Korea and Ireland’s historical parallels.

I moved to South Korea to teach English just over three months ago. In that time we apparently came close  to nuclear annihilation, a threat I never took particularly seriously. Most Koreans didn’t seem overly concerned and I decided that I wouldn’t panic until they did.  And since nothing of note really happened and since I’m not an expert on North-South relations on the Korean peninsula, I won’t be writing on that topic.

No, instead I’m writing about the far more boring topic of the  historical  and cultural parallels between Ireland and Korea which I’ve observed recently. At first glance they would not appear to be nations with a great deal in common and indeed much of their respective histories could scarcely be more different from one another. Ireland spent most of its history as a divided island at the fringe of Western Christendom, whereas Korea was for many centuries a unified kingdom which was firmly a part of the Sinosphere. There is one key point of comparison between them however and this is their relationship with their colonizers to the east. Ireland came firmly under English (Later British) rule in the seventeenth century with Korea being forcibly annexed by Imperial Japan in 1910. Both Ireland and Korea came under the sway of island nations to their east which were ascendant naval powers and who portrayed their colonial subjects as racial inferiors. In both cases the culture of the colonized people was undermined, with attempts made to eradicate their language (An attempt which all but succeeded in Ireland).  And more recently both Ireland and Korea were far poorer than their neighbour, with both making undergoing enormous economic growth in recent decades and now being among the wealthier nations  of the world (Although Korea’s growth was far more impressive  than Ireland’s and the resulting prosperity has endured for longer.)

One interesting point of contrast between the history of the two nations which receives surprisingly little attention is the interaction of various religions within them. Although many Koreans are irreligious, there is a significant population of Christians in the nation as well as a large number of people who still practice Korean Buddhism.  Japan is a less religious society and although most of its citizens are nominally Buddhist or Shintoist, few actually practice any form of religion. The most noticeable difference from Korea is that Christianity has had a negligible influence on the country and is practised by a tiny minority of Japanese. It would appear that the religious differences between the two nations were highly relevant during the colonization of Korea, with efforts by the Japanese to integrate Korean Shamanism into Japanese Shintoism . This parallels the well-known efforts to impose the Protestant religion upon the population of Ireland. In both cases however, the situation is considerably more complex than a simple clash between two religions. In Korea the Japanese government supported Buddhism (Which had been repressed by the Confucian Joseon dynasty) and encouraged the development of temples in the Japanese fashion. Therefore the current popularity of Buddhism within Korea owes much to its use as a tool of control by the Japanese colonial government. Similarly, the wars between Ireland and Britain have never been strictly a battle between Catholicism and Protestantism- there are many episodes in history displaying this, but I feel the most notable is Pope Alexander VIII’s support for William III at the Battle of the Boyne. It appears that in both nations, religious conflict is often more about political power than anything else- this is certainly the reason behind the hostility that the Joseon Dynasty, the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restored Japanese Emperors all displayed towards Christianity, fearing its teachings would undermine the control that Confucianism had given them over their territories.

Major contrasts like these have  been made before, although I believe that they have yet to be examined in full and that there is a book waiting to be written on the topic. Perhaps if I ever became fluent in Korean (Which is highly unlikely, given thirteen years of studying Irish left me barely able to speak the language) I’d be able to undertake this ambitious task. In the meantime, there’s plenty more for me to learn on culture and politics of this country which unfortunately, like much of Asia, I learned little about in my previous studies in Ireland.

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