How to win the war
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
I was able to witness the anxiety and divide in our society over the row with Japan while climbing Mount Gwanak in southern Seoul over the weekend. The topics being discussed were focussed solely on Japan, but thoughts clashed. Some criticized the government for hurriedly seeking backing from Washington over the spat with Tokyo after going solo — and many times out of sync with the United States — over North Korean affairs. While some said Seoul should learn a lesson or two from the Shinzo Abe administration, others said that’s a typical pro-Japan stance. Everyone had a reason to be fuming.
The rage was triggered by Tokyo’s overbearing ways. Still, the vexation did not entirely fall on Tokyo. Ruling party politicians have been raising their radical rhetoric — first encouraging a civilian uprising against neo-Japanese aggression and then stigmatizing anyone calling for restraint as “pro-Japanese” who should “move to Japan if they like them so much.” Those still living with bitter memories of the suffering under the brutalities of the Japanese colonial period could have experienced catharsis from the outbursts by politicians on their behalf. Dramas and films reliving the past under Japanese aggressions have set a blatantly anti-Japan mood.
South Koreans habitually turn feverish whenever South Korea faces Japan on the sports field. And yet, not everyone can understand the president reciting the heroism of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598) and vowing to “never give in to Japan” on television. They cannot understand why South Korean enterprises and people are pushed into a hard battle with Japan and why they have come to such a desperate situation where the government must resort to blind patriotism instead of instilling confidence. They cannot comprehend why they must obediently comply with the government’s engrossment with past issues, including its relentless campaign to root out “past evils.”
The past must not be forgotten as it gives meaning to the present and future. French author Albert Camus had said that not punishing yesterday’s crimes is as foolish as encouraging tomorrow’s crimes. The difference is sincerity. Only when the government applies the same standards can people accept it. If principles and criteria differ according to where you stand, it spikes complaints about the judgment.
The ruling power’s obsession with the past has been stretched to the colonial and post-liberation days, the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and even beyond. Its obsessive pursuit of past issues has triggered vengeful economic actions from Japan. Yet the liberal government does not demand any explanation or apology from North Korea for its invasion, terror and military provocations. The attack on the Cheonan warship and the deadly skirmishes in the West Sea are not the distant past.
Since last month, North Korea has continued missile provocations. Yet the government stays mum on the matter. Instead, President Moon Jae-in proposed inter-Korean economic cooperation as a solution to beat Japan in an economic war. Loyalists of the liberal administration scorn founding President Syngman Rhee and former President Park Chung Hee, who created the Miracle on the Han River, as puppets for Japan and the United States.
All of a sudden, however, they are focusing on the future ahead of the general election next year. The president scorned the opposition for exploiting the division of the Korean Peninsula and ideology for political gains. The ruling party accuses the main opposition Liberty Korea Party for being “innately pro-Japan.”
The war with Japan has already started. If it cannot be avoided, it should be won. Even without the president’s chanting, we must muster our capabilities. But the governing power should be able to earn public support. It may have support from its loyalists, but the government cannot fight a war if it shuns the opposition. It only raises suspicion that its hard-line stance is more based on self-serving interests than national interests.
It is true that people do not have a future if they forget their past. But a regime obsessed with a selective past cannot move forward. It must be more honest than Japan to gain respect from the people. It cannot win this war with outdated rebellion chants or anti-Japan rally cries. Moon’s Aug. 15 Liberation Day address should be inspirational and dignified — not slanderous and shaming.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 9, Page 30