Who’s the enemy here?

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Who’s the enemy here?

Kim Su-jeong

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Attacking opponents by framing them as “pro-Japanese” is back in fashion. The past administration mustered support in this way. Former president Moon Jae-in claimed that eradicating pro-Japanese roots in Korea was long overdue. His senior secretary for civil affairs called on the public to choose between being pro-Japanese and patriotism.

The government under former president Moon revoked an inter-government agreement on compensations for former wartime sex slaves, and local governments under heads aligned to the Democratic Party (DP) championed a boycott on Japanese products following the Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime forced labor. Loyalists to the DP accused a number of individuals and institutions of being associated with Japan even when one of its lawmakers was accused of embezzling donations for the survivors of sexual abuse by the imperial Japanese military.

This time, DP Chairman Lee Jae-myung is at the forefront of the anti-Japanese campaign. He described the joint South Korea-U.S.-Japan maritime drill to counter missile provocations from North Korea as an “extremely pro-Japanese act” and a “defense disaster.”

Reminding the public of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks that the Japan Self-Defense Forces could be invited into the Korean Peninsula in case of contingency, Lee wondered why the tripartite joint drill was being conducted near the Dokdo islets, which Japan claims as its territory, and why the government drew the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force to the sea despite ongoing Japanese curbs on certain key exports to Korea. After DP Rep. Ahn Gyu-baek shared the confidential military location of the joint drill on social media with expression of “being dismayed” by the move, DP members are uniting fast.

From the reasoning, the arrival of three Japanese warships for a tripartite military drill in 2007 under former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun, the promise by Moon to reinforce South Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation on security in his summit with U.S. president Donald Trump in Washington in the summer of 2017, and the joint statement among Moon, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following the G20 meeting in Germany also should be deemed pro-Japanese.

It was liberal president Kim Dae-jung who promised in 1998 comprehensive cooperation with Japan in politics, security and economy as well as opening to Japanese pop culture. Using the same reasoning, why is Seoul staying so passive to Beijing, which has yet to lift the discrimination on Korean exports of goods and services since Korea’s deployment of the U.S. Thaad missile defense system? But the DP stays mum to the claims that those practices also took place under former liberal presidents Roh and Moon.

To DP loyalists, anti-Japanese still sells. Two generations have passed since liberation from Japanese colonization. The Cold War aspect has reemerged in a more complicated form. The United States and China are warring over trade and technology. Since the Russian war with Ukraine, the authoritarian regimes are pitted more overtly against free democracy. Energy and global supply chains have been rattled. China, Russia and North Korea have not changed since the Korean War.

Distinguishing between friends and foes is essential for national security. It is a judgment to determine who shares the values of free democracy, market economy and human rights — and who threatens our territory, sovereignty and history. Who we accompany for the present and future of national security and prosperity is a choice.

In his memoir, former national security advisor Chun Young-woo said that a past specter prevails over the present and future of Korea and that the South Korea-Japan relationship will only be normalized when national sentiment does not overwhelm national interests to call for future-oriented vision and practical diplomacy from the leader. Vietnam has turned to its past war enemy — the U.S. — to stop the overbearing influence of China. Poland and France support their war enemy Germany building up its defense capabilities after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The DP probably fears the rise of ultra-right forces in Japan when the country invites Japanese warships to its waters. But security cooperation among Korea, the United States and Japan are essential in case of a nuclear missile attack from North Korea. Seven rear bases for the U.N. Combined Forces to back South Korea in case of emergency are all based in Japan.

While I was in university, movement for liberation for the Korean people swept the campus. Although there had been many pro-Japanese figures in the regime under North Korean founder Kim Il Sung — and many independent fighters had been purged later in North Korea — activists in South Korea attacked the Syngman Rhee administration for being “pro-Japan.” An argument for rooting out the legacy of the pro-Japanese is in line with a denial of the foundation of South Korea and support for the legitimacy of the North Korean regime. Will the debate over being “pro-Japan” in the South stop when relationship between North Korea and Japan improves? DP Chairman Lee demanded the government apologize and promise not to conduct a tripartite military exercise. But who would benefit from such a promise?
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