Flat White

The Jews of Asia?

9 March 2017

5:05 PM

9 March 2017

5:05 PM

For months I have been peddling my vociferous obsession with Korea onto unsuspecting friends and colleagues. What began as an innocent foray into Japan’s lesser-known neighbour through the world of k-pop and k-dramas has developed into a fascinating journey into one of Asia’s most successful economies.

Delving into the story of Korea has led me to the proposition that Koreans are the Jews of Asia. Please halt before carting me off to the asylum. This theory is predicated upon a variety of comparisons ranging from economic factors to linguistics. If I had to summarise it, I would say that both cultures suffered terrible luck but managed to perserve through innovation.

In both the Korean and Hebrew languages, the word commonly used as a salutation or to say goodbye roughly translate to mean ‘peace’. In Hebrew, the word is ‘Shalom’ (peace) and in Korean, the word is pronounced ‘Annyeong’ (or Annyeon-haseo) which means ‘Are you at peace?’.

Both cultures were borne out of similarly humble beginnings. Koreans have traditionally been subject to the whims of the Chinese. Throughout their history, beginning in 108 BC with the Han emperor Wudi, various Chinese emperors and dynasties have conquered Korea. For hundreds of years, the land was intermittently divided between various Chinese rulers.

Between 1910 and until the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was annexed by Japan. The Korean emperor abrogated his powers to the Japanese emperor “completely and forever” and Korea became a colony of Japan. The annexation involved attempts by the Japanese to install widespread assimilation methods of Korean culture and language. In 1942, the governor-general of Korea organised for the arrest of a group of intellectuals who tried to create a Korean language dictionary.


Japan’s colonisation was also marked by aggressive – and successful – attempts by Japan to control Korea’s government and military. Japan’s rule over Korea had admittedly resulted in the modernisation of the country and improvements in education and infrastructure. However, it also resulted in widespread discrimination and subjugation suffered by Korean people under colonial rule.

Knowing this happened to Korea, as a Jewish person, it elicits much empathy from me. My people and culture have also often been through periods of attempted extermination. The Jewish culture and people have suffered extensively at the hands of oppressors. In Russia, a country where discrimination is perhaps not a novelty, Soviet Jews in the twentieth century were subject to violence, suppression of their religion, as well as forced assimilation and conformity to Russian culture. Across Europe at different times treatment of Jews as second or third class citizens — when granted citizenship at all — has historically been equally as pernicious.

Another similarity is that relatively recent conflicts have haunted both Israel and Korea. Between the years 1950 to 1953 South Korea was in a brutal war with North Korea where most cities were destroyed. In 1960, Korea was still a developing country recovering from war and heavily dependent on foreign aid. Likewise, since the State of Israel was finally established in 1948, its existence has been plagued by a myriad of wars and conflicts.

Between 1965 and 1979, Korea’s real GDP growth averaged over nine per cent per annum, with manufacturing growth of nearly 19 per cent. But by 1981, Korea was the fourth largest debtor country in the world, behind Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. There were widespread concerns about Korea’s ability to meet its debt obligations. By 1986, rapid export growth through Korean ingenuity led to a substantial trade surplus and Korea began to meet all debt service obligations and repay principal on its external debt.

Korea’s transformation from a developing nation to a first world economy is a testament to the country’s consistent, stable and sensible macroeconomic policies. In the mid-2000s, South Korea was one of the leading exporters in the world for electronics, cars and boats. South Korean companies that we use in our daily lives include Samsung (considered Asia’s most valuable brand), LG, Hyundai and Kia.

In terms of hi-tech industry production and rapid intensive development, Israel’s progress has been almost identical to that of South Korea’s. Approximately a third of Israel’s GDP is made out of technology exports. Israel’s GDP spend on hi-tech had traditionally been the highest out of the OECD countries until 2013, when South Korea pushed it into second place.

Koreans in South Korea and Jews in Israel have managed to overcome atrocities of war and misfortune in ways that both can relate to. Today, South Korea is still plagued by a cousin-enemy in possession of nuclear weapons (in case you missed it, I am referring to North Korea). The pit of hell that lies above South Korea is reminiscent of an extended Holocaust.

Israel is also haunted by its cousin-enemies from all sides of the Gaza Strip; who also happen to be in possession of nuclear weapons. These are stories familiar to every Jew and every Korean. Stories that the rest of the world talks about in a nondescript way, because they are not the ones that have to live through it.

Trade between the Miracle on the Han River and the Lions of Judah amounts to over $2.2 billion. There are currently ongoing negotiations between the two nations over a free trade agreement. There is a possibility that some high-ups in Jerusalem may have realised that Koreans are the Jews of Asia, and that is why this FTA is in the process of negotiation. However, I don’t like to speculate.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Show comments
Close