25.07.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

An unprecedented level of anti-Semitism in South Korea?

345авыSimilar headlines described reactions to the May issue of the Japanese magazine The Diplomat which contained an article with what seemed like devastating information – 53% of the South Korean population is anti-Semitic! This is shown in the survey titled ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an American human rights organisation which monitors anti-Semitism and other types of discrimination towards Jewish people. The ADL has been conducting similar research in the US for the last 50 years, but the present survey was based on 53,100 interviews with adults in 102 countries and was dubbed the first comprehensive analysis of the level and intensity of anti-Semitic feelings worldwide.

The survey was based on the principle which is widely used in the US for any research of this type. Respondents needed to answer which of the 11 questions they felt were true or false. Afterwards, those who answered “true” or “probably true” to 6 or more questions were deemed to hold anti-Semitic feelings. Here are the questions:

  • Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their country of residence
  • Jews have too much power in the business world
  • Jews have too much power in international financial markets
  • Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust
  • Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind
  • Jews have too much control over global affairs
  • Jews have too much control over the United States government
  • Jews think they are better than other people
  • Jews have too much control over the global media
  • Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars
  • People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave

The results (available here) show that a majority of the respondents from South Korea answered “true” to questions 1-3, 6, 8 and 9, while an astounding 65% answered “probably true” to the first question.

Is this a terrible thing worthy of an uproar? On the contrary, it gives us a reason to analyse what’s behind these figures, for it is enough to compare this survey’s results for South Korea (53%) to the same survey conducted in Russia (30%) and Ukraine (38%) to see that the results are certainly a bit odd.

Firstly, there are several issues with the survey itself. Even if we allow that all of the nuances in the “too much” questions were accurately translated into Korean, not all of the positive answers to those questions can be interpreted as anti-Semitism. For example, for me, an affirmative answer to #8 in the way it is written is not a sign of anti-Semitism.

It should also be pointed out that the statements which reflect true anti-Semitism (4, 5, 10, 11) were not supported by most Koreans.

Furthermore, the difference between the answers “true” and “probably true” was not accounted for, even though the first option usually denotes things you are sure of, while the second option points to a dependence on discourse and not a personal opinion. Personally, I would be very interested in seeing the exact percentage for separate answers, as the seeming simplification here backfires and instead complicates the understanding of the real situation.

Moreover, 53,100 respondents from 102 countries are roughly 500 people per country, and it is unclear how representative is this sample.

Secondly, the survey authors did not account for the Korean unfamiliarity with Jewish history and culture. The history of the western countries, and even that of the Second World War, is virtually skipped over in Korean schools. There is practically no craze for Jewish music or interest in Jewish culture, while the topic of the Holocaust has been replaced by constantly droning on about the crimes committed by the Japanese colonial regime (which occupies the niche of fascist Germany within the state myth). Judaism is known mostly as a support structure for foreigners and the Koreans who have undergone the giyur are few and far between. This means that questions formulated for a European or an American, who know more about Jews by default, could very well not be properly understood by the Koreans.

From a foreign policy standpoint, it could be noted that until a certain time, South Korea was on more friendly terms with the Arab countries from where it imported oil and where many Korean construction workers were employed, while relations with Israel began much later.

People in South Korea don’t know virtually anything about the Jews except for those who they may have encountered in the Bible. Let’s not forget that South Korea is one of the most Christianised countries in the region, so it is possible that when answering the survey, some respondents were guided by what the prophets said about the people of Israel.

It was no accident that in the comments to the article, the magazine noted that Jews for the average Korean are like the Australian natives to an average American – something completely outside of their “mental map”. Naturally, in this situation, when people are asked to offer their opinion on a topic like this, they could not have a pre-existing opinion already formed. Kinda smart, kinda rich, they say they rule over everything somewhere…

There are true anti-Semites in South Korea, for sure, but they belong to small Protestant sects which are greatly removed from true Christianity. Remember that even the notorious Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon proclaimed that Jews lost the right to be the chosen people ever since the new Messiah was born in Korea (meaning Moon). Moreover, 40 years of suffering endured by the Korean people under the Japanese yoke certainly exceed the 2,000 years of ordeals suffered by the Jewish diaspora, including the Holocaust. Another Protestant preacher also tried to argue that the Koreans are the Jews, the lost tribe, who changed their race from their long journey and arduous climate.

Thirdly, accounting for Korea’s own stance on relationships with the diaspora, the focus on nurturing loyalty towards South Korea and perceiving your host country as nothing more than a host country, similar Jewish behaviour is perceived as “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”. We can recall a whole slew of scandals on the matter between South Korea and China, a veritable “Koreagate” like the 1970s in the US, when the authorities attempted to use the diaspora as a method of lobbying their interests. In this respect, the Koreans are not broadcasting anti-Semitic discourse, only the government’s ideas on how “foreign nationals” should properly behave.

A person who has never heard anything about Korea and has grown up in a tradition of tolerance who decides to walk along the streets of Seoul will naturally be shocked by the number of swastikas on the streets. Only the swastikas are flipped and are actually a Buddhist symbol.

This is why the present story is not about anti-Semitism in Korea, but is instead about how, after incorrectly formulating questions for a statistical survey while not having a good grasp of the local specifics, you can arrive at sensationalist and completely incorrect conclusions.

Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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