Unraveling the enigma: Why have South Korea and Japan struggled with political violence?
Published: Jan 03, 2024 05:48 PM
South Korea's opposition leader Lee Jae-myung is rushed to hospital after being stabbed in the neck during a visit to the southeastern port city of Busan on January 2, 2024. Photo: VCG

South Korea's opposition leader Lee Jae-myung is rushed to hospital after being stabbed in the neck during a visit to the southeastern port city of Busan on January 2, 2024. Photo: VCG

The leader of South Korea's main opposition party Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck on Tuesday in the city of Busan. After the assassination attempt, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered his government to carry out a quick investigation of the attack and provide support for Lee's medical treatment, emphasizing that "this form of violence should not be tolerated under any circumstances in our society." 

Politicians being attacked have become a frequent occurrence in South Korea in recent years, with notable cases involving Park Geun-hye and Song Young-gil. Similarly, Japan has also witnessed instances of political violence, such as the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in Nara in July 2022, and an attack on current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in April 2023.

Some are wondering what happened to Japan and South Korea. Japan once created the "myth of security" in Asia, while South Korea is striving to become a global hub in terms of democratic values. Why has political violence become a common occurrence in two of the most developed economies in Asia? 

Looking thorough the post-war evolution of Japan and South Korea in economic development, diplomatic characteristics, political trends, social polarization and even social psychology, the spate of political violence in Japan and South Korea may be related to the following three major changes.

First, social fissures give rise to increased antagonism. Japan's 30-year-long economic downturn and South Korea's heavy reliance on an export-oriented economic development model for many years have both led to a high degree of wealth concentration among large corporations and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. This polarization, in the context of multi-party politics and different interest groups, has caused a tendency of political indifference among young people. They are disillusioned with politics and disappointed with distorted social fissures. 

This is reflected in the tug-of-war between the political power of neoconservatives and the underclass with increased demands in Japan, and in the tit-for-tat between the conservative and the liberal-progressive camps with comparable strength in South Korea. The antagonism of different political camps also directly leads to the spread of antagonism from the top to the bottom, and the accumulation of such antagonism, once combined with the genes of Japan and Korea that have a history of frequent political violence, sows the seeds of paranoid thinking. The people want a fair society, and when they don't see change they resort to violence.

In other words, if politics cannot effectively address issues such as wealth inequality and social justice, society is prone to further polarization and the emergence of violent tendencies.

Second, political alienation leads to the distortion of nationalism. In the post-war period, due to the rapid economic growth of Japan and South Korea, they made many concessions in political diplomacy to the US and Europe, even actively relying on alliances like the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances, thus achieving the "economic miracle" in Asia and the "miracle on the Han River" successively. However, in recent years, facing prolonged economic downturns, Japan and South Korea are confronted with demands for economic transformation, political reorientation, and societal changes. Simultaneously, they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of reduced diplomatic independence, political autonomy and a decline in their ability to address public sentiment. Reliance on external alliances in diplomacy and endless political polarization has given rise to the transformation of new conservatism and new nationalism in Japan and South Korea, which has become a breeding ground for activating extremism.

Third, society is psychologically impacted by the emergence of new social groups. Despite the economic success achieved by Japan and South Korea, both countries are recognized as facing significant pressures in East Asia and globally. They are confronted with challenges such as high suicide rates, an increasing number of people suffering from depression, difficulties for vulnerable groups to survive, and a high frequency of extreme events in society. In Japanese and Korean societies, there is a growing number of individuals who feel socially isolated, experience work-related stress, and struggle with depression, which ultimately leads to dangerous behaviors. Among those dissatisfied with the government's domestic and foreign policies, some extremists even form new criminal groups known as lonely crimes, intentional individual crimes, or absurd crimes. Some lone-wolf crimes specifically target politicians, aiming to shock society, spread alternative viewpoints and garner societal support. All this has highlighted the distorted changes in the social psyche of Japan and South Korea.

Regardless of the society, extreme violent events like the attack on Lee Jae-myung and the assassination of Japanese former prime minister Shinzo Abe are unacceptable. For Japan and South Korea, in addition to condemnation, there is much to be done to prevent the frequent occurrence of violent political events and eliminate the societal conditions that foster violent tendencies.

The author is a researcher at the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and the chief expert of the Northeast Asia Strategic Research Institute. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn