Back To Top

[Kim Myong-sik] A candid proposal for a breakthrough in Korea-Japan relations

This article is based on recent writings by three respectable South Koreans on relations between Korea and Japan that I happened to read last week. The writers were Hwang Kyung-choon, former chief correspondent in Seoul for the Associated Press; Im Jong-kun, former president of the Seoul Kyungje business daily; and poet/essayist Lee Seung-shin, daughter of the late Sohn Ho-yeon, well known in Japan for her devotion to “tanka” short poems.

“The ardent wish that I have is nation and nation without dispute.” (Forgive my clumsy translation!) In her article sent to a literary circle consisting mainly of academics and journalists, Lee quoted the above tanka poem composed by her mother, which former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recited during his summit with President Roh Moo-hyun at the Blue House in 2005.

Lee feels sore at heart these days amid what must be the worst state of relations between the two neighboring countries, recalling her mother’s lifelong work to promote cultural ties across the Korea Strait. After her mother’s death in 2003, Lee published an anthology from some 2,000 tanka pieces she left and sent them to Japanese leaders. Koizumi probably chose the poem from the book.

Tanka originated in Korea’s Baekje Kingdom (18 BC-660 AD) and has become a major genre in Japanese literature, although it has disappeared here. “Living at the tip of East Asia, I only loved peace” was another short poem that Sohn wrote in the fixed 31-letter form, and the daughter reads it now as one of her mother’s many tanka poems packed with lamentations and yearnings.

From her mother’s diary, Lee Seung-shin found a page she wrote after giving a lecture at her alma mater, Doshisha University in Kyoto, during the school’s 100th anniversary events in 1975. She quoted: “When I finished speaking, a group of Japanese women who were my elementary school classmates in Seoul (before liberation) came forward. They bowed to me, saying they were apologizing for the past Japanese wrongdoings. When I grasped their hands, the lump of grievance melted in my heart.”

“Nation and nation without dispute” is not only the dream of the Korean poet, who wrote in Japanese, but should be the vision of the two peoples who would live and prosper together through the 21st, 31st and 41st centuries, Lee concluded.

Hwang Kyung-choon, 95, was attending Chuo University in Tokyo when he was conscripted into the Japanese army during World War II. He occasionally picks up interesting articles from the Japanese Bungei Shunshu monthly magazine and translates them into Korean to help his younger friends become better informed about how Japanese intellectuals think today.

For the past three consecutive months, the Bungei Shunshu has published special reports on Japanese-Korean relations. In its October edition, the Japanese magazine carried a lengthy article contributed by Moon Chung-in, special national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in, under the title “Premier Abe, why do you regard Korea as a hostile nation?”

The second article was a dialogue between Katsuhiro Kuroda, veteran correspondent in Seoul of the conservative Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun, and Lee Young-hoon, a retired Seoul National University professor who was bitterly criticized by the leftists here, including Cho Kuk, after he published the book “Anti-Japanese Racism.”

The third was another dialogue between two noted Japanese political commentators: Toru Hashimoto, human rights lawyer and former mayor of Osaka City, and Yoichi Masuzoe, international relations scholar and former governor of Tokyo. Hwang opined that they offered valuable guidance on solutions to the current dispute between Seoul and Tokyo. They recalled that the Japanese Supreme Court had previously ruled that the Korea-Japan Claims Settlement Agreement, concluded upon rapprochement, did not deprive Korean laborers of their individual rights to seek compensation from their former employers, according to Hwang’s excerpts.

Masuzoe, who hailed from Fukuoka, was concerned about businesses in the Kyushu area, which are seeing a sharp decline in the number of Korean tourists to the hot springs in Beppu and other places. Hashimoto from Osaka, who said his two boys were humming nonstop the tunes of Korean girl group “Twice,” was also worried about the reduced number of flights from Seoul to Kansai International Airport. They suggested applying the European Union format covering Germany and France to Korea and Japan to ensure smooth ties.

Im Jong-kun, the former publisher of the business daily, said newly enthroned Japanese Emperor Naruhito should be invited to Korea for a visit as soon as possible. He argued that there is no reason why a trip to Korea by the Japanese monarch should be considered unrealistic nowadays, when the Seoul government is so eager to have North Korean chief Kim Jong-un come here for another summit with Moon. He also offered the opinion that “Joko” Akihito may be an alternative to his son on the royal visit that could transcend current issues.

If Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet could not show flexibility for the time being because of domestic politics, the emperor of Japan can do something to ease ties between the two neighboring countries. Im imagines that Naruhito or Akihito might come to Korea and visit the tomb of Baekje King Muryeong in memory of the princess from the royal family who became the mother of Emperor Kammu (reign 781-806). Then at the House of Sharing he could console the survivors of the wartime atrocities with due apologies.

At the enthronement ceremony last month, Naruhito, who is already 59 but rejuvenates the image of Japanese monarch with his cherubic features, said he hoped sincerely “that our country, through our people’s wisdom and unceasing efforts, achieves further development and contributes to the friendship and peace of the international community and the welfare and prosperity of humankind.”

As no executor of power but a symbol of national unity, Naruhito “hopes,” instead of pledging positive efforts, for international peace. But the authors of the three articles I referred to in this column invariably expressed their wish that the ascension to the throne of a new emperor in Japan would turn around the abnormal state of affairs in bilateral relations.

If a visit to the nearest neighbor still is a politically sensitive venture for the new Japanese emperor -- though a sure step to promote international friendship -- intelligent politicians like Hashimoto and Masuzoe may well continue to share their constructive ideas with other Japanese intellectuals to broaden understanding between the two peoples. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.