A scolding from Admiral Yi

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A scolding from Admiral Yi


Park Bo-gyoon
The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The government has exposed all of its capabilities in the face of a crisis. The Moon Jae-in administration has shown its bare face as it counters economic retaliations from Japan.

The rhetoric has been strong and determined. All the heroic images — from grassroots revolts to Japanese invasions to Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s defeat of Japanese fleets with his humble 12 wooden vessels — are used to stir up anti-Japanese and nationalist sentiments. President Moon Jae-in invited citizens to visit Jeo Island in Geoje, South Gyeongsang in the South Sea — a restricted island that is home to a presidential resort. He reminded them of the historic meaning of the location where Yi scored his first victory against the Japanese Navy during Japan’s invasion from 1552 to 1598.

The borrowed images and rhetoric are muddled. “The Bamboo Spear” song referred to by Cho Kuk — who recently resigned as Moon’s secretary for civil affairs — when he pleaded for people to rebel against Japanese retaliation is from the Donghak Peasant Revolution (1894-95). The lyrics hardly reflect the heroism of Yi, as he did not wail over defeat like in “The Bamboo Spear” song, a popular song used during the democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s.

Yi’s turtle battleship campaign symbolized confidence and dignity. His tactics were meticulous. He did not try to face the enemy with bamboo sticks. He created a winning strategy and studied his military resources before facing the enemy. Mixing the heedless peasant revolt with the leadership of Yi is a disgrace to his name.

Yi embodies triumph against crisis. He gathered all the possible intelligence and planned out defense strategies thoroughly. After a victory in Dangpo, a port in Geoje Island on May 29, 1592, Yi wrote that he had designed the turtle warship in fear of invasion by outsiders. He was a perfectionist in battle readiness. He did not tolerate sloppiness or laziness.

The export curbs Japan slapped on key chemicals bound for Korea for chip and display production was an unfair ambush. But provocations had been forewarned. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been tough. Yet the presidential office only issued a ceremonial statement that it respected the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Korean plaintiffs by ordering a Japanese company to compensate individuals for wartime forced labor regardless of the inter-government reparations in return for the normalization of ties in 1965. The Blue House stayed oblivious and found the export curbs bewildering. The response was naturally sloppy. If Yi were here today, he would scold them.

In his diary, Yi repeated the ancient Chinese war slogan: “Know yourself, know your enemy and you shall win a hundred battles without a loss.” He studied his sea, arms capabilities, climate and other resources, as well as Japan’s, and drew analysis with balance and a cool head.
The Moon team is unrefined in their choice of language. Choi Jae-sung heads the ruling Democratic Party’s special committee on Japanese export restrictions. In a press conference with foreign correspondents on July 25, he likened the economic restrictions, which can also damage Japanese companies, to a “kamikaze” attack from Japan.

His comment was provocative and misleading. The Pearl Harbor attacks led to World War II. The suicidal aerial attacks were also employed three years later in 1944 amid diminished Japanese naval capacity. Japan resorted to extreme actions after it suffered critical defeats. These clumsy statements must have drawn silent mockery from Japanese and American journalists.

Moon champions localization of materials technology to become independent of Japanese imports. “We have beaten Japan in their superior technologies. We can also win this (war over materials).” The can-do slogan was borrowed from the industrialization period under former President Park Chung Hee. The first-generation entrepreneurs were motivated by such animal instinct. But entrepreneurs these days hardly have such inspiration. They face a myriad of regulations and militant unions.

Modernization and industrialization have been as hard as achieving democracy in Korea. The global business environment runs on pragmatism and distribution of the value chain. Localization of technologies requires bold entrepreneurship. Narrow-minded nationalism cannot help.
The Korea-Japan relationship has reached a turning point. The variants and sentiments are different from the past days. To defeat Japan, one must know Japan. Bilateral relations can be strengthened during this learning period. We must familiarize ourselves with Japanese ways in order to be ready to both strike and defend.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 1, Page 31
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