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[S. Korea-Japan Reboot] Activist suggests using cultural reach to fight Japan’s ‘revisionism’

Webtoon on sex slaves, forced laborers may draw international attention on wartime abuses, Seo says

Seo Kyoung-duk speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in his office at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul on Dec. 15, 2022. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Seo Kyoung-duk speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in his office at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul on Dec. 15, 2022. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

This is the second installment of the three-part interview series exploring what experts believe should take place for S. Korea to better advance its interests, while resetting ties with Japan amid disputes. -- Ed.

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South Korea should use its growing cultural presence to rally an international audience against Japan’s “revisionist history,” a course of action that is more effectively put in check with international backing while the two Asian neighbors rush to reset ties, according to an outspoken campaigner promoting Korean culture.

The Japanese government has repeatedly denied its role in forcing Koreans into sexual slavery or forced labor during World War II, though the United Nations urges Tokyo to face up to its past.

“We have to involve a bigger international audience and make them see wartime abuse as it is -- that universal values like human rights are at stake. Timing is perfect for us to do just that,” Seo Kyoung-duk, the activist, said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

Seo -- a professor of general education at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul who teaches about safeguarding national interests by enhancing its outside ties -- highlighted taking advantage of a wider recognition of Korean culture, thanks in part to K-pop sensation BTS and recent Netflix megahit “Squid Game.”

“What if we tell the story of sex slaves and forced laborers using webtoon? Would this be the one capturing global attention? I’m not sure yet, but I’m confident that’s more engaging than putting out some paper that dryly lists who did what and who is to blame,” Seo said, referring to an online comic enjoyed mostly by smartphone users.

The activist -- who gained prominence in 2005 when he placed a New York Times ad about Dokdo, a group of islets between Korea and Japan that the two countries both claim ownership -- referred to a World Cup match in November last year where organizers prevented Japanese fans from displaying the “Rising Sun” flag, a military-used sign almost as offensive as Nazi symbols such as the swastika.

“I had repeatedly told FIFA the flag was inflammatory at the very least. They finally heard me. Imagine a bigger global audience siding with us on the issue that needs a stronger, united voice. Webtoon outreach is the kind of narrative that could permeate through international conversation,” Seo said.

He welcomed the government’s push to establish an agency to oversee about 7.3 million Koreans living overseas, a move that comes amid bipartisan support for empowering expatriates.

“I am approached by many, many young Koreans every day here and abroad who are looking to chip in but don’t quite know how. An official body would surely help streamline such exchange,” Seo said.

When asked about the government’s handling of the 2015 sex slave deal -- essentially put on hold after Korea called it half-baked in reflecting the victims’ voices -- Seo was wary of placing blame, saying Japan had also violated the spirit of the agreement by endorsing openly inflammatory statements negating the promise to help the victims reclaim their “honor and dignity.”

But the Korean government had clearly given too little attention to what the victims had to say about their forced labor, according to Seo, pointing to the current settlement talks taking place behind the closed doors between top Seoul and Tokyo officials. Korea’s top court ruling in 2018 that ordered Japanese firms to pay damages had prompted the negotiation. Japan protested the court’s decision, enforcing export curbs.

“We all know it would eventually be the government running the discussion but it could’ve let the victims in on what’s being discussed from the start, however small it may be,” Seo said, joining growing calls for Korean negotiators to share more information with the victims to avoid repeating the same mistake in 2015.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry this week will hear public input on the issue, potentially for the last time, meaning a compromise deal is almost complete with little room left for last-minute changes. The Korean victims, expected to appear at the hearing to lodge a complaint, have been left frustrated.

“Diplomacy can’t be all about sentiment but it has to reflect that on some level. If that’s close to impossible then it’s the government job to make those affected by negotiation feel heard enough,” Seo said.

Seo, 48, has dedicated the last 18 years to raising awareness of Korea and correcting “distortions of historical facts” often involving Seoul and Tokyo. He has advised government boards as well as state-run groups on projecting the Korean national identity onto the international stage. Grassroots campaigns are taking on a bigger role in leading the world to understand Korea better, Seo says.



By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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