongly identify with underdogs deeply in their hearts. Explain how Palestinian homes were destroyed and how Palestinians were displaced. Almost the entire Korean Peninsula was decimated during the Korean Civil War. Homes were destroyed and Koreans became refugees in their own homeland.
  11. Koreans understand multigenerational trauma. They have parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who lived through Japanese Occupation and the Korean Civil War. They have seen them sob as they remember the pain of Occupation and Civil War. Koreans can commiserate deeply with the multigenerational traumas of Palestinian families. 
  12. Approximately half of South Koreans are Buddhists with the remaining population having some Buddhist beliefs. Appealing to Buddhist organizations is a viable option for solidarity with Palestine. All major religions and folk beliefs co-exist peacefully in South Korea. There are Korean Muslims too. The idea that different religious groups are inherently in conflict will be alien and unacceptable to Koreans.
  13. Almost all Koreans can quickly understand the machinations, narratives, and operatives of settler colonialism because of Japanese Occupation. The Japanese tried to colonize the Korean Peninsula and create an Apartheid State of segregation and discrimination based on race. Koreans were discriminated against and often beaten for no reason. Korean parents tell their children not to cry when they are hit because it is a holdover from Japanese Occupation. Japanese soldiers would beat Koreans for no reason. Koreans trained themselves not to cry out in pain as a form of protest and mind game. It was a way to dehumanize their oppressors by letting them reveal themselves as monsters. Palestinian children being arrested for throwing stones and being abused by Israeli soldiers will ignite sympathy from Koreans.
  14. In 1978 South Korea refused to establish diplomatic ties with South Africa when it was an Apartheid State, precisely because it was an Apartheid State. South Korea severed all ties with South Africa in 1978 in protest of Apartheid. Diplomatic relations weren’t normalized between the two countries until 1992.
  15. Koreans understand how colonial settlers create narratives and propaganda before they invade. The Japanese government created a hate campaign against Koreans in order to pump up their military and citizens with hate for Koreans. Everyday citizens threw stones at and stabbed Korean effigies with knives. Please note that Koreans had not done anything to Japanese. Koreans understand how settler colonists create dehumanizing myths and how they’re perpetuated. They also understand how super powers cut deals with other super powers to maintain their stranglehold on a weaker country/people. Koreans are extremely suspicious of superiority myths that are used to subjugate another people and steal from them.
  16. Koreans understand how settler colonists erase native culture by renaming landmarks, public spaces, streets, monuments, and, historically important objects. They understand how space and land are taken an inch at a time. They understand racist laws and segregation policies. 5,400,000 Koreans were conscripted for labor by the Japanese during Occupation. Almost 1,000,000 were killed because of forced labor. Forcing people to live and work under conditions that drastically shortens their life spans is genocide an inch at a time.
  17. Under Occupation, Japanese seized Korean property, land, valuables, and even changed Korean given names and family names to Japanese names. The Japanese imposed arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement. Forcibly displaced Koreans for sport. They used harassment, abuse, and violence to break the will and minds of Koreans. They exploited Korean natural resources for their benefit. They stripped Koreans of their rights and status. They changed laws and institutions to deprive Koreans of their rights and culture. They burned Korean books and censored Korean. Palestinian Peace Network in Korea BDS South Korea

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