[FORUM]A drab building and a bad auraIt is an ordinary-looking red brick building in the northeast United States. A rectangular three-story structure reminiscent of an elementary school, the building is as plain as its name, “Building 86.” A visitor’s eyes might hover dubiously on the memorial plaque on the wall but that would be enough to discover that the house breathes with an unpolished and long history. The plaque explains that Russian and Japanese delegates met in this building to hold peace treaty negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War at the invitation of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty was signed at 3:47 p.m. on Sept. 5, 1905, in this building. When I visited the building and read the plaque, the letters on the plaque became alive. They took my breath away momentarily. My mind traced the history of a century ago, when the series of events including the Russo-Japanese War, the Taft-Katsura agreement and the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in the end led to Japan’s occupation of Korea.
The site of history was still alive. For over a month, Russian and Japanese delegates had negotiated to conclude the war that took place for 18 months around the Korean Peninsula. With the signing of the treaty, the new order of imperialism was concluded. Japan’s rule over Korea was internationally acknowledged. The site was a place where the sorrow of Koreans, nationals of a weak power, began at the beginning of the last century without their knowledge. It was this place that I visited at the end of last month as the Roh Moo-hyun government was drifting, at a loss over what to do with North Korea’s nuclear program. Once again, Northeast Asia has turned into the arena of struggle among world powers. That is why I hurried to this place.
I drove a little over one hour north from Boston, Massachusetts, to reach the port city of Portsmouth in New Hampshire. In the middle of this city with a population of 20,000 is a naval shipyard. Building 86 is in that shipyard. The building, more than a century old still serves as an administrative office in charge of the navy arsenal. President Roosevelt had suggested this place in the resort city by the sea to avoid the muggy summer weather of Washington.
The building is situated within a military security area and was opened to the public in 1987 when a museum opened in the shipyard. General tours have been stopped since the September 11 attacks. The supervisor of the museum told me I was lucky to be seeing the place. I was the first Korean journalist he remembered having come there in the last 10 years, he told me.
A small room was renovated on the second floor of the building as an exhibition room commemorating the peace treaty. The logbook of the day the treaty was signed, the leather chair used by Japanese Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura, who led the Japanese delegation during the treaty negotiations, the pictures of Sergei Witte, head of the Russian delegation, and a portrait of President Roosevelt, who mediated the negotiations, were some of the artifacts in the exhibition room. The theme of the exhibition room is peace, and the building is also called the “Peace Building.” The headline on the front page of the Portsmouth Herald after the signing of the peace treaty was “Peace.” Mr. Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for his part in the negotiations.
I told the museum supervisor that while Portsmouth meant peace to the world powers, it meant the beginning of wretched times for Korea. He replied that that was the tragedy of the age of imperialism. A people who did not have the power or capability to keep the peace could not taste peace. A peace that is begged for will go corrupt, divide a country and, in the end, will be lost. The characteristics of peace are the same now as they were during the Russo-Japanese War peace treaty negotiations, and are the same in Korea as anywhere.
I felt Japan’s national power in the exhibition room. There were many artifacts from Japan, and most of the visitors have been Japanese, I was told. Japan become the fifth-largest power in the world after the Russo-Japanese War. It is a historical place that their descendants can feel smug about.
This Japan has reappeared on the map of Northeast Asia. As in the time of the Russo-Japanese War, it had the support of the United States. The United States is tired of the vagueness of the South Korean government, which seem to be taking North Korea’s side, unable to confront it boldly on its nuclear threats. The United States has left South Korea and has turned to encourage Japan. Japan is using this opportunity craftily to increase its military power. China is also trying to increase its influence over the Korean Peninsula.
Those who created such a situation, the Kim Jong-il regime in the North and the pro-North Korean politicians and leftist intellectuals in the South, have inflicted a severe wound on our history. Exclusive nationalism turns a country into a footnote of world history.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyun