A letter to President Obama

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A letter to President Obama

When Koreans meet, we say to one another, “Are you at peace?” When we part, we say, “Go in peace” or “Peace be with you.” Dr. Syngman Rhee, who became the founding president of the Republic of Korea, described Korean culture in his 1940 book, “Japan Inside Out: The Challenge of Today,” which also warned of militarist Japan’s ambitions to invade the United States. Having experienced suffering, Koreans ask about each other’s conditions when we meet and part. From the other side of the Pacific, I would like to ask you, Mr. President, “Are you at peace?”

Koreans love peace. However, we had to go through the pains of aggression, colonization, division and war whenever territorial disputes and bargaining occurred because of the changing power dynamics in Northeast Asia. So we have developed a special sense to detect whether a visitor is a guest or an intruder just by listening to the sound of the barking dog. It is an ability that the pains of history have bequeathed us.

Northeast Asia is faced with another modification in its power balance. China is rising and Japan is making uncommon moves. On Oct. 3, Japan got official support for collective self-defense from U.S. secretaries of state and defense. Finally, Japan has become a country that can engage in a war. The United States may want to utilize Japan’s capacity as it cuts its own defense budget. Also, the growing military presence of China and the North Korean nuclear issue must have contributed to the decision.

The problem begins here: Now that it has become America’s core partner, Japan will not make any kind of proper apology for its past aggressions and misdeeds. Instead, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to pay a visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine before the first anniversary of his inauguration on Dec. 26. The war criminals who called the Pacific Ocean “Japan’s lake” during World War II are enshrined there.

A visit to the shrine effectively denies Japan’s original sin of aggression. Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who wrote a report urging Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense in 2000, warned that the visit would “have the effect of tearing down all that he has been building up.” Former State Department official Kurt Campbell also discouraged the visit.

Meanwhile, Beijing is worried over Korea joining the U.S.-led missile defense (MD) system. If China counters the Korea-Japan-U.S. alliance by joining hands with North Korea and Russia to build up military capacity, Northeast Asia will find itself in a new cold war. World history is going backwards.

The country that will suffer the most will be Korea, caught between China, the United States and Japan. It is too harsh to expect us to choose a side. The United States is a blood brother, with more than 50,000 young American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. Korea, Japan and China are closely connected in an extensive international division of labor in manufacturing. Korea wants to get along with the three countries that offered us great help in our successful democratization and industrialization.

In your autobiography “The Audacity of Hope,” you wrote that military strength is only one of many tools to enhance America’s national interests, and the United States needs to take international opinions into account in order to win the battle of ideas in a broader sense. You ended the Iraq War and put a brake on the growing defense budget, the main runaway budget item during the Bush administration. The world supported your courage. Now, Washington should consider President Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asia peace community plan, which posits a solution to the Asian paradox from a multilateral angle.

At every historical crisis, the United States made a turn toward peace with unexpected tactics. President Warren Harding dissolved the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and initiated the Washington Conference to prepare the foundation of world peace through a multilateral security structure. President Richard Nixon announced the Nixon Doctrine to end the cold war in 1969 and brokered a historic reconciliation with China in 1972.

How should we understand Washington’s attempt to put a check on China through an alliance with Korea and Japan? China is the biggest creditor of the United States. America is the biggest market for China. You wrote in your autobiography that the biggest challenge from China is not its military but its economy.

If America’s past enemies raise arms again, their victims will suffer again. Peace in East Asia would break down, which would ultimately hurt the national interests of the United States. Thanks to a deep-rooted pacifist legacy, the Japanese public opposes rearmament. Only when force is used reasonably can history’s justice be realized. We will continue to support your thoughtful endeavors for peace.
May peace be with you.
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