• SHARE

Like most Asian countries, South Korea had never really considered bidding for the World Cup.

FIFA had split its biggest tournament between Europe and South America (plus Mexico) since the first competition in Uruguay in 1930. It seemed as if FIFA thought that the remaining confederations — Africa, Asia, CONCACAF (North America and the Caribbean) and Oceania — should consider themselves lucky to be able to take part in the tournament (even now, Oceania does not get an automatic spot in the finals). Although South Korea had qualified for four World Cups up to and including the 1994 event in the United States, it had never won a game and was considered a lightweight in world terms.

But it still considered itself superior to Japan as a footballing nation. Japan, after all, had never even qualified for the World Cup.

Nevertheless, the footballing rivalry between the two countries was intense. In reality, they weren’t so far apart on the football field and both countries considered the other to be its archrival.

Historically, this was also true, but if the enmity of its peoples had materialized on the football field, then matches would have turned into bloodbaths.

There is no love lost between them; indeed, there is no love at all. Only hate.

A cold relationship

It is a hate only neighbors can know. You’ve seen it in the Balkans, in Africa, in the Middle East. It is the same across the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, if you’re Korean).

Both countries suffered the indignities of war in the last century only to grow and prosper with admirable speed and tenacity.

Japan turned its humiliation in World War II into decades of rebuilding and self-sacrifice. The phrase “Made in Japan” was transformed from a byword for cheap into a mark of quality. Japan itself was seen as a paragon of virtue, the heart of the mysterious East, a cultural feast to be eagerly devoured by the West.

The jewel in the crown for the Japanese was the 1964 Olympics, less than 20 years after the end of the war. It marked Japan’s acceptance back into the world of decency and civilized behavior.

South Korea at the time was still suffering the agony of civil war. A peasant country thrust unwillingly into the Cold War, brother killed brother for three years (1950-53) only to leave the Korean Peninsula as it was at the beginning of the war: poor, desperate and divided.

While the United States had led the United Nations troops in the liberation of South Korea, many Koreans blamed America for leaving it divided (as they had blamed the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union for dividing it in the first place). Lacking a de facto imperial governor as post-World War II Japan had in Gen. Douglas MacArthur, South Korea took it upon itself to restore democracy to its people.

But the government was weak. If North Korean infiltrators did not undermine the government, then the South Koreans themselves could always do the job. Not surprisingly, the army took control and held it with an iron fist for several decades.

On the one hand, military rule gave the South Korean people some stability and a firm hand with which to guide the war-ravaged economy; on the other, it prevented the people from developing as the Japanese had. All they could do was protest, and in 1980 in Kwangju the army answered those protests with the same conviction that China did in Tiananmen Square.

But South Korea also found salvation in the Olympic Games. Out of the chaos of the post-war years and still under quasi-military rule, it hosted the 1988 Olympics and came in from the cold.

But the coldness between South Korea and Japan was not so easy to eradicate.

While the West saw two strong developing economies in Asia, relations between Japan and South Korea were still embedded in the hate of the past.

Over the centuries, the two countries had tried to invade one another. Indeed, much Japanese culture was imported from the Korean Peninsula. But Japan closed its doors to the outside world from 1639 to 1853, only for its hibernation to be jolted by American Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s fleet of black ships.

It was the awakening of a sleeping giant. Japan finally saw what had happened in the rest of the world during its hibernation and realized it had to catch up. The first thing it did was to address the imbalance of military power.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan had taken on and beaten Russia in the Far East. It wasn’t long before Korea (and later Manchuria) was in its sights. Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and embarked on a ruthless campaign of assimilation.

In the book “1984,” George Orwell described the oppression of Big Brother thus: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human head — forever.” 1984 came early for the Koreans.

Japan murdered, raped and pillaged its way through the country for over 35 years, enslaving and demeaning the Korean people. Many Koreans were taken to Japan as slave labor and around 600,000 stayed on. They are still here, although they are stuck between two worlds. Although they can acquire Korean passports, they, as well as their children and grandchildren, are effectively stateless.

Japan has never apologized for its barbaric rule (although it has expressed “regret”); Korea has never forgiven it.

Take a tour around the South Korean capital Seoul and you will come across signs saying: “Sorry, this is the site of an ancient palace that the Japanese destroyed in such and such a year.” The South Koreans added to the destruction a few years ago when they tore down the national museum in Seoul because it had been built by the Japanese and had previously served as the headquarters of the occupying “government.”

At one stage, Dr. Chung Mong Joon, the head of the Korean Football Association, even indicated that Japan shouldn’t get the 2002 World Cup because of its occupation and war record. Chung later apologized.

The idea of South Korea cooperating with Japan in the World Cup could not appear more unlikely.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW