[OUTLOOK]The danger of anti-Japan rantsUpon returning from Japan after nine months as one of the king’s envoys in 1590, Kim Seong-il went down in history as the person who claimed, “There is no chance of Japan invading during the Joseon Dynasty.” When Hwang Yun-gil and Heo Seong, who accompanied him, reported, “Japan will definitely provoke a war,” Kim retorted, “They are creating a stir in people’s minds with exaggerations.”
According to historical records from the time, the Joseon court finally decided to follow Mr. Kim’s advice after a series of hot debates over contradicting reports made by the envoys to Japan. Then restoration of city walls and defense projects against a Japanese invasion all came to a halt. As a result, Korea was defenseless when the Japanese invaded the peninsula one year later.
Whether it was a misjudgment or that he distorted the report on purpose, if things happened as recorded, Mr. Kim’s responsibility is considerable. However, because of the atmosphere of the time, there are some elements that help us understand his position.
Kim was a model pupil of the great scholar Lee Hwang, and it is said that he was a man of integrity, too. On his way to Kyoto via Tsushima island and during his stay in Kyoto, he never tolerated impoliteness from Japanese officials. Any rudeness brought indignation and scolding.
When Mr. Hwang and Mr. Heo tried to persuade Mr. Kim to do otherwise saying, “It is not wise to insist on etiquette and face-saving as an envoy of goodwill,” Mr. Kim berated them, saying, “Overlooking the impoliteness of Japanese officials is a disgrace to our country.”
In his words and deeds during his stay in Japan, there was a strong tone of Korean pride of looking down on Japan. To Kim Seong-il, it was just unthinkable that a savage island country would dare to invade a country with highly developed culture such as Korea.
On top of that, factional strife in the Joseon Dynasty played a part. Mr. Hwang was from the east faction and Mr. Kim from the west. The politicians’ ploy of trying to avoid agreeing with the opinion of the opposite side could have worked. The people belonging to the west faction were in power. As the faction with authority, there was a need for catering to the people’s abhorrence of preparing for war. The national attitude of looking down on Japan and the logic of political reality on top of that had made it difficult for them to see the situation clearly.
Four hundred years since then, after two invasions from Japan and 36 years of Japanese rule, our emotions toward Japan have grown even more complicated. The recent issue of Dokdo island was one that was blown up by a “provocation” from Japan, but there is also an aspect that it was an explosion of our national emotion that originates from the delusion of persecution.
The absurd repeated remarks of right-wing figures, Prime Minister Koizumi’s worship where war criminals are enshrined, another attempt to distort history textbooks, and the Dokdo problem on top of all have prodded the emotions that have been in the very bottom of our people’s hearts.
The fact that Japan has built up its military clout to be an incomparably stronger military power than our country is also a factor that provokes our delusion of persecution. Things are not much different today from the days of Kim Seong-il that we look at Japan through unique emotional lenses.
Most Japanese media are analyzing the firm counteraction of the Korean government as “a policy to recover support for the Roh Moo-hyun administration.” It may be difficult to deny that there is no such political purpose. However, it is regrettable that they do not properly understand the depth of our emotions toward Japan, which have been accumulating.
Politics should not rely on populism for stimulating people’s emotion to gain support; rather, politics should play the role of catharsis and cool the rage of the people. What would happen if the government continued to take as in the past a lukewarm attitude towards Japan when the Dokdo issue and the history textbook issue have become so prominent? Mistrust of the government could be provoked to an uncontrollable extent. It means that the wave of emotions is that high. Japan and the Japanese media should understand this point clearly.
Anyway, President Roh’s approval rate has jumped recently to over 40 percent. The recent firm policy toward Japan seems to have helped a good deal. I do not agree with the analysis of the Japanese media, but this is, frankly speaking, something to be worried about. I am worried because the administration and its surrounding powers, which have seen the rise in popular support after taking a hard-line policy toward Japan, might be tempted by it.
Politicians of both the governing and opposite parties are demanding “stronger and even stronger” denunciations of Japan. There is no left or right wing in this issue. The media is speaking with one voice, too.
There are people who are resolved to declare, “Tsushima island belongs to us,” or demand to abolish “Korea-Japan Fisheries Agreement” with no concept of the gains or losses. Thankfully the government has maintained its cool up to now. If the government also tries to take advantage of public emotion, no one can tell to what extent the situation will worsen.
What is important is our national interest. I am worried the government may choose harmful policies while influenced by national emotions rater than a political logic that caters to reality. Such a situation would lead us to repeat the mistake of failing to defend the country against the Japanese during King Seonjo.
We should not forget the spirit of Kim Seong-il, but we also need to learn from Hwang Yun-gil and Heo Seong who understood the situation well. There is a lesson to be learned from the mistakes of our past.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Heo Nam-chin