A bleak anniversary on Aug. 15
I would like to say that I’m looking forward to Aug. 15. But I’m not, so that would be a lie. Readers are entitled to demand honesty from their columnists. So let me be frank with you.
Aug. 15 means little to most of the world, but for two countries this date is highly charged. North and South Korea? No, shame on you. Those are two states. Korea is one nation.
India is the other. Did you know that Aug. 15 is Independence Day in India, too? There, the year was 1947, when the British Raj finally ended. So as well as 75 million Koreans, rather more Indians - 1.2 billion - will also be celebrating their nation’s recovery of its freedom.
The date is not all they share. Japan was defeated in World War II, whereas Britain agreed (eventually) to relinquish its imperial rule. Yet both these liberations proved to be bloody and contested.
For Korea and India alike, the downside of freedom was national division. India’s Muslims, fearing Hindu dominance, demanded their own state: hastily carved out in the sub-continent’s mainly Muslim west and east. Twelve million people on the wrong side of the new lines fled to the other; a million died in horrific inter-communal slaughter. The new state, Pakistan, itself later split violently in 1971. The east was reborn as Bangladesh, again amid appalling bloodshed.
India and Pakistan have fought four wars since 1947. Ominously, both now have nuclear and missile arsenals. Pakistan, driven by sectarian and ethnic violence, appears ever less stable. In a sub-continent sundered at birth, the evil demons thus unleashed looks far from finished yet.
And Korea? You don’t need a foreigner to tell you. What was meant as a temporary partition, to take the Japanese surrender, hardened at once into rigid separation. A horrendous civil war soon followed. The freedom Koreans had yearned for thus took an unimaginably tragic turn.
So I find it hard to celebrate Aug. 15 with unalloyed joy. Koreans have paid a terrible price for their freedom. Indeed, the word scarcely applies to those unlucky enough to live north of what was the 38th Parallel, now the ironically named demilitarized zone (DMZ). After 35 years of foreign oppression, they have now spent twice as long under home-grown tyrants.
Seventy years! This is an extra bitterness. Who ever imagined Korea’s “temporary” partition lasting so long? Adding insult to injury, for most non-Koreans alive today, there is no Korea, only South Korea and North Korea. Two Koreas are all the post-war world has ever known.
How can Korea move forward? The starting point - easy for me to say, hard for you to do - is not to dwell on the past. What happened, happened. No one can erase history. But what we can and must do is strive to build a better future, unfettered by the shackles of the past.
If that sounds vague, let me spell out what may be an unpalatable message. I’m struck by how stuck South Korea seems to be on two fronts, both rooted in 1945: North Korea and Japan.
True, both have done wicked things. Maybe you can’t forgive; you certainly shouldn’t forget. But the question is: At what point do you let go, put all that aside and move firmly forward?
“Never!” would be what many Koreans would angrily retort. Or at least: “Not until they repent.”
Japan has to apologize for its wartime past and much else - and really mean it this time. As for North Korea, it must at least confess to one more recent crime - torpedoing the ROK Cheonan in 2010.
Both are righteous demands in theory. But the painful yet necessary question is: What if they don’t apologize? Should South Korea be steadfast in its demands? Or is a Plan B needed?
Japan first. What will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe say in his address on Aug. 15? We may yearn for the proper apology for which Japan’s pre-1945 war crimes cry out, but do you seriously expect to hear that, from those lips? And if he doesn’t, what will you do then?
As for the Cheonan, Pyongyang still denies responsibility (There are, or were, some skeptics in Seoul, too). Given this, why demand a guilty plea that will never come? Isn’t it urgent to consider the big picture, and how to break the current inter-Korean deadlock? In that context, why not put the May 24 sanctions up for negotiation, as this newspaper has recommended?
I am not counselling surrender, on either the northern or eastern front. But smart diplomacy needs to look forward, not backward.
Objectively, better ties with Japan are in South Korea’s national interests and are achievable. Indeed, if elites on both sides had tried harder, this could and should have been accomplished years ago, as France and Germany managed after 1945.
North Korea is a tougher nut to crack. Yet the status quo is going nowhere, while tensions are dangerous. Almost halfway through her term, Park Geun-hye’s “trustpolitik” has borne little fruit. Fresh, vigorous and creative thinking is urgently needed before her time runs out.
On Aug. 15, I shall raise a glass from afar to my dear Korea. My toast will be reconciliation - with Japan and with North Korea. Neither is easy, but both are feasible. And long overdue.
*The author is an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the United Kingdom.
by Aidan Foster-Carter