History could repeat itselfPeople have different views of the same historical events. The difference becomes sharper when there is a winner and a loser. Liugong Island in China and Shimonoseki in Japan are historic sites from the first Sino-Japanese War. Memorials are located at both places, but the stories they tell are very different.
The war began 120 years ago. It is known in China as the War of Jiawu, referring to the year 1894 under the traditional sexagenary cycle. Liugong Island is a small island near the city of Weihai in Shandong Province. It used to be the base of the Northern Fleet of the Qing Dynasty, and the Chinese memorial is located there.
At the time, the naval powers of China and Japan were similar. The capabilities and strategies of commanders, the will of the leadership and the level of patriotism decided the outcome. The memorial in Liugong Island begins its exhibition with the drama of bitter defeat, describing the cruelty of the Japanese forces and the resistance of China’s civilians.
Admiral Ding Ruchang was the commander of the Qing Dynasty’s Northern Fleet. He was crushed by the Japanese fleet and committed suicide. He was the vanquished leader in a shaming war. But a magnificent statue of him was erected on the island. His decision to not surrender was repackaged as a brave sacrifice. The concept fueled the emotions of the Chinese who later suffered from Japan’s invasions. Their rage was transformed into a strong determination to fight Japan’s conquest of the region.
In the memorial, a lesson from the War of Jiawu is explicitly drawn. “The humiliating history from the War of Jiawu shows that if you fall behind, you will lose.” Pledges of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are also displayed at the memorial. All the leaders made the same promise of a strong naval power for China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” includes that earnest wish. The spirit of the Chinese military is feistier than ever. The Diaoyu islands, known as the Senkakus by Japan, are the first target. The Chinese Air Force announced its new air defense identification zone in November last year and included the disputed islands in it.
The first Sino-Japanese War ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. The treaty was signed at the Shunpanro Hotel in Shimonoseki, which is in operation today. Not far away is the Sino-Japanese Peace Memorial Hall. The structure is simple and small. Busts of Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito and Foreign Minister Munemitsu Mutsu are also small. They were the chief negotiators for Japan in the treaty.
Perhaps because they were the winners, the Japanese had the luxury of choosing simplicity in their memorial. The memorial has calligraphy by Li Hongzhang, who was the chief negotiator for the Qing Dynasty. It was about his feeling intoxicated by the big sea and mists of Shimonoseki. It’s an irony that depicts his grave feelings after the crushing defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War.
The treaty was brutal to China. The Senkakus were declared Japanese territory, while China lost its influence over the Korean Peninsula for the first time in thousands of years of Korea-China relations.
The Sino-Japanese War Museum on Liugong Island in China was built on a larger scale, and the exhibitions are more detailed. Photos of the Japanese military leadership are vividly displayed. Photos of Aritomo Yamagata - the first prime minister of Japan and chief founder of the modern Japanese army - instantly captures the attention of visitors.
Ito and Yamagata are symbols of the Meiji Restoration. They are from the same hometown - Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture - a small city north of Shimonoseki.
Yamaguchi was the Choshu Domain during the Meiji era, and it was the hub of Japan’s modernization. It provided both the theories and implementations of Japan’s expansion and invasions. Nobusuke Kishi and Eisaku Sato were also from Yamaguchi. The brothers both served as prime ministers from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
The electoral district of the current Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is Yamaguchi. Kishi was Abe’s maternal grandfather. Abe is imbued with the historical sensibility of the Choshu Domain. His recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is an expression of pride of coming from Yamaguchi. Abe reconstructs Japan’s history by editing out the aggression and cruelties while highlighting the patriotism of the Japanese and their supposed sacrifices.
Xi’s “Chinese Dream” and Abe’s Yamaguchi pride are major factors in contemporary Northeast Asian affairs. They heightened tensions in the cycle of history. In 2014, Northeast Asia is facing tensions and conflicts. The first arena of the Sino-Japanese War was the Korean Peninsula and the Donghak Peasant Revolution was the trigger of the war. At the time, the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) let the foreign forces decide its destiny.
North Korea’s nuclearization is a conundrum, and we cannot find an immediate solution to it. The bizarreness of the Kim Jong-un regime has been reinforced, and its nuclear program is an obvious barrier for the Korean people’s further advance. It provides an excuse for the superpowers’ intervention in peninsular affairs.
The worst-case scenario is yet to come - when the North’s nuclear weapons become uncontrollable due to a sudden collapse of the regime. The Chinese military will most likely enter North Korea and remove the nuclear arms and prop up another pro-China regime. The United States will allow it, because its key interest is the denuclearization of the North.
Japan will join in by claiming its right to “collective self-defense.” It will be a rerun of the foreign interventions at the time of the Donghak Peasant Revolution 120 years ago.
When North Korea executed Jang Song-thaek, the United States and China cooperated closely. The key to Xi’s diplomacy is “a new type of major power relationship” and North Korea’s nuclear program will be its first test.
The Northeast Asian order is facing a grand transformational period. Uncertainty is a characteristic of a transformation and the Korean Peninsula is at the uncertain center. South Korea must have control over the future of the Korean Peninsula. It is of desperate importance for South Korea to maintain ownership of the peninsula’s fate, and this will be the top priority of the Park Geun-hye administration.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAngIlbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon