Commentary / Japan | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

President Park Geun-hye’s Japan stance in perspective

by Hiroaki Sato

South Korean President Park Geun-hye might soften her policy toward Japan even while insisting on her stance on Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, suggested a dispatch from Seoul published in The Japan Times on May 4 (“Park signals two-track foreign policy toward Japan”). Her partial change of stance might reflect her top aides’ concern that the tension between China and Japan has been easing, the report said.

This set me wondering: Where does Park’s open antipathy toward Japan come from? Is it rooted in Korea’s historical tradition? Or is it of recent vintage? Japan’s colonization that ended 70 years ago continues to rankle many, not just Park, and it continues to raise questions both in South Korea and Japan.

Historically, Park’s feelings may be traced to the prevailing view during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) that held the Japanese as a culturally backward people, as Sonfa O, who was born on Jeju Island and naturalized in Japan, suggests in her recent book “On Korea’s Contempt for Japan” (2014). This view is evident, for example, in my favorite travelogue, the report by scribe Sin Yuhan on the Korean embassy that visited Japan in 1719.

However, if Park’s stance reflects recent Korean government policy goals, it contrasts sharply with what her father, President Park Chung-hee, did. A top graduate of the Japanese Army Academy, Park notably brought to conclusion the contentious Japan-South Korea treaty of 1965, and actively sought Japanese industrial and technological investments in South Korea.

The treaty discussions had begun when Korea demanded “war reparations” from Japan in 1949, four years after Japan’s surrender. The country, just “liberated,” wanted to count itself among the victors in World War II. But the U.S. and others rejected this. Korea was Japan’s colony but not one of the nations that fought Japan.

In the 1965 treaty, Park accepted this rejection. But Japan agreed to provide “economic cooperation funds,” which amounted to three times Korea’s national budget of that year. But that hardly calmed the opposition.

Park’s economic policy with Japan turned out to be so successful that in the 1970s his critics were warning against Japan “re-colonizing” Korea.

What has happened since then?

First, with Korea’s economic success, the country’s political needs changed. By the 1990s, Korean leaders found untenable the dictatorial exercise of power that Park Chung-hee and others had pursued.

Park, who was assassinated in 1979, was a dictator. Dictators, in fact, ruled Korea from Syngman Rhee, the first president as Korea declared independence in 1948, to Chun Doo-hwan, the fifth, who held his position until February 1988. Some of these men resorted to ruthless measures to suppress their opponents.

Behind all that was the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Upon Japan’s defeat in August 1945, Koreans may have declared “liberation” from Japan’s colonial rule, but the U.S. placed its sphere of influence, the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, in trusteeship, as did the Soviet Union in the northern half, its sphere of influence.

The first major U.S. military intervention occurred in April 1948 on Jeju Island. The so-called 4.3 Incident was “the islanders’ simultaneous revolt against the U.S. Occupation’s military rule,” as Fumio Takano says in his history of the island, “Jeju Island, Korea” (1996).

The firebrand anti-communist Rhee was only too happy to help and expand America’s relentless effort to quell the revolt, which lasted seven years and ended up killing an official estimate of 27,000 people. Actually, 70,000 to 80,000 are thought to have died.

Even while this campaign was going on, a far deadlier war broke out: the Korean War. The north-south split the war solidified continues to this day, with no end in sight, although an attempt at reunification began in Park Chung-hee’s administration in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the Japanese economy changed, too. With it, in the 1980s especially, the Japanese media had started playing up Japan’s “national crimes” during World War II, Chung Daekyun, another Korean scholar who is a naturalized Japanese citizen, points out in his book “The Myth of Forced Korean Migration to Japan” (2004). The “crimes” mainly focus on what the nation did or may have done to its colony, Korea.

South Korea’s dictatorship ended with the sixth president, Roh Tae-woo, when a free, direct election was introduced. But Roh was a former general, so Korea’s civilian administrations are said to have begun with the next president, Kim Young-sam, who was elected in 1993.

Kim, the democratic activist, started the policy of “liquidation of the past,” which aimed to “advance democracy in Korean society,” as Sonfa O puts it. Indeed, Kim, while spouting anti-Japanese remarks, focused on the clarification of the excesses under dictatorial administrations.

The ninth president, Roh Moon-hyun, who was elected in 2003, expanded the scope of the “liquidation of the past” and set up a series of ex post facto laws to deal with “anti-Korean acts of Imperialist Japan” to punish those “Koreans friendly to Imperial Japanese.”

So, you may say President Park Geun-hye is inheriting and expanding the policy of “liquidation of the past,” with a dose of personal dislike of Japan added. And you may say that difficulties will remain as long as she, or any other leader, persists in views such as the one she is said to have expressed in a 2013 speech, that “the historical relation between (Japan and Korea) as victimizer and victim does not change for 1,000 years.”

As for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea (1910-1945), I know some Koreans of the older generations who simply act as if it didn’t exist.

A friend’s father served as a South Korean diplomat in the U.S. for many years, then went on to play an important role in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When I met him a dozen years ago, now in retirement in upstate New York, the bits and stories he told me about his life were fascinating, so I suggested he write an autobiography.

He told me, for example, that he crewed the decrepit U.S. frigate that went to Hawaii to pick up, of all people, Syngman Rhee. That must have been September or October 1945. Rhee, a leader of the movement to take his country back from Japan, lived mostly overseas.

When he finished his autobiography, my friend gave it to me. I read it and was surprised. The small autobiographical book had left out completely his life during Japan’s colonial years.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.