Building solidarity between Korea and Palestine

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As a Korean-American concerned about the influence of the United States on other countries, I’ve begun to wonder something: do Korean people have more in common with Israelis, as the official story would have us believe, or with Palestinians? In recent years, the Israeli government has been strengthening ties with the South Korean government, which is headed by the conservative President Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the former US-backed dictator Park Chung-Hee. Prominent government officials on both sides propagate a false narrative of kinship between Israel and South Korea, asserting economic and geopolitical similarities.

Most recently, according to the Israel National News, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with the South Korean Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Hwang Woo-yea on April 29th and noted: “We have an excellent relationship between the Republic of Korea and Israel…We’re two amazing success stories, two democracies facing adversity, hostility from our neighbors, but spectacular economic success, not because of raw materials, but because of the raw material of the brains and hearts of our people.” [1] Last December, the South Korean ambassador to Israel told Israeli President Rivlin that “South Korea is probably the only country that can understand Israel’s complicated situation.” [2]

In November of 2013, the two governments collaborated on the first Korea-Israel Creative Economy Forum. The Korean ambassador to Israel, Kim Il-soo, told The Times of Israel that “Israeli creativity [is] much admired in his country ‘and [Israel] has special strengths and capabilities that, when joined together with the strengths of the Korean economy, can create an economic powerhouse.’” Kim added that “In many ways, Korea and Israel can understand and sympathize with each other, more than other countries can.” [3]

The governments of South Korea and Israel have gone beyond mere words with concrete steps towards joint economic collaboration, including ventures such as the Korea-Israel Industrial Research & Development Foundation, which encourages industrial collaborations, some of which would likely take place in occupied Palestinian territories and illegal settlements. Indeed, some South Korean companies, such as Hyundai, already profit from Israel’s land grabs through sales of equipment used to demolish Palestinian homes.

Israel is also a major arms supplier to South Korea, and there have even been reports of the South Korean government expressing interest in the Iron Dome [4] –a story which, regardless of the outcome, speaks volumes about how the current regime in South Korea views its only recently separated neighbors in North Korea.

These recent developments are deeply unsettling to those who understand realities in both places behind the political platitudes, as they evince the ways in which information can be warped and re-shaped into economically and politically useful propaganda. Though some argue, in asserting their parallelism, that Israel and South Korea were both born as nation states in the same year, one could flip that assertion to state that at the same time, both the Korean and Palestinian people saw their lands violently divided at the whim of imperialist interests .

In fact, when one considers how occupation and imperialist interests have affected the two groups of people, it becomes clear that the true parallel to ordinary Koreans and their history is not Israelis, but Palestinians. In the early 1900s, Koreans lived under a brutal 35 year occupation by the Japanese; the current Japanese government refuses to acknowledge the full extent of its historical crimes, much like the Israeli government refusing to answer for its rampant, ongoing violation of Palestinian human rights. Both the Koreans and Palestinians also continue to suffer the consequences of borders imposed and created by outside imperialist countries, with the United States playing a significant role in both cases. Indeed, when one examines further, the United States government can be seen as another occupier, in its crucial support of Israel’s illegal occupation as well as in its military presence and enormous political sway in South Korea.

Today, Koreans living on the small island of Jeju, often called “the Island of Peace,” have been engaged in a decade-long struggle to stop the construction of a joint US-Korean naval base, which is part of the US military’s strategy to surround China with a string of bases throughout the Pacific. The military base will devastate the natural environment, displace the local people, and demolish their most sacred sites—yet the South Korean government seems to think the US military needs come first [5]

While South Korea is a technologically and economically advanced country with a high standard of living, it is still occupied by almost 30,000 US troops, despite constant protests from Korean citizens. Furthermore, South Korea represents only half the fate of the Korean people who had been unified for hundreds of years and were only divided in 1948, a consequence of their country being used as a pawn in a proxy war. The staggering numbers of civilian deaths in that time are only part of the devastating consequences of the war. Today, North Koreans still suffer under a brutal regime, marked by poverty, starvation, and captivity. Though to outsiders, North and South Korea may now simply be two enemy nations, for many Koreans, it’s a recent division that literally hits home.

I myself have relatives in North Korea, but I know nothing of them, nor if they’re even still alive. Of course, the suffering of Palestinians and Koreans cannot be conflated but, as the above facts attest, the similarities between Palestinians and Koreans run far deeper than the shallow sentiments expressed by Israeli and South Korean officials.

It worries me, as a Korean-American, when I see the South Korean government so eagerly align itself with Israel, against its own constitution which, as Intifada Korea points out, explicitly describes international law (which Israel has repeatedly violated) as having the same standing and importance as Korean domestic law [6]. If Park’s administration acted according to the Korean constitution and adhered to the anti-colonial sentiments so many Koreans hold, there is no doubt that they would call for an end to the Israeli occupation and work in solidarity with the Palestinians.

An explanation of my own progress toward these conclusions may be salient here. Palestine became a place for me through stories. By this I mean that, for much of my middle-class Korean-American life, Palestine existed for me simply as an abstract political concept, an endless stream of news articles detailing deadly attacks and counterattacks, endless negotiations, tenuous peace treaties made and quickly broken, and so on. Upon entering college, I quickly became close friends with two Palestinians who had grown up together and attended the same high school in the city of Ramallah. They reminisced about eating falafel and kebab on the street, underaged drinking escapades with friends, and spending summer days walking aimlessly through the hills outside the city. These were the kinds of stories we shared simply to get to know each other and yet, through them, I came to understand Palestine as an actual place, the home of my friends—I became interested in the truth about this place, no longer able to ignore it as just a vaguely discomfiting, protracted political conflict.

As time passed and our friendship deepened, other stories began to emerge. My friends told me about interminable waits at checkpoints in the sweltering heat of the summer, the constant unprovoked harassment by IDF soldiers toting AK-47s in residential streets, how the route from one friend’s house to his high school could take anywhere from forty-five minutes to four and a half hours, depending on the whims of those guarding the checkpoints. And how, some days, he would simply be denied entrance (and that day’s worth of education) altogether.

I drank in these stories, both the nostalgic and painful. I was stunned by their tales of being tear gassed as children, whisked away by their wistful accounts of sitting on marbled verandas, drinking black tea with mint and eating fruits from their family orchards. Over time, we began to connect our stories and histories, unearthing similarities in the process. I shared with them what I knew of the Japanese occupation, my mother’s stories as a girl in rural, post-war South Korea and then as an adult immigrant to the United States, my own experiences with different but similarly all-encompassing systems of domination, such as the entrenched racism and gender discrimination in the United States. My friends would listen with genuine sympathy to my own (though comparatively lighter) stories of discrimination, and delight in my own wistful reminisces of drinking tea and eating apples that my grandmother had grown in the mountains of rural South Korea. Over time, my friends and I politicized each other by recognizing common struggles and exploring the root causes (occupation, displacement, colonialism, neoliberalism) of our most shadowed stories and memories.

In essence, global solidarity works through stories. The BDS movement’s successes must be largely attributed to the courageous Palestinians who have told their heart-wrenching stories of life under occupation, activist organizations that work in solidarity to reveal the brutal realities of economic occupation, and citizens the world over who understand the implications of boycott. BDS is successful when it advances the quietly inspirational story that, through active refusal of Israeli products, our solidarity with Palestinians becomes a tangible act of resistance and truly weakens Israel’s occupation.

The recent examples [7] of solidarity between Palestinians and the residents of Ferguson, the empathetic exchange of advice, encouragement, and hope, are a clear example of seemingly disparate peoples recognizing the similarities in their struggles. The Zapatistas have been vocal for years their unwavering support for Palestinian liberation. Oppressed peoples throughout the world are already coming together to confront their oppressors, galvanized by their personal histories and daily experiences of discrimination and violence.

By manipulating the public into believing that the lives of South Koreans parallel those of Israelis, South Korean politicians shroud the more authentic, shared experiences of oppression and occupation between Koreans and Palestinians. It is no secret that in the United States, the mainstream media similarly distorts the true story of the occupation under the guise of a convoluted “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (with heavy undertones of Islamaphobia and racism, which skew public opinion towards sympathy for the oppressor rather than the oppressed). Indeed, such lies are the very reason why I was close to completely ignorant on the topic until I reached college. We must counter propaganda with our own true stories, the stories of our lived experiences. Sharing personal narratives, telling our truths, always trumps propaganda and media distortion.

With Park’s remaining three years of presidency and Netanyahu’s recent reelection, it is likely the two administrations will continue fabricating threads of similarity between Israel and South Korea. In doing so, they will conveniently ignore South Korea’s similarity, and indeed its moral and constitutional obligation, to the plight of the Palestinian people. Through solidarity actions such as participating in BDS and sharing the stories that elucidate our shared experiences of oppression, we can actively work to dismantle these political entities that fail to represent our truths in the interest of selective political and economic gains.


[1] Arutz Sheva Staff, Netanyahu: Iran, North Korea Deals Both Mistakes, Israel National News, 29 April 2015 (accessed 27 May 2015)

[2] Greer Fay Cashman, South Korea ‘Probably the Only Country that can Understand Israel’s Plight,’ New Envoy Says, The Jerusalem Post, 5 December 2014 (accessed 27 May 2015)

[3] David Shamah, ‘Israel and South Korea could be Economic Powerhouse,’ Times of Israel, 14 November 2013 (accessed 27 May 2015)

[4] Zachary Keck, South Korea Eye’s Israel’s Iron Dome, The Diplomat, 14 August 2014 (accessed 27 May 2015)

[5] Mica Cloughley, Jeju: “Island of Peace” in the Crosshairs of War, Counterpunch, 5-7 December, 2014 (accessed 28 May 2015)

[6] Does Korea want to be Israel? Park Geun Hye-Nomics: Creative Economy, Intifada Korea, 15 September 2014 (accessed 27 May 2015)

[7] Matt Connolly, The Palestinian People want You to Know what they Think of Ferguson Right Now, Mic.com, 25 November 2014 (accessed 27 May 2015)


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I’m going back to read this amazingly rich essay again, but I wanted to thank you first, Zavi. This leapt out at me: “Though some argue, in asserting their parallelism, that Israel and South Korea were both born as nation states in the same year, one could flip that assertion… Read more »

Thanks for this essay. I think the South Korean government looks to a large extent to what the U.S. does. So long as the U.S. is uncritically supporting Israel, countries like Korea will follow, as will much of the rest of the U.S.-aligned world. And when the U.S. policy eventually… Read more »

Israel’s been threatening to take their ball and go to Asia for some time. I think they are in for disappointment if they think they’ll be able to throw their hissy fits they way they do in Europe and North America. I have a feeling that there it will be… Read more »

Zavi Kang Engles–thanks for sharing; very insightful. I know Israel has been courting all Asian countries, anticipating a backup power if US changes its Israel First policy. China is the goal, but India and S Korea are also targets to become new host for parasite Israel.

Zavi writes: “Indeed, some South Korean companies, such as Hyundai, already profit from Israel’s land grabs through sales of equipment used to demolish Palestinian homes.” Does this provide a basis for a BDS attack on some Korean companies? If so, which ones and where? Do you have a list of… Read more »