Stick to universal values

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Stick to universal values

The relationship between Korea and Japan has been lashed by some angry waves. The two countries have had serious ups and downs historically, but the latest turbulence is different. In the past, discord between Korea and Japan was usually ignited by provocation from Japan’s side, such as a slip of the tongue about the occupation period, “comfort women,” distortions of history, Dokdo or Yasukuni Shrine visits, followed by Korea’s response. Japan would create a problem, Korea would confront it. Korea was on the offensive, Japan on the defensive. Korea’s absolute moral superiority was the foundation of the relationship.

This time around, it’s Japan pushing back against President Lee Myung-bak’s surprise visit to Dokdo, and the two countries now have matching levels of offensive and defensive positions. In Korea-Japan relations, Japan’s government’s complaints have never been so intense. Due to its historical, moral liability, Japan usually adopts the lowest of profiles, so it is quite unprecedented for Japan to confront Korea directly. We need to carefully examine President Lee’s sudden change of stance, from secretly pursuing an agreement on Korea-Japan military information sharing to a Dokdo visit. He pushed for the military pact that had been taboo for previous administrations without the consent of the citizens and got burned doing so. Then he made a sudden U-turn and drove the Korea-Japan relationship into a diplomatic ditch. As it happens, both moves ended up strengthening the rightists in Japan.

Underneath the vicissitudes of the Korea-Japan relationship is a one-sided relationship. From Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion from 1592 to 1598 through the 35 years of colonial occupation, Japan was always responsible for breakdowns. If it weren’t for Japan’s invasion, Korea and Japan could have remained peaceful neighbors. The tragic legacy can be seen all over the Korean Peninsula and Japan, including the Ear Tomb in Kyoto, Korean potters Yi Sam-pyeong in Arita and Shim Su-kwan in Kagoshima, the comfort women, military draft, separated families, Korean residents in Japan and ethnic Koreans in Yanbian, and cultural properties taken to Japan.

Of course, the Japanese never suffered tragedies because of Koreans. Even in the power vacuum between liberation on Aug. 15, 1945, to the arrival of the U.S. forces on Sept. 8, there was not mass violence against the Japanese. Considering the pain Koreans had to suffer during the occupation, the maintenance of peace was truly remarkable.

Even after the liberation in 1945 and the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, Japan continued to make absurd arguments claiming Joseon’s sovereignty. Japan could return to the international community and shed the status of a “war criminal” and reconstruct its economy from the ruins of its World War II defeat because it took advantage of the San Francisco System and an economic boom during the Korean War. Korea’s tragedy contributed to the initial security foundation and economic development of Japan. Nevertheless, when Korea pursued a self-reliant national defense during the cold war, Tokyo persistently persuaded the United States to prevent Korea’s weapons purchases and defense enhancement.

Now, as developed democratic nations, Korea and Japan should mutually promote universal human values such as reflection, reconciliation, tolerance, friendship, peace and human rights. For example, the comfort women issue is a crime against humanity and a typical human rights abuse case. We all know how Japan has made great contributions in automobiles, steel, electronics, the parts and material industries, trade, animation, protection of cultural heritage, and foreign assistance. However, we have not learned about Japan’s contribution to the promotion of universal human values as a civilized country. Korea has also become a leader in steel, semiconductors, electronics, automobiles, aviation, K-pop and the airport industry, but it has not played a leadership role in promoting universal values either.

We need to think about the Japan-Korea Exchange Center near Nagoya Castle in Saga Prefecture, Kyushu, which was the starting point of Hideyoshi’s invasion. The center exhibits materials on Yi Sun-shin and Ahn Jung-geun with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ito Hirobumi. The mutual recognition and spirit of reconciliation may be a sign of Japan’s progress to universalism.

Germany made a sincere apology to win the hearts of Poland, France, the Jews and the world, and accomplished its own reunification and an economic integration of Europe. As the de facto leader of the European Union, Germany may be a model of universal values — quite an achievement after the age of the Nazis. If the Japanese emperor or prime minister visited the sites of massacres in Korea and China and knelt to present flowers in a gesture of sincere apology, the people of East Asia and around the world would be impressed by Japan’s noble spirit.

Humans and nations are incomplete and fallible and may make a mistake or commit an evil deed. But humanity and the world make progress by pledging not to repeat such mistakes. Therefore, repentance and apology mean not only the correction of the past but also a promise for the future. Hopefully, the Korea-Japan relationship will be remembered as an exemplary case of the universal human values of repentance and tolerance, apology and reconciliation, and peace and coexistence.

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