This Sunday, South Korea marks the 96th anniversary of the March 1 independence movement in which millions of people across the peninsula waved their national flag and bravely rose up against Japan’s colonial rule in 1919.
Though nearly a century has passed since the campaign pushed for the noble causes of self-determination, liberty and humanity, its sprit still lives on and can help address today’s conflicts on the peninsula and beyond, according to Kim Hak-joon, president of the state-funded Northeast Asian History Foundation.
“The campaign’s messages of independence, equality, mutual benefit and peace have been passed down to this day,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “The campaign sought to secure a world in which all states are treated equally regardless of their size and population, and mutually benefit one another, and pursue peaceful coexistence.”
Noting that increased cross-border tensions have escalated the risk of a military conflict, Kim added that the two Koreas should explore the lessons of the movement to help their relationship move forward in the direction of reconciliation and cooperation.
“We should tide such things over through the pacifism that the movement fostered,” he said. “It is very worrisome to see the escalation of tensions here that could lead to a military conflict, which would result in irrecoverable damage for the Korean people,” he said.
Influenced by then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s speech in 1918 that underscored the right of national self-determination, the March 1 independence movement was staged in 1919, bringing all Koreans together in a struggle against Japanese imperialism. The watershed event affected neighbors such as China, where the May 4 anti-imperialism movement took place the same year.
Since Kim took the helm of the foundation under Seoul’s Education Ministry in September 2012, he has focused on establishing an accurate and objective understanding of history and promoting regional reconciliation and trust through various research and educational projects in Asia.
Among the projects was a program to address problems with depictions of Korean history in Japanese textbooks.
Despite the foundation’s endeavor to rectify Japan’s misrepresentations of regional history, particularly involving its wartime atrocities, Tokyo has failed to fully atone for its past ― a source of great frustration for Kim.
He said that Tokyo’s failure to properly admit to its past wrongdoings stemmed from Japanese politicians’ ignorance of its past imperialism and militarism, and possibly from political calculations.
Speaking of Japan’s wartime misdeeds, Kim mentioned his visit last March to a pavilion in Harbin, China, which demonstrated the atrocities that Japan committed at its Unit 731, a notorious chemical and biological research unit that carried out lethal human experiments during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
In May 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe infuriated Koreans and Chinese after he posed for a photo in the cockpit of a warplane marked with the number 731 at an Air Self-Defense Forces unit.
“At the pavilion, I found my body shuddering with deep sorrow and anger. How could he (Abe) possibly board the warplane with the number 731?” he said. “It was an affront to Asian people who were sacrificed by the then-Imperialist Japan, and a serious insult to Americans too, who were also attacked by Japan.”
Kim speculated that Japanese right-wingers’ skewed description of history could be part of their push for a nationalist security agenda.
“I assume they may want to expand the nationalist conservative mood so that they could, perhaps, revise the war-renouncing constitution, develop the Self-Defense Forces into a full-fledged military and regain the right of belligerency that would allow Japan to fight against foreign nations,” he said. “It is very worrisome.”
As for Japan’s persistent claim to South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo, Kim expressed concerns over “irredentism,” which Japanese politicians appear to resort to or foment as a way to consolidate their political positions.
“Irredentism” refers to any political or popular campaign to reclaim and reoccupy a lost homeland, and is often advocated by nationalists.
“Irredentism has been exploited by some impure forces in a society and had an effect of bringing people together while misleading them,” he said, pointing to the apparent emergence of irredentism in Japan.
“What could appeal more to the public than the calls for unity in regaining a lost piece of land? But as the history of Europe shows, a war could break out should irredentism gain an impetus.”
To address historical antagonisms in Northeast Asia, Kim stressed the need for South Korea, China and Japan to work together to create a shared understanding of their past. He also dismissed the skepticism that the region’s joint efforts for historical reconciliation would, after all, prove futile.
“Germany and Poland were able to write a joint history, and Germany and France also succeeded in doing so. It took them a long time, but their reconciliation process offers us a great lesson,” Kim said.
“At this point in time, it seems impossible for Korea, China and Japan to write a joint history textbook. But if you look back on history, there are many examples of countries having made possible what initially appeared to be impossible, with tenacious human endeavors.”
Kim also proposed that Korea and China first make efforts to create a joint history book about Japan’s history of war aggression to spur the efforts to establish a correct, objective perception of regional history.
“We can also cooperate with the conscientious people in Japan who have repeatedly expressed their concerns about their government’s understanding of history,” he said.
After having obtained a doctorate in politics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1972, Kim worked as a journalist, professor, historical researcher, lawmaker, university president and media company chief. He also served as vice chief of the International Political Science Association in 2003.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com