For months I have been peddling my vociferous obsession with Korea onto unsuspecting friends and colleagues. What began as an innocent foray into Japan’s lesser-known neighbour through the world of k-pop and k-dramas has developed into a fascinating journey into one of Asia’s most successful economies.
Delving into the story of Korea has led me to the proposition that Koreans are the Jews of Asia. Please halt before carting me off to the asylum. This theory is predicated upon a variety of comparisons ranging from economic factors to linguistics. If I had to summarise it, I would say that both cultures suffered terrible luck but managed to perserve through innovation.
In both the Korean and Hebrew languages, the word commonly used as a salutation or to say goodbye roughly translate to mean ‘peace’. In Hebrew, the word is ‘Shalom’ (peace) and in Korean, the word is pronounced ‘Annyeong’ (or Annyeon-haseo) which means ‘Are you at peace?’.
Both cultures were borne out of similarly humble beginnings. Koreans have traditionally been subject to the whims of the Chinese. Throughout their history, beginning in 108 BC with the Han emperor Wudi, various Chinese emperors and dynasties have conquered Korea. For hundreds of years, the land was intermittently divided between various Chinese rulers.
Between 1910 and until the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was annexed by Japan. The Korean emperor abrogated his powers to the Japanese emperor “completely and forever” and Korea became a colony of Japan. The annexation involved attempts by the Japanese to install widespread assimilation methods of Korean culture and language. In 1942, the governor-general of Korea organised for the arrest of a group of intellectuals who tried to create a Korean language dictionary.
Japan’s colonisation was also marked by aggressive – and successful – attempts by Japan to control Korea’s government and military. Japan’s rule over Korea had admittedly resulted in the modernisation of the country and improvements in education and infrastructure. However, it also resulted in widespread discrimination and subjugation suffered by Korean people under colonial rule.
Knowing this happened to Korea, as a Jewish person, it elicits much empathy from me. My people and culture have also often been through periods of attempted extermination. The Jewish culture and people have suffered extensively at the hands of oppressors. In Russia, a country where discrimination is perhaps not a novelty, Soviet Jews in the twentieth century were subject to violence, suppression of their religion, as well as forced assimilation and conformity to Russian culture. Across Europe at different times treatment of Jews as second or third class citizens — when granted citizenship at all — has historically been equally as pernicious.