I was shocked to see a photograph in The Japan Times last month of former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka laying a wreath at the statue of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. They looked rather sheepish. They should, in fact, have looked ashamed of themselves. Kim was responsible for many thousands of deaths and untold misery while he was dictator of North Korea. Kim’s list of crimes was not as long as that of some other dictators, but that was merely because the population of North Korea was relatively small compared with other countries ruled by communist or fascist dictators.

Probably the greatest monster of them all was China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, who together with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler made the 20th century such a horrific period for mankind. There were also others in the century whose names should be remembered for their ruthlessness and cruelty to mankind, and there are also, unfortunately, still others who are still alive and who have so far escaped punishment for their crimes, such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In China, some of the horrific acts carried out during the so-called Cultural Revolution have been recognized, but the full monstrosity of Mao’s regime has only been exposed abroad. In Russia, the truth about Stalin, KGB head Lavrenti Beria and his gang of evil criminals has been exposed, although there are always nationalists who are willing to praise the memories of dictators on the grounds that they made their country “great,” whatever that means.

There are still some neo-Nazis and suspect historians who either deny the Holocaust or claim that men like Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Herman Goering were not ultimately responsible. But such people get short shrift in Germany.

Murayama was wise and correct to recognize Japanese responsibility for some of the criminal acts committed by members of Japan’s military in the name of the Emperor and to apologize. Rightwing politicians in Japan and some historians who should know better do Japan cause no good by pretending that either the “Great East Asia War” was justified (on very specious grounds) or that what happened either did not happen or at least was exaggerated.

I noted that on her visits to India and to South Africa, Queen Elizabeth II was rightly briefed to express regrets for actions that have stained the British record in these countries.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet may well be too ill to stand trial for crimes committed in Chile while he was leader, but he could do his country a good service if he were to admit what happened and confess his own part in the events that caused so much suffering in Chile.

The turn of the century may be no different in the time of the world than any other winter solstice but it has provided a useful spur to look back on a century of tragedies and horrors as well as a century of technological and scientific revolution. It is important for all of us that we learn the lessons of the time.

One of those lessons is that democracy — despite all its faults — combined with an independent and fair legal system, is the best if not the only means available to obstruct the seizure of power by tyrants. Here it is important to remember that the media have a vital role to play. They must do all they can to preserve their independence from governments and from interest groups as well as self-seeking proprietors wanting to dictate policy.

The second is that governments do not and cannot know how to run an economy. They may and should be able to mitigate damage to individuals from the market economy, but governments are inherently inefficient both in allocating resources and in administering them. The danger with socialist attempts to run economies is that accountability is lost in the all-too-human attempt to pass the buck.

Another vital point if the errors and crimes of the past are to be avoided is that historical truth based on objectively researched facts must be sought and maintained against the propagandists and distorters. We owe it to future generations to ensure that attempts to rewrite the history of the 20th century are condemned for their perversions of the facts.

Returning to the tricky question of relations with North Korea, I recognize that Murayama and Nonaka probably felt that if they were to make any progress in talks with the North Korean regime they had to make some gesture to the present rulers, who doubtless insisted on the wreath-laying being included in their program. But I still think that they should have firmly resisted this, pointing out that the Japanese government did not have diplomatic relations with the North Korean regime, and that as representatives of a democratic society that upholds human rights they could not for moral and political reasons carry out an act that would be seen in Japan and the world as the worst kind of political hypocrisy.

In a speech at Hamada in Shimane Prefecture last October to an international symposium, I set out the dilemmas facing Japan in relation to North Korea. I will not repeat these arguments here, but my conclusions are still relevant. There is a case for attempting to establish a dialogue with the North Korean regime and North Korea’s need for food has to be born in mind. But Japan would be wise not to get ahead of the United States in any discussions with the regime. The U.S. and the Japanese may well have to combine both “the carrot and the stick” in their dealings with this evil regime. The carrot should not, however, become appeasement, which always fails in the end. I trust that the Japanese government will be firm in any talks with North Korea and will never forget that Japan’s security in relation to the perceived threat from North Korea depends ultimately on the U.S. security shield.

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