Trapped in the past
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in remarked harshly on Japan ahead of the centennial of the March 1st Independence Movement. He traced many abnormalities in society back to the Japanese occupation. He blamed imperial Japan for chronic ideological disputes, economic disparities and the limits of the prosecutors and the police. He believes that ideological clashes are connected to Japanese collaboration and said that imperial Japan had branded independence activists with the stigma of communism. Attacking political opponents as “red” is inherited from the Japanese collaborators, he said. He also mentioned that families of Japanese collaborators who have been enjoying wealth for three generations are one of the reasons for the unfair distribution of wealth. The police during the Japanese occupation led to corruption, he also said. In short, imperial Japan left Korea with a negative imprint.
In Korean history, the past 100 years have been turbulent, from the Japanese occupation, to liberation and later division with the Korean War, industrialization and democratization. It seems to be President Moon’s historical interpretation to see the anti-Japanese and democracy activists on one side and Japanese collaborators and conservatives on the other. Let’s say that this is his personal belief as he tries to secure legitimacy of the current administration. But it is not wise for him to condemn Japan’s past and inspire public anger.
Japan is a nasty neighbor. Japan left unforgettable wounds on Korea, and there has never been a clear apology. But it won’t disappear even if you want it gone. As one of three economic powers after the United States and China, Japan has power and diplomatic influence. It is the reason why Japan should not be ignored no matter how much President Moon works with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. I explain this reasoning from the perspective of German reunification.
German reunification was not achieved by German people alone. East Germany and West Germany were divided after World War II, and they needed approval from the four Allied countries, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. While the United States and the Soviet Union, the two main powers of the Cold War, had the key, it was not possible without the consent of Britain and France.
To France, Germany was an uncomfortable neighbor, like Japan. France and Germany had fought four wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. In October 1806, Napoleon conquered Berlin, and in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), France was defeated. France won the first World War (1914-1918), but Paris fell in only six weeks to Hitler during World War II (1939-1945). When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, France and Britain welcomed it, but they fiercely opposed a unified Germany as they were reminded of the nightmare of Germany’s past. If France refused West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a unified Germany on Oct. 3, 1990, wouldn’t have been possible.
The dynamics of East and West Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain somewhat parallels the current structure of South and North Korea, the United States, China and Japan. Like how the United States led negotiations, President Moon serves as a mediator, like the West German chancellor did. The Soviet Union backed East Germany like how China sponsors North Korea now. Japan, like France did before, has a vote.
Just like France’s position in the German reunification talks, the United States is the constant in the North Korean nuclear deal, while Japan is the variable that can shake the constant.
After the Hanoi showdown, the United States and North Korea have been at odds over a “big deal” and a “phased denuclearization.” U.S. President Donald Trump has a tendency to calculating everything in money rather than alliance. He is someone who can reverse everything if dealmaking with North Korea doesn’t work. If defense-cost sharing doesn’t go well, he can withdraw the U.S. Forces Korea and even go back to the Acheson Line.
Japan is making political and economic calculations over the possibilities of a broken deal or an inter-Korean economic community. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump are close friends, playing golf together and making Nobel Prize recommendations. I wonder what Abe will say when Trump makes a state visit in May. In the jungle of international politics, I don’t want to regret snarling at a lion for eating a good deer.
It is the cold reality that Koreans cannot decide on the resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism and Kaesong Industrial Complex. The future of the Korean Peninsula could be missed if we are trapped in the past. No matter how detestable Japan is, Korea needs to get along with it. It is dirty and sad, but a leader must consider the national interest.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 15, Page 31