Back in 2009 when I was teaching at Korea University, I asked my Korean friends if they knew that China is shaped like a rooster. They did not. But they proceeded to tell me that Korea is also shaped like an animal... well actually like two animals.
From one perspective, Korea is shaped like a dragon:
From another perspective, Korea is shaped like a bunny rabbit:
For people interested in international relations and national identities, there are two take-aways:
(1) Korea-Japan relations:
My Korean friends explained that if you see Korea as a dragon, it is ready to handle an imperial Japan. If you see Korea as a rabbit, however, then the Japanese islands represent the animal's refuse. (I mean no offense to Japan - I'm just reporting what I was told.) My friends couldn't decide which image they prefer. They like the powerful Dragon-Korea. But they delight in the idea of Japanese islands representing rabbit-refuse.
Either way, the scars of the early 20th century Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula are still alive in the imaginations of young Koreans. (For a history of the years leading up to the occupation, when Korea was treated as a "protectorate" of Japan, see the work of Georgetown Professor Christine Kim.)
This helps to explain why - even when Japan and Korea have common interests - they rely on the presence of the United States, which acts as a buffer to placate domestic constituencies who may still have hard feelings (see the work of T. J. Pempel). Regional organizations also play a role. Japanese and Korean governments have been able to obfuscate some of the economic assistance that Japan has given to Korea by going through the Asian Development Bank. Japan exercises a great deal of control over this organization, though many other countries, including Korea, are also voting members. (For more on this topic, see this paper, co-authored by my brilliant student, Daniel Yew Mao Lim, as well as the excellent research of my friend and colleague, Christopher Kilby).
(2) North-South relations:
Despite more than half a century of tense and, at times, bloody relations between the North and South, my friends from South Korea can still imagine their country as one. Whether dragon or bunny, the animal has no border dividing it in half. Their imagination pertains to the entire Korean peninsula. Well, at least it did in 2009 when I was last in Korea... I'd love to hear the thoughts of my friends after the most recent round of North Korea's shenanigans. And what I would really like to know is how the youth of North Korea imagine their country...
Hye Jee Cho tells me she was taught that Korea is shaped like a tiger. Hye Jee was my colleague at UCLA, where I was a Global Fellow at the International Institute, and she was doing her Ph.D. Originally from Korea, she is now an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She'll be presenting a paper on the International Monetary Fund at the Fourth Annual Conference on the Political Economy of International Organizations in Zurich this January. She shared this awesome picture from "Strangemaps":
So, Hye Jee recalls what she was taught growing up in Korea:
Koreans believed, from the old days of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), that the peninsula was tiger-shaped. But after the invasion by Japan in the early 20th century, the Japanese tried to "downgrade" Korea by conceiving of it as a weaker animal - a rabbit. (Note that Hye Jee does not personally believe that rabbits are inferior to tigers - it's just the story that she was taught.)