Sunday, December 5, 2010

Enter the Dragon... or Rabbit?

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.)


  1. Hi Professor Vreeland,

    I found your blog post to be very interesting (and cute)! Unfortunately I just wrote out a pretty substantial comment but it got deleted since I switched back and forth between pages. While I have studied a good amount of Japan-China relations in Japanese history, I do not know enough about Japan-Korea relations. I mainly know much about these relations from my own personal relationships with Koreans and Korean Americans. My first best friend was Korean, and her grandparents spoke Japanese as a result of the occupation during WWII. If I eliminated my Korean (as well as Chinese, Taiwanese, etc) friends from my network of friends, I know that I'd have close to no acquaintances. Even my mother, who is from Hiroshima, befriended Korean-Japanese students in her grade, who assimilated in the Japanese culture by changing their names and ridding their Korean accents.

    But I do know that Korea-Japan relations in politics have been tumultuous and continues to be so. My views on the issue, however, are not solidified, and I'd be very interested to know what you know in terms of history and current events relating to the issue. My views on my country may be different from what most people expect from Japanese people, though--while I do take great pride in my country, I am not the rabid, staunch LDP nationalist that some Japanese tend to be.

    I also read your article, collaborated by Daniel Yim, and was very impressed. Daniel is good friends with of my close friends, so I have met him before.

    Japan's desire to enter the Security Council is something that has interested me for a long time. It is interesting to note that the ADB (which I had heard about for the first time reading your article!) is a milieu in which Japan continues to exert power, and it made me take this fact into consideration on my views of Japan in the international arena.

    Your posts and tweets are quite intriguing, and I hope someday in the future we could collaborate on a project too, though I know I'm not nearly at the level of eloquence and brilliance of Daniel yet! Thank you so much for messaging me, I hope to see you soon at MMUG!


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