[Column] The other side of the plate

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[Column] The other side of the plate

Lee Hyun-sang

The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The issue of Korea-Japan history is a minefield. The Dokdo, Japanese military sexual slavery and wartime forced labor issues are all intertwined. You’ll get lost if you enter recklessly. The Park Geun-hye administration opened the door to the sexual slavery issue and got seriously injured. The following Moon Jae-in administration turned back and closed the door to help lift the approval ratings of the liberal administration. President Yoon Suk Yeol has re-entered the minefield. Can he come back safely?

A resolute decision was necessary. President Yoon desperately needed to thaw the frozen Korea-Japan relationship. Amid ever-deepening geopolitical risks, the two neighbors cannot be tied to their sad pasts. The White House welcomed Yoon’s trip to Japan, and his state visit to the U.S. was fixed. There are high expectations for an upgraded Korea-U.S. alliance.

But it is hard to predict the outcome of Yoon’s bold decision. Other countries are welcoming, but public opinion is divided in Korea. The problem is Japan. Abe, who made a sexual slavery agreement with the conservative Park Geun-hye administration, did not show any sincerity aside from the written agreement. When Korea suggested he write an apology letter to the victims, Abe said coldly, “I haven’t even thought about it.” After the agreement was erased from the minds of Koreans at that moment, the Park administration’s position became awkward. We cannot rule out the possibility of similar remarks being made in the course of parliamentary election campaigns in Japan in April.

Yoon must listen to the criticism that he had shown our cards too hastily and handed over the lead to Japan. He must have rushed to a deal after pressure from the U.S., which prioritizes triangular cooperation between Korea, the U.S. and Japan. But Japan was just as pressured. In poker, you lose for two reasons, aside from skill and luck. You either don’t have enough money or need to leave early. While working-level officials urged him to adjust his speed, Yoon dismissed them and said, “I take responsibility.” That was a scene showing the gist of Yoon’s leadership. The political burden is bound to fall solely on the president’s shoulders.

What comes to mind when thinking of presidential decisions is U.S. President Harry Truman’s plaque. “The buck stops here!” is often cited to refer to presidential determination. When President Franklin Roosevelt suddenly died during World War II, Vice President Harry Truman succeeded the presidency, and he made many historic decisions that lie behind this plaque — such as two atomic bombings, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the Berlin airlift and sending troops to the Korean War.

But Truman’s plaque had more than the phrase emphasizing responsibility. Though relatively less known, the back of the plaque says, “I’m from Missouri.” Why did Truman reflect on his origin before making decisions?

While it is clearly Republican today, Missouri had been a typical swing state in the 20th century. It was a region with a strong tendency toward realism, as exemplified by its sobriquet, “The Show-Me State.” In a speech in 1899, Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver famously said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri, and you have got to show me.”

This phrase never fails to appear when talking about Missouri. Behind the motto, “I am from Missouri,” Truman may have pledged that he would be pragmatic. Coming from the Midwest with weak state influence, Truman could succeed in national politics thanks to his pragmatism. If the front of the plaque was the “justification” of the presidency, the back side was his “existence” as a politician.

The leader’s decision is lonely one. But the line between “determination” and “dogmatism” is rather blurred. While the final decision is up to the leader, he must listen and persuade till the end. As Yoon’s decision-making process is covered up in the name of decision, he often faces sharp voices, “You must show me.”

The die is cast. The solution to the thorny wartime forced labor issue is the biggest decision since Yoon took office. Regardless of the support of the administration, Korean diplomacy will lose its way if the decision fails.

It is necessary to find harmony between duty and reality. Yoon needs to have the wisdom to distinguish what he can do and what he wants to do. These things cannot be achieved just by determination alone.

On the desk of Yoon’s presidential office in Yongsan is a plaque modeled after Truman’s. It was a gift from U.S. President Joe Biden when he visited Korea in May 2022. It is unknown if there is a phrase carved on the backside or it is left empty. If empty, I hope Yoon thinks about what should be written. Determination can become stronger when combined with reality.
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