Conversing with ex-presidents
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Last weekend was sweltering. But I still embarked on an afternoon stroll in the Seoul National Cemetery, hoping the founding and ex-presidents could offer some wisdom on how to tackle today’s challenges from Japan and address the divide in the nation.
In the presidential section of the cemetery in Dongjak District in southern Seoul, I encountered Park Chung Hee’s grave first. At the tombstone, a plant had a ribbon with an inscription thanking the president who ruled from 1963 to his assassination in 1979 for helping pull the country out of poverty. Poet Lee Eun-sang, in an epitaph, praised Park for his contribution to combating poverty and allowing the country to make a leap onto the global stage.
To pull the war-torn country out of impoverishment, Park sought to normalize ties with Japan and signed a basic treaty in 1965, agreeing to settle the property and individual claims during the wartime and colonial period in return for $500 million in aid and loans. After signing the treaty to normalize diplomatic relations, the military general-turned-president said, “Our past pains can never be compensated. But it is wise for us to shake hands with our past enemy if that is necessary for our present and future.” Korea’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was a mere $108 in 1965. But Park felt that he would shake hands with the devil if that helped the country get ahead.
About 150 meters (490 feet) from Park’s tomb lies Kim Dae-jung’s. The mound is smaller and simpler. “You’re the symbol of democracy. You’re the strength withstanding snowstorm and darkness,” Poet Ko Eun wrote in an epitaph. The poet compared the dissident-turned-president’s righteousness to honeysuckle. In October 1998, Kim made an address to the Japanese parliament. “Japan and Korea were enemies during the seven-year invasion about 400 years ago and the 35-year colonial period in the 20th century. It is foolish to disavow the 1,500 years of exchanges and cooperation just because of the less than 50 years of animosity,” Kim said, leading to the historic declaration of the two leaders — Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi — which paved the way to a forward-looking partnership between the two neighbors.
Another 150 meters away are the tombs of the founding president, Syngman Rhee, and his wife. July 19 marked the 54th anniversary of Rhee’s death. A wreath from President Moon Jae-in was laid. Rhee vowed to get back what had been stolen from Japan and began negotiations to demand wartime reparations.
Kim Young-sam’s tomb is located a little away from the three others. “I’d rather choose a death-like life to live for good over a life that is like a death,” reads his epitaph. Kim was radical on the foreign policy front. Shortly after he took the oath in March 1993, he vowed to compensate comfort women victims through the government budget instead of demanding damages from Japan. His promise never came through in the face of strong opposition, but his idea of the government offering financial help to the victims was meaningful.
The deceased presidents endeavored one way or the other to settle our tragic relationship with Japan. They clashed with Tokyo on every unresolved issue — wartime sex slaves, territorial disputes over the Dokdo islets, Japanese textbook distortions and unremorseful comments from Japanese politicians — and yet mere baby steps were made toward the future. Rhee’s challenge to Tokyo, Park’s pragmatism, Kim Young-sam’s independent compensation endeavors and Kim Dae-jung’s forward-looking relationship are all valuable legacies. Rhee advised caution in the face of Japan’s aggressive nature, Park leaned toward practical solution, Kim Young-sam toward self-sufficiency and Kim Dae-jung brought a more broad-minded perspective.
Korea was one of the poorest countries when it was founded in 1948. Our pitiful per capita GDP of $50 exceeded $30,000 last year, closing on Japan’s $39,000. Korea’s GDP of $1.62 trillion is now a third of Japan’s $4.97 trillion. Korea also joined the 30-50 club — referring to countries with per capita income over $30,000 and populations of over 50 million — which has only six other members. We should find ways to heal the wounds on our own rather than cling to apologies and demands for compensation from Japan.
No money can compensate for the pains and losses of the people forced to perform manual labor or sexual slavery for imperial Japan. Japan can never be pardoned for its deep moral failings. But there is a way to remunerate and restore the dignity for the survivors on our own. It does not mean that we are admitting that wartime issues were settled with the basic treaty as Tokyo insists, or denying the Supreme Court rulings or even surrendering to Tokyo’s economic retaliations. We need to overcome the long agony from our traumatic colonial experience through our national pride and moral superiority.
We were born to a nation with geopolitical weaknesses. We are a neighbor of the nuclear-armed North Korea, China and Russia, whose surveillance jets fly into our skies. It is uncertain which one of his two allies U.S. President Donald Trump would support in their fight over trade and history. But liberals inciting the public to rebel against Japan cannot be justified.
We are at a crossroads. Will the year 2019 be remembered as the year of Japan’s economic invasion or the year when Korea finally shook off its past? Our past presidents all tried to coexist with a neighbor. President Moon must seek their wisdom.