SEOUL -- On Monday, the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's most widely-circulated newspaper, ran an editorial about a controversy surrounding one politician's choice of lunchtime beverage. It was a symbolic incident of South Korea's internal division, as tensions with Japan over export curbs and wartime labor rise.
A few days earlier, Lee Hae-chan, the leader of the ruling left-wing Democratic Party, dined at a Japanese restaurant in Seoul during a time of growing rancor between his country and Japan over a series of historical and economic disputes.
After media reported that Lee had consumed sake, the Japanese rice-based liquor, with his meal, opposition parties were quick to criticize him as a hypocrite for drinking a Japanese beverage amid a widespread consumer boycott of the country's products. Lee's party rushed to deny that Lee had drunk sake, saying he had in fact drunk cheongju, a domestically produced rice liquor.
The backdrop to the incident is a growing debate in South Korea over how to handle the snowballing row with Japan. The generally pro-business right wing is calling on the left-leaning government and media to tone down criticism of Japan and seek a negotiated solution before South Korea suffers too much economic harm as a result of Japan's restrictions on exports to the country.
In response, the left has started to use one of the country's most potent slurs, accusing certain people of being a "pro-Japan traitor".
That term ("chinilpa" in Korean) goes back to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula, when certain prominent Koreans cooperated with the Japanese Empire to bring Korea under its dominion. Such collaborators are today remembered as traitors who put their own interests ahead of that of the nation.
Ever since Korea's independence, the left side of the country's political spectrum has accused the conservative right of being descendents of collaborators who grew wealthy during the occupation.
And it isn't only politicians being accused of being shills for Japan. In an article titled "How did pro-Japanese collaborators make 'Cool Japan'?," Money Today wrote: "The problem is, these Korean people who love Cool Japan, and are into Japanese animation, pop music and light novels, are playing the role of new pro-Japanese collaborators."
The term entered the current public debate last month when Cho Guk, then a senior secretary in the Blue House and now widely expected to be named South Korea's next Minister of Justice, lashed out at critics in a post on his personal Facebook page. Cho wrote, "I think any South Korean people criticizing, distorting or condemning Supreme Court rulings on compulsory labor deserve to be called pro-Japanese collaborators."
The editorial, published by the right-wing Chosun Ilbo, accuses politicians on both sides of using the old insult to distract from their own failure to manage the current crisis. "Unless they're mentally ill, they must be using this term for political purposes," the editorial states. "If they had instead been coming up with cool-headed response measures, would this controversy have come up?"
The Chosun itself has generated controversy with its coverage of the Japan-South Korea row, which some netizens have criticized as being too soft on Japan. Currently, a petition on the South Korean government's website calling on the administration to shut down the Chosun has gathered more than 232,000 signatures. Having passed the 200,000-mark, the government will have to issue an official response.
Ruling party lawmaker Kim Young-ho said, "When citizens who describe the Liberty Korea Party as pro-Japanese collaborators, they are not launching a political attack, but merely making an objective judgement."
The opposition party denies the allegations. Liberty Korea Party floor leader Na Kyung-won said in response, "While many continue to frame right-wing parties as descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators, there are actually more descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators in the Democratic Party."
In particular, the opposition party has seized on President Moon Jae-in's experience as a lawyer defending a person accused of collaboration. Moon was a lawyer before entering politics and in 1987 successfully represented the descendants of Kim Jae-tae, a businessman who operated in the south of the country and became rich after taking over Oriental Development Company, an enterprise founded under the Japanese empire.
In response to the controversy, Moon said that he had not accepted the fee for his successful work on the case, and instead gave the money away.
Seoul National University Emeritus Professor Lee Jun-koo came to Moon's defense in a blog post, arguing that Moon acting as Kim's lawyer did not mean that he personally sympathized with him.
Poll data show that only 24% of South Koreans who identify as left wing are in favor of seeking a diplomatic solution with Japan, while 65% of self-identified conservatives are in favor. By political party, 71.6% of ruling Democratic Party supporters are opposed to seeking a diplomatic solution, while 72.3% of conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party supporters favor a diplomatic solution.