Addressing shared history in a clear and direct way

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Addressing shared history in a clear and direct way


Kim Jong-pil delivers a speech at an event organized on June 3, 2005, by the Yomiuri Shimbun at the center of the Japan Business Federation in Tokyo. At his right was former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. [Yomiuri Shimbun]

When I think of my role in Seoul-Tokyo relations, I recall my speech delivered at an event organized on June 3, 2005 by the Yomiuri Shimbun at the center of the Japan Business Federation in Tokyo. Japan’s prominent opinion leaders - the heads of newspaper companies and high-ranking government officials - were present at the gathering, which was organized by Tsuneo Watanabe, the chairman of the Yomiuri Shimbun.

For about 40 minutes, I unleashed stories that I had not shared with the Japanese before, including my personal experiences that those born post-World War II could not have experienced themselves.

“This year [2005] marks the 100th anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War that brought a surprise victory for Tokyo. And I can see many Japanese are in a celebratory mode. But to Koreans, that war is only a painful reminder that it worked as a direct pathway for Tokyo to colonize the Korean Peninsula. I think there is a strong tendency among Japanese leaders to look at 20th century history only through the perspectives of the powerful and the weak, in large part because the country has rarely been invaded by foreign forces.”

As I was giving my remarks, without any fancy diplomatic rhetoric, many in the audience seemed taken aback. Nevertheless, I continued with my candid views of the complicated history between us.

“To all of you, Saigo Takamori is a hero known as the last true Samurai who laid the foundation for the Meiji Restoration [which restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868]. But to Koreans, he helped build Japan’s imperialism, which victimized Korea. To you, Ito Hirobumi [the first resident-general of Korea during colonial rule] is also known as a key architect of the Meiji Restoration and is widely respected, though he is merely a main instigator for Japan’s colonization of Korea and is a subject of national condemnation.

“In one country, a man is revered as a national hero. But just across the border, that same man becomes the subject of hatred and contempt.”

Tensions in the conference hall were rising as I continued to explain my views on the emotionally charged subject of both countries’ shared modern history.

“This year also marks 110 years since Empress Myeongseong of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was slain to death by men under the command of Miura Goro, Japan’s resident minister in Seoul at the time. If you can imagine that same tragedy happening to the Japanese empress at the royal palace, you can get a sense of the depth of anger and outrage Koreans feel toward Japan for its atrocities.”

During my speech, I also cited a remark by the novelist George Orwell - “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” - to make my point that we must face up to the past without distortion.

“Those of us living in the present must squarely look at the past so we can also clearly see the future.”

As I ended my speech, silence filled the hall. It was as if everyone there had heard something they had never heard before or had even expected to hear. But it was something that I had always wanted to let the Japanese know - the gap between the Koreans and the Japanese in reflecting on our shared history.

When I was still in politics, I always thought I should convey my message directly to the Japanese, without any diplomatic rhetoric, even if it could hurt their feelings.

My speech in 2005 was made just shortly after my retirement from politics and the majority of those in the audience were leaders in Japanese society who could have a big impact on public livelihood. I was determined to use that occasion as an invaluable opportunity to channel my thoughts directly. After my speech, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who served in office in the 1980’s, stood on stage, appearing quite somber.

“Kim and I have kept a close relationship for 40 years, but never have I heard him express such candid thoughts [on the history between our two nations],” he said. “I understand that, being on the forefront of fostering ties between Tokyo and Seoul over the past 40 years, he wanted to use this occasion as a chance to share what has been on his mind for a long time.

“Kim does have a very critical point of view [when it comes to Japan’s handling of modern history]. But nevertheless, our friendship with Kim must be cherished and continued, because it is the bedrock of the friendship between both nations. … I want you all to remember what Kim has taught us today.”

It is regrettable that Japan’s current political leaders such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who were born in the post-World War II era, have not learned from their seniors who lived through the war. Former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s maternal grandfather, had such a deep understanding of Korea. Every time he met me, he expressed his apologies on behalf of the Japanese for the suffering the Japanese Imperial Government inflicted on Korea.

“Though our past has been marked by dark times, I wish for Korea to be prosperous, with Japan on its side,” he used to say to me.

Shintaro Abe, the current prime minister’s late father, who is known as Japan’s longest-serving post-war foreign minister, also had a close relationship with me. On his part, he tried to improve ties with Korea. And whenever I met him, Shinzo served as his personal secretary.

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