[Column] Let the past pass

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[Column] Let the past pass

Kim Hyun-ki

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Three common features can be found between the way Team Korea performed against their Japanese counterparts in the 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC) and the way the Yoon Suk Yeol administration came up with a novel solution through a Korea-led fund to address the Japanese wartime forced labor issue.

First, the results (4-13) of the baseball game was a humiliating defeat. Japan clearly had the upper hand. The Japanese players stayed calm throughout the game at Tokyo Dome. A Korean pitcher jokingly said he might have to throw a ball at Shohei Ohtani — the 2021 American League MVP — if he found nowhere to throw the ball. His comment precisely reflected the low morale of Team Korea. If the players come into a game in low confidence and rashness, they cannot win the game.

Koreans were equally in haste to package a solution for the wartime forced labor issue. While Japan is used to eating ripened sashimi, Korea wanted to trim the fish and eat it right away. The moment Seoul internally set the date to draw a deal with Tokyo, the game tilted toward Japan.

Second, members of Team Korea did not do their best until the end. They moved heavily and did not keep their spirit up till the last minute. The diplomatic negotiation over the forced labor issue was played in a similar manner. The talks ended after a few meetings between director generals, vice ministers and ministers of the two countries. Even a special envoy was not fielded until the last minute as the relief pitcher. Tokyo would not have missed what that really meant.

Third, the view of the results was mixed. Baseball and diplomatic pundits said the results could not be avoided. But the general public didn’t think so. Ordinary citizens called the 4-13 loss to Japan “the most humiliating defeat in history.” While 59 percent of them disapproved of the government deal over the forced labor, 35 percent saw it positively. Both President Yoon and head coach Lee Kang-chul of Team Korea vowed they would take “all responsibility.” But they did not say how.

The art of diplomacy is to make a 51 to 49 result feel like a win for both sides. The best result out of diplomacy is to derive a technical win even by a small margin.

Former foreign minister Yu Myung-hwan claimed, “We had won 51 to 49” in the agreement reached with Japan eight years ago to settle compensation for victims of wartime military sexual slavery. He judged Seoul had gotten the best possible result at the time — or compensation through a fund contributed to by the Japanese government.

Would Yoon’s solution to the forced labor issue be the best possible result this time, too? Yu flatly said that scoring was not possible over this case. Seoul would have had little room for maneuvering as the Supreme Court during the Moon Jae-in administration overturned the government’s position that forced labor compensation had been included in the packaged reparations for Japan’s colonial rule in return for normalized relationship with Tokyo.

Even against such odds, the Yoon administration must admit that it scored poorly over the forced labor compensation issue. So, the government must at least refrain from bragging about its leadership in addressing the thorny issue or defining it as a political victory or pointing to how the United Nations and European Union welcome its move.

Of course, the decision could not have been easy. Still, the results can be shameful for the victims and the public. The government therefore must keep itself low and modest.
During Yoon’s visit to Japan, many in Korea will be closely watching to see if Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would deliver some “sincere apology” and whether the concerned parties — Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — will voluntarily join the Korea-led fund to help cover the damage claims by the victims of forced labor.

But I personally don’t think we should mind them too much. We should not have expected Japan to meet in half-way in the first place. The victims would hardly be appeased by the fund either. Like it or not, the deal is done. We should not make ourselves look pitiful by begging for a gesture from Tokyo.

Instead, we must be practical. The hard-won momentum should not be wasted. The deal over the comfort women compensation in 2015 left a bitter feeling after the Japanese foreign minister said the country merely lost 1 billion yen, while prime minister Shinzo Abe made it clear there would be no more additional measures for Korea. Yoon must draw a firm promise from Kishida that Koreans will not hear such insulting remarks in the aftermath.

The cherry blossoms were in full bloom when Yoon arrived in Tokyo. The bloom has arrived fastest since 1953. Bilateral relationship also needs to bloom by moving beyond the past. Heritage Foundation founder Edwin Feulner once said, “We must learn from the past, but we must also let the past pass.” The advice can work for the two countries, really.
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