Are Koreans Too Intractable?

  • By Chosun Ilbo columnist Yang Sang-hoon

    November 13, 2013 13:13

    Yang Sang-hoon

    As Korea-Japan relations sink further into deep freeze, the perception is apparently spreading among U.S. government officials and experts that Seoul is being too harsh on Tokyo.

    Japan's attempts to free troops to engage in operations abroad is being perceived by Koreans as a thinly-veiled bid to regain its former military power, which was used to invade its Asian neighbors in the earlier 20th century.

    The Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., whose soldiers died fighting imperial Japanese soldiers in World War II, have welcomed Tokyo's bid to seek so-called collective self-defense, whereby its troops could operate abroad if an ally is in some way under attack.

    The development is ironic, since Australia demanded at the end of World War II that the emperor of Japan be included among the country's war criminals. Russia, which was Japan's nemesis in World War II, has said it would "understand" Tokyo engaging in collective self-defense, while Southeast Asian countries, which were invaded by Japan during the war, are also welcoming the move.

    The foreign minister of the Philippines, which suffered huge casualties from Japanese troops, said in a media interview that Manila sincerely welcomes Japan's moves to bolster its military power. It looks like Korea and China are the only countries in the world that remain opposed to Japan's military expansion.

    Other countries may be hoping that Japan can keep China's rising military power in check. But Tokyo only gained such wide support for its rearmament because it is seen as a rational modern nation, ranking regularly at the top of international surveys on national reputation.

    The UN Charter guarantees a country's right to collective self-defense, but if Korea and China had gained more respect from the international community than Japan, it would not have been able to push so hard to exercise that right.

    Perhaps Germany compensated victims of its World War II atrocities and repented so wholeheartedly because it had to face France, the U.K, and the U.S. at the other end of the table, whereas Japan is behaving so brazenly because it only had to deal with Korea. The only way to deal with Japan's belligerence is for Korea to become more trusted on the global stage. If the international community viewed Korea with more respect, its perception of Japan would change as well.

    But is Korea becoming more rational? On June 22, 1965, Korea and Japan signed a treaty confirming that all obligations to compensate Korean victims for colonial and wartime atrocities were settled with a lump payment. Korea signed another contract forfeiting any right to make any further claims for atrocities and then used the US$300 million to build steelmaker POSCO, the Gyeongbu Expressway linking Seoul and Busan, and power generation plants, which enabled it to achieve an economic miracle in record time.

    However, lately several courts here have ruled that Japanese businesses must compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II. This type of ruling is unheard-of in four other Asian countries that signed similar treaties with Japan. It is true that Korea suffered far more damage than other Asian countries due to the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, but it could still be seen as prone to reneging on international treaties whenever it sees fit.

    Many Koreans now avoid Japan for fear of radioactive contamination and they are so jittery that they are suspicious of fish caught near the Korean coast. But the international community voted unanimously in favor of Japan's bid to host the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo, which is much closer to the nuclear disaster site in Fukushima.

    Is the rest of the world foolish or are we too stubborn? Radiation levels in Japan, excluding Fukushima, are well within acceptable limits. In fact, they are higher in some parts of Korea. But these facts are overshadowed here by groundless rumors spread on the Internet.

    Five years ago, the world watched as a massive number of protesters paralyzed government for several months to prevent U.S. beef imports, fueled by hysterical fear of mad cow disease triggered by online rumors and false TV reports. How many people around the world perceive Koreans as rational people?

    Incensed by Tokyo's sovereignty claim to Korea's Dokdo islets, the president back in 1995 vowed to teach Japan a lesson and the Korean public felt vindicated. But a survey in Hong Kong showed that 60 percent of the respondents there supported Japan's claims.

    Korea is the biggest victim of imperial Japan's atrocities. But the aggressor has ended up gaining more credibility and respect than the victim. That is why Japan has approval to reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel while Korea is still prohibited from doing that.

    We have only ourselves to blame for this ironic outcome. As long as we turn to our emotions first and fail to deal with matters logically, all the while refusing to see how our emotional behavior may be perceived by others, we will never be able to beat Japan at anything.

    Former U.S. president Richard Nixon told Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 that Koreans are "quick to get excited, impulsive and belligerent" and to ensure that such people do not cause problems. During the Korean War in 1953, the same Richard Nixon, then vice president, came to Korea to urge Syngman Rhee to sign a ceasefire. Rhee apparently screamed at Nixon in anger, which left a strong impression.

    There are times when Koreans end up revealing a side of themselves to the outside world that is nothing to be proud of. Now is the time to show the world that we can be rational and objective and respectful of international pledges. It may prove the hardest thing we ever had to do.

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