[Viewpoint] Why ally with Japan?

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[Viewpoint] Why ally with Japan?

In the city of Mudanjiang in the Heilongjiang Province of the People’s Republic of China stands a monument to the anti-Japanese movement. The gigantic stone memorial commemorates the Chinese and Korean activists who fought against Imperial Japan in Manchuria.

Many historical sites where the Korean Independence Army waged its anti-Japanese struggle can be found across Northeast China. Qingshanli, where General Kim Jwa-jin fought against the Imperial Japanese Army, and Harbin Station, where An Jung-geun assassinated Ito Hirobumi, are here.

Koreans hoped that these historical sites in Manchuria would someday bring a day when South and North Korea wrote history together. Just as An Jung-geun advocated pan-Asianism, Koreans and Chinese fought side by side against imperialism and aggression by Japan and hoped to write a history of peace.

However, history is not so simple. And last year reminded us all that peace does not come so easily. We all knew that North Korea wasn’t too enthusiastic about peace, but it was China that disappointed us even more. We had hoped that China would someday play a crucial role in the unification of the peninsula.

The normalization of diplomatic ties in 1992 created a hopeful atmosphere. But China has changed. As the country grew bigger and stronger through reform and by opening up to the outside world, China began going the way of a hegemonic power. Beijing ignores international law and international justice. Even when there was clear and seemingly irrefutable evidence of North Korean wrongdoing, China took the side of Pyongyang for strategic considerations alone.

China is forecast to become the biggest superpower in the world by 2025. Will China stand up for peace in Asia then? When Japan gained power by modernizing at the end of the 19th century, Japan covetously eyed Joseon, China and Russia. A century later, China clearly wants to assume that ambition. When a glass is full, water will overflow, and the same goes for power. China’s power is now flowing beyond its borders, and the neighbors are getting fearful.

The defense ministers of Korea and Japan met and discussed an intelligence and munitions sharing agreement. It was the first discussion of military cooperation between Korea and Japan, and it was all part of defense preparedness against potential provocations from North Korea. Japan was once an aggressive force that occupied our country. Can Japan be trusted now? Do we have to pursue military cooperation with Japan? Is history repeating itself?

China is standing behind North Korea. But China is also the biggest trade partner of South Korea. What will happen to South Korea if China opposes its cooperation with Japan? These are unsettling questions for us. We have to block China’s power game for our national security, but we need to cooperate with China economically. It is a true dilemma.

The only way to maintain peace in a world driven by power is to find balance. China’s expansion may break the balance of power in Northeast Asia. If China chooses hegemony and expansionism, Korea has no other option than to side with Japan to find a balance of power. It is not a choice for Korea to make alone: it depends on China’s attitude. If China assumes responsibility for regional peace as expected of a superpower, Korea has no reason to pursue military cooperation with Japan. Yet China’s attitude disappointed us all last year.

The sum of the gross domestic products of Korea, China and Japan is as big as that of the European Union. Northeast Asia will become the center of global growth. It is our dream to freely move from Tokyo to Seoul to China and pursue prosperity for all. We want cooperation for peace rather than politics of power. We don’t want a confrontational structure in Northeast Asia.

However, if Korea’s sincerity is overridden, Korea’s choices are very limited. The Korean government has to speak up about its direction. Also, the government has to clearly explain its policy direction to the citizens. Cooperation with Japan shouldn’t be played down because of anti-Japanese sentiment among some citizens. The government needs to convince the public that the time has come for us to calmly make a strategic choice between China and Japan.

Before Korea makes a military agreement with Japan, there is one very important thing to clarify. We need to ask ourselves if Korea and Japan trust each other enough to sign such an agreement. If the agreement is only to keep a temporary balance of power, we will have to worry about betrayal.

Such an agreement is only a temporary arrangement and can be breached anytime. Instead of worrying about immediate interests, the two countries should be linked at a higher level. Both Korea and Japan have liberal democracies and market economies. We have to understand that Korea and Japan are neighbors seeking peace and prosperity.

In order to attain such an understanding, we need to resolve the decades-old discord. Both countries have to break free from the past. First, Japan has to summon the courage to truly repent for its past and stop the dispute over Dokdo. Korea, too, should no longer be restricted by the past. It is about time we open our hearts and offer forgiveness. Trust will only blossom when Japan makes a sincere apology and Korea gives true forgiveness. A security agreement is only possible based on such trust. And the international situation calls for trust between Korea and Japan.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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