The neighborly wayKorea and Japan celebrated the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations on Monday. Two months later, Korea will commemorate the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day from Japan’s colonial rule and also of the division of the Korean Peninsula. Whenever a historical anniversary arises, we come to mourn the lack of insight that can look back on the past and look into the future at the same time.
The diplomatic ties established a half century ago contributed a lot to the normalization of the two countries’ relations and the industrialization of the Korean economy. But the restoration of the ties took place during the Cold War and also amid the tumult of Korean politics. Therefore, we could hardly expect everyone to have a proper understanding of the historical background of the development.
It would neglect the graveness of history if anyone thought that bilateral relations were normalized easily without recognizing - and bitterly regretting - the true nature of the imperialistic era that ended in 1945 with the end of World War II and particularly the rupture of the Korea-Japan relationship triggered by Japanese militarism.
With a complete overhaul of the country through the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan became the only Asian nation to succeed in modernization and westernization. After its repeated victories against China and Russia in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Japan could join the ranks of world powers in the imperial period.
Following the practice of western imperialism to exploit colonies, Japan forcibly annexed Korea in 1910 - an attempt to realize its 300-year-old dream of expanding its power to the continent - just like it invaded Joseon in 1592. The expansionary dynamics of the Japanese empire led to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and eventually to the Second World War.
However, after its defeat in World War II, a historical view prevailed in Japan to downplay its militaristic invasion policy as a mere phenomenon emerging after the Manchurian incident in 1931 and to separate the issue from the forcible annexation of Korea. That has been described precisely by Yi Tae-jin, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, during a lecture at the University of Tokyo.
Recently, some Japanese are doing some deep soul-searching into the country’s militarist past. But at the same time, an attempt to distinguish Japan’s invasion of mainland China after the 1931 Manchurian Invasion from the 1910 annexation of Korea is also being made. Such an attempt to turn a blind eye to the natural logic - that it could only enter China via the Korean Peninsula - also constitutes a fundamental obstacle to truly normalizing Korea-Japan ties.
It is necessary to have a new understanding that Japan’s 35-year-long colonial rule was an exception from the imperialist era’s expansionary policy and that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Korea and Japan means the normalization or restoration of the two countries’ international relations that had continued for thousands of years.
In 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, then-Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued an apology for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea and invasion of China by treating them as the wrongs of Japanese imperialism. That was an act representing Japan’s intelligence and conscience.
That is why we are presented continuously with constructive ideas and designs through which Korea and Japan - and Korea, Japan and China for that matter - will work together to open a new Asian era. For example, a report on the new 50 years of the Korea-Japan relations presented by a joint research team of the Seoul Forum for International Affairs and the International Institute of Peace Studies recommended specific directions of future Korea-Japan relations in the areas of security, economics and global issues based on mutual respect and trust.
The report said Korea-Japan ties aimed at deterring North Korean threats are only effective when mutual trust is maintained. To this end, it stressed the importance of the U.S. role. Because of Korea’s geopolitical condition of sharing a border with China, it needs to pay attention to friendly relations with China and Japan may feel uncomfortable about this. But the fact that the United States is the most important ally to Korea can calm these jitters, the report said.
Korea, which is naturally concerned about Japan’s attempts to rearm itself, will also believe that the U.S.-Japan alliance will prevent Japan from pursuing a path of neo-militarism, the report pointed out. This is why we need a thorough consideration of how Seoul-Washington-Tokyo trilateral cooperation will contribute to the development of a new international order based on peace in Asia.
In the field of Korea-Japan economic cooperation, the report recommended that the two countries need to work together to tackle mutual challenges such as long-term stagnation following rapid growth, low birthrates, aging societies and the development of new technologies. The two countries need to push forward a joint project of “Korea-Japan Technology Platform 2025” and conclude a bilateral free trade agreement as soon as possible.
The report said Korea and Japan can demonstrate to the world a creative relationship through friendly competition and cooperation. It also said the two countries can actively contribute to global issues like humanitarian aid, human security, nuclear security and environmental preservation.
That grand vision is only possible when serious self-reflection about the past leads to a mutual dream for the future. It is time to renew our determination. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 22, Page 31
*The author is a former prime minister and advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo