Among the neighbors
On March 1, I read the Declaration of Independence from March 1, 1919, once again. The statement, which coolly observed the flow of history and presented the Korean people’s resolution to pursue their path to the future, touched my heart deeply with its elegance and solemnity. The declaration was written nine years after Japan forcibly took control of the country amidst a frustrating and chaotic situation after World War I, but our ancestors exhibited a sharp judgment of the situation and confidently presented an alternative. I am proud of them and I pay my utmost respects to them.
Most of all, the Declaration of Independence was not the product of a powerful person or political group. It was “an expression of the devotion and loyalty of 20 million people” and that carries historic significance.
“This is the clear command of heaven, the course of our times, and a legitimate manifestation of the right of all nations to coexist and live in harmony,” the statement said, giving us a valuable legacy - the basic direction and strategy for the country to follow the mainstream of world history and move along with the development of a global community.
Japan invaded its neighbors of thousands of years by adopting the evil practice of Western imperialism. But our ancestors did not punish their lack of trust and their lack of a sense of honor. It was not a passive resistance by the weak trapped in the corner of desperation. On the contrary, it was a solemn judgment and warning that Korea, China and Japan were surely marching along a path of mutual destruction.
In 1909, a decade before the Declaration of Independence, independence activist An Jung-geun worked on his essay “On Peace in East Asia” while he was imprisoned in the Lushunkou prison awaiting execution in order to present a direction for the mutual survival and prosperity of the three countries. It presaged the famous sentence from the Declaration of Independence: “How can this be considered a trivial issue of mere sentiment?”
A century has passed since then, and Asia has shown signs of growing into the center of a globalized 21st century, but the Northeast Asian countries failed to evolve into a regional community of mutual prosperity. Omens of conflicts and confrontations, relics from times gone past, are growing - and growing more serious as well.
Despite some regressive moves of governments, the general public is seriously reflecting on the hopes for peace in the region, giving me a sensation of something like a fresh wind. Is this too much optimism?
An editorial from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun on Jan. 1 of this year is a great example. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and Japan must reaffirm the path it has taken as a peaceful country in addition to self-reflection about the war. It must shift its view toward the future from the past, the editorial stressed.
The editorial quoted Kanichi Asakawa’s 1908 essay, which was written shortly after the Russo-Japanese War when he was teaching at Yale University. The Japanese people had not been equipped with an absolutely necessary weapon, a sense of national self-examination, the famous historian was quoted as saying. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun editorial asked its readers if the Japanese are now equipped with the ability to reflect on themselves after a century has passed.
In his New Year’s message, Emperor Akihito said, “I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country.”
On Feb. 20, Crown Prince Naruhito said during a press conference, “I myself did not experience the war, but I think that it is important today, when memories of the war are fading, to look back humbly on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history Japan pursued from the generation which experienced the war to those without direct knowledge.”
He also stressed the importance of peace by saying that Japan, after experiencing the devastation of war, worked hard based on the pacifist constitution to enjoy today’s peace and prosperity.
The statements by the emperor and crown prince give an impression that the imperial house of Japan is having the same perception of history as the people of Asia, including many Japanese people.
Jochen Bittner of Die Zeit in Germany, which also experienced devastating defeat in the war and remarkable recovery from it, advised that the first step for peace in Asia through reconciliation should be taken by Japan with courage and generosity, and Japan must keep this advice in mind.
Winning the neighbors’ trust is a shortcut to boosting a country’s prestige, and Germany has proven this. Instead of combing through history to judge right and wrong, settling a matter from a broad point of view is the most effective way toward reconciliation.
At the second Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November, China also decided to put Asia as the priority for the diplomacy of President Xi Jinping, reconfirming that Asian peace is a prerequisite for development of the region, including China.
Despite turmoil over the past 100 years, we see peace in Asia inextricably linked to Korea’s destiny. Expectations are high for the vision of China and Japan, the world’s second and third-largest economic powers. This year, Korea-China-Japan summits must resume in Seoul. It is time for the neighbors to meet.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo