Moon’s lucky bewilderment
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Seven months before stepping down on January 20, 2009, U.S. President George W. Bush regretted the bellicose rhetoric he used during the Iraq War. Provocative phrases such as “Bring ‘em on” and “Bring him [Osama bin Laden] back dead or alive!” made him look like a warmonger, he admitted. More refined language would have staved off national division and international misunderstandings about the neoconservative president of the United States. But it was too late.
In Korea, liberal President Moon Jae-in must have been embarrassed over a local court’s dismissal Wednesday of a lawsuit by Korean survivors of Japanese wartime sexual slavery for compensation citing so-called “sovereign immunity” — the international legal principle that one country does not fall under the jurisdiction of another country on legal cases. In a similar case in December, however, the Seoul Central District Court ordered Tokyo to compensate 12 survivors of Japanese wartime sexual slavery. Thanks to a dramatic turnaround by a different court, Moon could have less of a diplomatic problem — though he surely feels sorry for the victims and those convinced to harbor strong anti-Japanese sentiment, in part, by his pugnacious rhetoric. Yet the president may find it difficult to retract all the hostility he whipped up against Japan.
The level of Moon’s anti-Japanese messages has ratcheted up since he was sworn in as president in May 2017. In a speech on Aug. 15 Liberation Day three months later, he lambasted Tokyo for a delusive historical perspective that aggravated Korea-Japan relations. In the Liberation Day address in 2018, he defined the sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial Army during World War II as a “grave crime against humanity.” After Tokyo retaliated by restricting exports of parts and materials needed to produce semiconductors in Korea, Moon proclaimed, “Korea will not be defeated by Japan ever again!”
With about a year left in office, Moon’s hawkish rhetoric has turned dovish. In fact, even before his “bewilderment” at the court’s contradiction of an earlier ruling, Moon backed down and said, “We cannot get stuck with the past forever” — this in his speech on the March 1 Independence Movement Day.
The president accepted the agreement between former conservative President Park Geun-hye and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to permanently resolve the sex slave issue through the establishment of a foundation in 2015. Moon certainly found it hard to leave the thorny issue unattended amid the deepening Sino-U.S. tension. It is fortunate that he woke up, albeit late, to a new reality. But Korea’s international credibility has been damaged irrevocably. If Moon had approached Seoul-Tokyo relations in a cooler manner, he could have saved himself from perplexity, and the nation from a diplomatic spat.
What the court’s ruling signifies is clear: in addressing international disputes, you must place reason over emotion and diplomacy over rage. The bench said it had to respect conventional law and Supreme Court precedents although it cannot deny the victims’ rights to claim compensation. Emotions and laws are different. A dichotomy between “you the evil” and “we the good” may work in domestic politics, but not in international relations or courts of justice. The Moon administration’s naïve hope that the world would revolve around us only led it to isolation from the rest of the world.
After the new ruling, progressives in Korea boisterously attacked the bench for being “pro-Japanese” — the expression of which has now escalated to “localized pro-Japanese forces.” The new phrase explicitly reflects a sad legacy of a once-colonized country. Any calls to untie the Gordian knot between the two neighbors with reason and sanity helplessly give way to the convenient branding of someone as a member of “localized pro-Japanese groups.” The powerful stigmatization of the liberals as “commies” lost its power long ago, but the witchcraft of labelling opponents “localized pro-Japanese forces” still works.
The 2015 Park-Abe deal on former sex slaves had its limits from the outset. But you cannot deny that the Japanese government used its own budget to establish a foundation to accept some level of responsibility for operating military brothels during WWII. Tokyo must be blamed for claiming that the money was not meant for “compensation” after the agreement. But the Moon administration also should be condemned for nonchalantly sitting on its hands over the past three years after deciding to dismantle the foundation. Only 15 registered victims remain alive.
It is uncertain what final ruling the Supreme Court will deliver. But certainly, Moon would not want to be remembered as a head of state who pushed bilateral relations to a point of no return. I hope the latest court ruling helps the two countries find a graceful exit from the diplomatic deadlock before it’s too late. Who knows whether the goddess of wisdom may smile at them at long last? “The owl of Minerva,” wrote Hegel, “spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”