In Korea, Old Hostilities Give Way as Aid Flows to Japan

In Korea, Old Hostilities Give Way as Aid Flows to Japan

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The earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of northern Japan last week has shaken many Koreans out of their traditional hostility toward their eastern neighbor, Korean media are reporting. After more than six decades of often-bitter disputes over history and territory, Koreans are now lining up to come to the aid of their one-time colonial master.

An op-ed in the Korea Daily by Japan expert and former Culture and Tourism Minister Uh-ryung Lee notes that “people around the world are holding Japan in their hearts,” adding that tensions over Dokdo, the group of islets claimed by both countries, “could never cause Korea to turn its back on its neighbor.”

“We are past the stage of conflicting ideologies,” Lee goes on to write. “We now live in a world defined neither by independence nor dependence, but rather interdependence.”

The 8.9 magnitude quake that struck Fukushima Prefecture, some 250 miles north of Tokyo, was the nation’s largest in recorded history. The temblor triggered a massive tsunami that washed away entire towns and villages and left several nuclear reactors in critical condition. The death toll now stands at more than 10,000, with the number expected to rise.

According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, Seoul dispatched 100 rescue workers to the affected area. Relief organizations and local civic groups have also rallied to collect donations and other aid supplies, as has the nation’s leading business groups and countless individuals.

The Korea Disaster Relief Association says it plans to provide some 4,000 emergency supply kits that include blankets, clothing and underwear, in addition to 150,000 bottles of water. UNICEF’s Korean branch, meanwhile, has launched its own donation campaign through email as well as social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

The nation’s top broadcasters, KBS and MBC, plan to hold two-hour long fundraising drives next week, while Daum, the country’s largest Internet portal, says it raised nearly $50,000 from online users in two days. Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate, announced earlier that it had donated $1.2 million to relief efforts in Japan, adding that it plans to send up to 20 aid workers to help with the ongoing rescue.

South Korean baseball star Park Chan-ho, who recently signed with the Orix Buffaloes in the Japanese league, donated $100,000, while celebrity actor Yong-joon Bae, who enjoys a massive following in Japan, offered $1 million in donation funds, according to his agency.

Korean communities in the United States have also lined up to come to Japan’s aid. According to the Japan Korea Society in Los Angeles, the two communities organized a fundraising campaign in the city’s Little Tokyo district.

Even North Korea, which often portrays Japan as one of the country’s leading threats alongside the United States, refrained from its usual invectives in its reporting on the tragedy, according to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency.

Still, despite the outflow of good will, controversy was sparked after comments made by a leading pastor at one of South Korea’s largest churches. Cho Yong-gi of Yoido Full Gospel Church said just days after the tragedy that the “disaster may be a warning from God against the Japanese people’s idolatry and materialism."

The comments sparked outrage among the country’s netizens, with many accusing Cho of betraying his religious values. Korea is a heavily Christian country, with nearly half of the population belonging to one of a number of Christian denominations.

Fears are also being expressed among online users over the potential dangers posed to Korea in the event of a meltdown at one of the six crippled nuclear reactors. A report in Moon-hwa Journal21 noted that authorities are going after the source of online rumors over the likelihood of radiation reaching Korean shores.

Seoul on Tuesday attempted to assuage anxieties by assuring residents that the potential for radiation affecting Korea was minimal, with weather forecasts predicting winds from the west pushing away from the peninsula.

Many, however, remain skeptical. The title of one online posting reads, with more than a hint of sarcasm, “While the world remains tense, Korea is safe?”

Another blogger who goes by the name Jajjang writes that popular Japanese items in South Korea are flying off the shelves, as consumers fear that similar items in the future could be contaminated by radiation leaking from the plants. Reports show that sales of such items have shot up more than 200 percent.

Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and remained in control of the peninsula for more than three decades until the end of WWII in 1945. The period is remembered with bitterness by a number of Koreans and is often the source of ongoing political rivalries between the two nations.

There are also an estimated 900,000 Koreans residing in Japan, many of them descendants of those who arrived in the country during the colonial period. According to the Korean consulate in Hiroshima, three Koreans are known to have perished in the disaster.

Former tourism minister Lee closes his op-ed with an expression often used to describe relations between the two nations: “the country that is both closest to us and the farthest away.” The consensus now, as he states, is that both countries share a “common humanity.”