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Published : 2012-05-14 20:30
Updated : 2012-05-15 09:58

New secretary-general Seok talks about roles of Korea, Japan and China in facing history


Northeast Asian History Foundation, a state-run research institute, aims to facilitate historical reconciliation and further regional cooperation among Korea, Japan and China through continuous research, the organization’s newly appointed secretary-general said.

“There are no institutions like the Northeast Asian History Foundation in China and Japan,” said Seok Tong-youn, who was appointed secretary general last month.

“We hope to be a leading organization that dedicates itself to establishing peace and historical reconciliation among the three countries.”

Seok is a leading expert on Korea-China relations. The former diplomat served as spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2002 to 2003, deputy chief mission at the Korean Embassy in China from 2003 to 2006, and consul-general in Hong Kong from 2007 to 2010.

During his years as the international advisory ambassador of Gyeonggi Province, Seok also contributed writings on Korea-China relations to a number of daily newspapers in Korea.

Seok said while China and South Korea have been enjoying close economic ties since 1992, their conflicting views on the past remain one of the biggest challenges for the two countries’ future relations.

“Trade between South Korea and China reached $245.6 billion and more than 6.68 million people visited each other’s country,” Seok told The Korea Herald.
Seok Tong-youn, secretary-general of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, speaks during an interview at his office in Seoul on May 8. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“China’s economic development in the last 20 years has been offering great economic opportunities for South Korea. But if we don’t somehow get the historical conflicts sorted out, everything can be just a house of cards.”

Last week, the institute hosted an academic forum in its effort to generate new areas of research in the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598) from an international perspective. A total of 16 Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese scholars participated in the forum.

Joint publication

Seok said joint publication of history textbooks with Japan and China is also on the institute’s long-term agenda, and the three countries should continually make efforts to interpret the shared past from the “Eastern Asian perspective.”

“The 16th-century Japanese invasions of Korea were in fact an international war,” Seok said, suggesting that there should be a new name for the historical event.

“Joseon, Japan and Ming China were all involved. The current term ‘Imjinwaeran,’ which translates as ‘a revolt triggered by the Japanese,’ does not bring the East Asian perspective. It only reflects the Korean interpretation of what happened.”

Seok also said historical conflicts are very closely linked with the current territorial disputes between the three countries in East Asia. He used the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the on going territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Pinnacle Islands in the East China Sea as an example.

The Chinese claim that the islands had been a part of Chinese territory up until the war in 1894. The Japanese took over the islands in 1895 and held them until the end of World War II. The islands were administered by the U.S. from 1945-1972, and returned to Japan soon thereafter. Both China and Taiwan have been claiming ownership of the islands ever since.

“The on going territorial dispute between China and Japan over the islands indicates that the two countries’ conflicting views on the First Sino-Japanese War still haven’t been resolved,” said Seok.

Dokdo sovereignty

One of the major areas of research of the institute pivots on Dokdo, the rocky islets in the East Sea that the Japanese claim are part of their territory.

The institute is currently building a national database on the islets, which will include different types of maps and research reports on Korea-Japan maritime borders during the Joseon period (1392-1897), based on historical records from the period. The database is slated to open in November.

Japan last month renewed its claim to Dokdo in the 2012 Diplomatic Bluebook, an annual report on Japan’s foreign policy and activities published by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, stating that the Japanese government has consistently regarded the islets as Japan’s territory “based on historical facts and the international law.”

Seok said he assumes that Japan will continue to claim sovereignty over Dokdo, as its goal is to have the islets officially listed as undesignated sovereignty territory by the international community. Korea currently exercises sovereignty over the islets.

“No matter what Japan does, the fact that Dokdo belongs to Korea ― legally, geographically and historically ― never changes,” he said.

“I think the right way to protect Dokdo is to continuously administer and use it as part of our territory instead of responding every time Japan claims the islets are theirs.”

Seok said historical reconciliation is never easy, but it must be reached among the three countries to move forward.

“We know it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “And that’s why we are in charge of it. Someone has to be the leader.”

The Northeast Asian History Foundation was launched by the Korean government in 2006 to support local scholars’ research on Asian history, part of efforts to find ways to deal with historical conflicts with its neighboring countries. 

Seok Tong-youn

Born in 1954, Seok graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, and later earned his master’s degree at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the U.S.

He passed the foreign civil service exam in 1976.

Seok served as the spokesperson of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2002 to 2003, deputy chief mission at the Korean Embassy in China from 2003 to 2006, and consul-general in Hong Kong from 2007 to 2010.

Prior to taking his position at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, Seok served as the international advisory ambassador of Gyeonggi Province from 2010 to 2012. He has contributed writings on Korea-China relations to a number of daily newspapers in Korea.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)