Too much forgivenessOn the morning of Dec. 26, 2011, 38-year-old Chinese national Liu Qiang started a fire at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japanese soldiers including war criminals from the Second World War. He fled to Seoul later in the day. He then threw Molotov cocktails at the Japanese embassy in Seoul and was arrested and jailed. When he finished his jail sentence in November, Japan demanded Korea extradite him so he could be prosecuted for the Yasukuni attack. It cited a bilateral extradition treaty between Japan and Korea.
A Seoul High Court turned down Tokyo’s request and instead sent Liu back home to Shanghai, saying his attack was a political crime eligible for immunity from extradition. The decision raised an uproar in Japan and some Japanese said the ruling could cost Korea international credibility. Koreans coolly responded that Japan should accept a Korean court decision.
Was the Korean judiciary fair in its ruling? Can we confidently argue that Japan has been given a fair hearing? Will the ruling have any negative repercussions on our bilateral relations with Japan or any other geopolitical relations?
The Korean court referred to Liu as an offender of a political crime of relativism - not a common statutory crime. International law divides political offenses into two large categories depending on absolute and relative point of views. Absolute political offenders commit treason, rebellion, security law violations and other threats to the political or social order. Activists who rebelled against communist or authoritarian regimes or started civil wars in underdeveloped societies in the past fit into the class. More recently, protesters in democracy movements in Arab nations could be categorized as such. They can be denied extradition.
However, political criminals of a relative sort also find themselves on trial. Terrorists are good examples. The judiciary has to judge those extradition cases based on the graveness of the political crime. The Seoul court decided to send Liu, who served a prison sentence for throwing firebombs at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011, back to China instead of Japan because it judged he “committed a political offense not of a serious or cruel anti-humanity crime.”
Liu’s motive for the arson attacks was understandable. His maternal grandmother, who was Korean, was forced to serve as a sex slave for Japanese soldiers during the war. And his paternal grandfather, who was Chinese, was an officer in an army led by the Chinese Communist Party during the war of resistance against Japan, who died in battle. He said he was motivated by the “anti-humanitarian acts by militaristic Japan” and Tokyo’s refusal to apologize for its past misdeeds.
But whether his acts can be permissible remain questionable. The Seoul court said the suspect harmed no one with the arson attacks and caused no significant property damage except for burns on the embassy gate and main gates of the Yasukuni shrine.
To the Japanese, however, the shrine is no ordinary building. An arson attack against such a symbolic venue could have caused psychological harm to the Japanese people.
He also threw firebombs at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The damage was rather small. But he nevertheless was sentenced to 10 months in jail. Is upholding law and order important in Korea but less so in Japan? The bilateral extradition treaty is an agreement to mutually respect the laws and judiciary rights in each country.
Extending tolerance to relative political offenders could be problematic. Let’s consider a man whose father was killed by the Americans during the Korean War. He turns anti-American, destroys a statue of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who led the U.S. forces during the Korean War, and flees to a country hostile to the United States. Wouldn’t Seoul be angry if that nation refused to turn him over?
And let’s consider a Korean with an ancestor who was killed by the Chinese army during the Korean War who sets fire to a Korean War memorial in China. If he flees to another country, will Beijing accept the decision without protest? If offenses of political purposes are all protected, similar crimes of rage and protest will only increase. No country would be safe from the dangers.
Japan deserves resentment and rage from its victimized neighbors for its insolence and lack of genuine remorse for its militaristic past. It should be condemned in the name of humanity, not only on behalf of the victims. But the means nevertheless must be reasonable and rational. Passion should not prevail over the law.
Korea, China and Japan are intricately bound with a tragic past, a complicated present and an unpredictable future. Japan is solely responsible for complicating the relationship. But the problems can worsen if sentiment eclipses reason and law. The three countries need to exercise extraordinary vigilance against violence as they have all been engaged in wars with one another.
If violence of purpose becomes permissible, the violence can easily spread. If we tolerate acts of violence against the Japanese, we send the wrong message to the new rising power in the region. If Liu acted out of an altruistic purpose, he should have no fear in making his stand in a Japanese court.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin