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[Keenan Fagan] Moon, Abe governments living in colonial past

After over a quarter century of living with South Korea’s hate for Japan, I thought this was beginning to come to a generational end. During the last couple of semesters, many of my students enthusiastically reported that they were traveling to Japan to learn about their neighbors’ food and culture in affordable trips to broaden horizons.

But recent events have reignited historical animosities between the two democracies of Northeast Asia. This history and these events are worth reviewing to sort out problems between the nations and to find ways to cool tensions.

They begin, of course, with Japan’s failure to face its colonial crimes against Korea. Besides failing to educate its citizenry on these crimes, Japan and her industries are not willing to consider compensation for individual victims of forced labor as the South Korean Supreme Court recently demanded.

Japan, for its part, views the South Korean government as having settled these claims in compensatory agreements of 1965 and 2015. But in these agreements, national interests preceded the individual rights of victims. Many of the surviving “comfort women” rejected the financial support provided in the 2015 agreement as an inadequate response to their suffering. Japan would be historically and fiscally wise to reexamine its responsibility to victims for better relations with its neighbors.

Furthermore, if the current Japanese government were not dominated by obdurate nationalists, it could relinquish claims to Dokdo as an act of reconciliation. Besides Korea’s strong historical claims, the South already occupies these small rocky islets and would fight to keep them. Japan already has enough rocky islets. It could easily let Dokdo go if its leaders practiced some Buddhist wisdom.

But the recent actions of the Moon administration seem to have hardened Japanese nationalists. In speeches, President Moon spoke of rooting out Japanese influences that are supposedly still plaguing the nation. On Memorial Day, he praised independence fighter Kim Won-bong, though Kim was decorated by North Korea for also fighting to destroy the South. And while it is right to memorialize the suffering of comfort women, the memorials don’t acknowledge that Koreans procured many of these women for the Japanese, as emeritus professor Lee Young-hoon and co-authors point out in their bestselling history “Anti-Japan Tribalism.” 

The administration’s nominee for justice minister, Cho Kuk, called the book “disgusting” and written by “Japan sympathizers.” Lee called Cho’s remarks “groundless criticism” that amounted to propaganda to support the administration. The Japanese are hearing these messages and responding.

Though Moon adroitly succeeded in preventing war during Trump’s “fire and fury” phase, his administration has not censured the North for the threat it continues to build against the South or Japan. Accentuating this threat, the North launched its seventh missile test this month while the South remained largely silent. During this period of supposed friendship among Moon, Kim and Trump, the Japanese wonder how long it will be before North Korean missiles are again flying over their nation.

Belying this notion of friendship, the North now says it has nothing more to discuss with South Korea. It has begun to badger leaders, as it did President Park Geun-hye. Yet President Moon speaks of Korea surpassing the Japanese economy through unification. With statements like this, the Moon administration seems to have problems identifying friends and enemies, and problems distinguishing between idealism and political realities. The administration’s nomination of Cho Kuk for justice minister is a case in point.

The Japanese move to take South Korean exports off a “whitelist” appears to have been a reaction to these problems and this perpetual animosity. Unfortunately, instead of displaying a measured reaction showing maturity and self-esteem, the Moon administration overreacted, though only 7 percent of South Korean trade is with Japan.

The South’s cancellation of intelligence-sharing hampers South Korean and Japanese defense against the North, China and Russia. It also contradicts Moon’s 386 generation goal of being truly independent of the United States. With the cancellation, the US must further mediate South Korea’s relations with Japan through intelligence-sharing and damage control to preserve the de facto tripartite alliance. With the North not wanting to talk to the South, the US may soon be mediating relations between the Koreas too. 

The Moon administration must ponder how the country can have self-esteem when other powers must perform its diplomacy.

With a sigh, I am bracing myself for a renewal of hate speech in classes at my Buddhist university this fall semester. I am hoping that my students show the maturity of the Korean people who determined to boycott the Abe government and not Japan.

By Keenan Fagan

Keenan Fagan holds a Ph.D. in learning, teaching and diversity from Vanderbilt University and teaches required English courses for Dongguk University’s Dharma College. -- Ed.