Under freezing cold, we some 2,000 students of Seo (West) Junior High School in Gwangju City stood in straight lines and rows on the school ground every Monday morning. During these weekly assemblies, we listened to the principal Kang Bong-u’s not-so-short speeches given through a loudspeaker.
In one of his moral discourses, Kang, who was a young member of the 105-man anti-Japan secret society during the early colonial period, told us, “Man is insulted by others after he insults himself.” Later, I found it was a quote from Mencius.
This ancient dictum was recalled a few days ago when I read reports of Japanese leaders’ harsh reactions to the controversial installation of the little girl’s statue in Busan. Prime Minister Shinjo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso made by far the most scathing verbal and diplomatic attacks on Korea and its people for what they alleged violation of a bilateral agreement to settle the wartime sex slavery issue.
Of the two, Aso determined Koreans to be untrustworthy and therefore do not qualify for a deal like foreign exchange swap with Japan. “Koreans are a people that tend to swallow promises. They could refuse to pay back what they borrow from us,” Aso told a press conference, in an apparent misunderstanding of the FX swap system which is not a loan but a simultaneous purchase and sale of identical amounts of one currency for another.
Tokyo unilaterally suspended negotiating with Seoul on the extension of the FX swap system between the two countries immediately after the statue, a copy of the one in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, was erected outside the wall of the Japanese consulate in Korea’s second largest city.
Aso was echoing his boss Abe’s claim of Koreans’ breach of the Dec. 28, 2015 agreement on the World War II “comfort women.” Abe particularly pointed to the 1 billion yen “donation” to Korea under the accord to pose as if Japan had done all that was required to exonerate it from its guilt.
The top Japanese officials were in effect saying that Koreans just ran off with the money, doing nothing in return. Seoul’s Foreign Ministry says it received the 1 billion yen or about 10 billion won because it came from the Japanese state budget and therefore signifies Japan’s acceptance of state responsibility for the wartime atrocity victimizing so many women from Korea and other Asian nations.
Abe and Aso make a perfect combination of arrogant leadership suited for the current Japanese national orientation seeking political resurgence on the global stage with military and economic might. Both from Japan’s top political and financial families, they exude an extreme opposite of modesty and have incessantly irked their domestic rivals and neighboring peoples with pathetic expressions of disdain.
Aso, 76, having already served as prime minister for a year until he led his party to a landslide defeat in September 2009, came under Abe’s wing as deputy prime minister and finance minister in the 2012 cabinet in a rare departure from the Oriental seniority norm. As if to compensate the 14-year age difference from Abe, Aso has often taken aberrant actions such as spearheading conservative politicians on visits to the problematic Yasukuni Shrine.
This time Japan followed the verbal punches with the extraordinary diplomatic action of recalling its ambassador to Seoul and consul general in Busan. Looking at these Japanese reactions, we cannot but ask ourselves whether Tokyo could have done the same had we not been in the political muddle that started from the center of power.
The Republic of Korea since the middle of 2016 has entertained outsiders with something of a soap opera with the flavor of Joseon era court intrigues. Of the many intelligent comments from home and abroad on the Park Geun-hye and Choe Soon-sil scandal, I found Ewha Womans University professor Yang Seung-tae’s one of the most poignant. He said in a media commentary as follows:
“This ‘comedy’ consists of several miserable elements: shameless abuse of power committed for a long time by an uncultured, greedy woman under the aegis of a fake prophet; the paranoiac obsession and judgmental inaptitude of the president who entrusted state business with the unqualified woman; and the negligence, incompetence and craftiness of officials around her who winked at the leader’s spiritual indigence…”
The once-luminous southern half of the Korean Peninsula was repainted with eerie darkness in the eyes of the Japanese, Chinese and even North Koreans. As massive demonstrations with contrasting slogans filled the main streets of Seoul, the bronze statue of a little girl appeared in Busan. It was removed by the municipal authorities and was soon reinstalled under strong protests by its promoter groups.
The nation’s conscience, political or moral, has lost direction. No one has the power to convince whoever built the statue that it is inappropriate under international conventions to place any kind of monument in the vicinity of a foreign legation if it poses harassment to its security.
Since gaining independence from the Japanese colonial rule, we have overcome recurring tribulations, notably a war, a student-led revolution, a military coup, and economic crises. After the long, hard years of nation-building, the hardest thing for us to experience now is humiliation by the Japanese who might be looking for evidence that Korea is still way behind them in terms of social and political maturity.
Shinjo Abe, Taro Aso and the many anti-ROK activists on Tokyo streets now have a heyday in bashing this neighboring country that they had watched in awe while it was on the rapid path of political and economic advancement. On the other hand, we are in a race of self-contempt today on the private and public fronts. Where have gone the pride and confidence that had sustained us until the recent past?
The on-going turmoil can be a new millennium version of China’s Cultural Revolution, or a process of purge to rid our society of all its chronic maladies. Cancerous elements are exposed in prosecution indictments of the president’s official and unofficial aides, in the impeachment trial at the Constitutional Court, in the banners held by demonstrators with candlelight and national flags, and in the spate of political harangues by the numerous presidential hopefuls.
When Abe and Aso are out to insult us, we can raise only faint, hoarse voices to counter them, exhausted in internal fights.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik, a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald, served as head of the Korean Overseas Information Service. – Ed,