Japan is not an enemy

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Japan is not an enemy

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


The worst conflict between Korea and Japan — a ticking bomb — has been left unattended. Though anti-Korean sentiments in Japan are part of the problem, Seoul’s anti-Japan policy, which has been trapped in the framework of the past, is now threatening its national interests. The lesser-known history of former Kohap Group chairman Chang Chi-hyuck’s parents shows a clue for overcoming Japan, the starting point of modern Korea’s internal wounds.

Korea’s independence came when Chang was 14 and living in his hometown, Yongbyon, North Pyongan Province. On Aug. 16, 1945, the day after Japan’s defeat, Chang’s mother gave a Taegukgi, Korea’s national flag, to her son and told him that, “Starting today, Japan is not our enemy — it is our closest neighbor.” The worldview of that boy, who had long considered Japan an irreconcilable enemy, changed instantly.

Chang’s mother, Kim Suk-ja, was one of the initiators of the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement at the state-run Gyeongseong Girls’ School, which is now Kyunggi Girls’ High School. When she was arrested as an organization agent in South Pyongan for the Korean Women’s Patriotic Association, she was seven-months pregnant. His father, Chang Do-bin, was a historian and the chief editor of Daehan Maeil Sinbo, an anti-Japan newspaper in Seoul. He participated in the independence movement in the Maritime Province of Russia after Korea’s annexation by Japan.

Chang, the son of anti-Japan activists, lived an extremely poor life. The family had no money with which to buy shoes, so he had to walk to school barefoot.

Yet After liberation, Chang’s mother was not hostile toward Japan. She sheltered the wife and two children of a Japanese judge who was arrested by Soviet troops and sent to Siberia. Although she fed her own children steamed barley, the Japanese guests were offered steamed rice. When her children complained, she said, “They can only eat white rice.”

Chang’s father was also extraordinary. When Kim Dae-wu, who served as governor of North Jeolla and North Gyeongsang under the Japanese colonial government, and Kim Woo-young, another high-ranking official, faced trials for their collaboration with Japan, Chang Do-bin was asked to offer advice to the Special Investigation Committee of Antinational Activities. “The two men never suppressed independence activists. Kim Woo-young actually supported them secretly. Their administrative experiences in the government should be used for our country’s new government,” Chang Do-bin said. The couple both showed tolerance and pragmatism.

While studying at Seoul National University Law School, their son, Chang Chi-hyuck, became adept at making money as he worked as a street vendor and sold U.S. snacks and chewing gum. When he created the Koryo Synthetic Fiber Company, he obtained technology from Mitsui Petrochemical and later received help from Itochu Corporation.

Ryuzo Sejima, then chairman of Itochu, was a war criminal who planned the Pacific War as a staff officer at the Imperial Headquarters. After the war, he had a vision to realize peace in Asia through economic cooperation. So he introduced Chang to associates of Deng Xiaoping in 1986. Chang helped connect President Roh Tae-woo and Deng, playing a crucial role in the 1992 normalization of relations between Korea and China. Korea, China and Japan, once enemies to one another, began to cooperate. “The Japanese people became more friendly and truly helped me after they discovered the anti-Japan activities of my parents,” Chang recalled.

President Moon Jae-in’s anti-Japan stance and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rightist swing are colliding. As the so-called comfort women deal — agreed by Moon’s predecessor — was practically shelved, the Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies should pay compensation to the forced laborers. Since then, bilateral diplomatic ties have been frozen. Economic cooperation has staggered. Boycotts of products have begun. The 50th Korea-Japan Business Conference, scheduled for next month, was postponed until after September.

After victims of forced labor said they would seize assets of corporate war criminals such as Mitsubishi, Tokyo warned that it would slap on retaliatory tariffs and stop the supply of components. The anti-Japan and anti-Korea sentiments are about to destroy the firewall of the separation of politics and economy.

The two Asian neighbors — which are supposed to cooperate to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and jointly counter the aftermath of the U.S.-China trade conflicts — are suffering from damaged relations. Yet Korea actually suffers more. Korean businessmen trading with Japan are all uneasy. The answer is already clear: Korea should take the initiative to quickly resolve the situation.

The worsened Korea-Japan relations adversely affect the Korea-U.S. relations. Concerns grow in Washington that Japan will soon become a spoiler of Korea-U.S. ties. Abe will be tempted to use anti-Korean sentiments in the Upper House election in July. Yet the Korean government is doing nothing about it.

Time is on Japan’s side. Tokyo is lobbying all fields to create a favorable sentiment in the international community. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation was established by Ryoichi Sasakawa, a Class A war criminal. Dennis Blair, the former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, is the chairman of the board of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Washington. Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine is also contacting key Korean officials. Yet Moon only sent an amateur, who doesn’t even speak Japanese, as the Korean ambassador to Japan, and wasted precious time.

Japan’s illegal colonial rule of Korea is a fact, and we must address it with dignity. Yet Japan’s heart will be shut toward Korea if we continue to point out its previous wrongdoings while ignoring its goodwill and contributions since liberation.

Hatred cannot erase hatred; the failure in Korea-Japan relations does not help Korea’s diplomacy and economy, nor does it help Korea’s present or future. We must remember the tolerance and pragmatism of the independence activists, who said we should be a good neighbor with Japan although we had fought against the country risking our lives. The dichotomy ignoring reality cannot open the door to heaven.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 8, Page 31
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