Virulent, fanatical nationalism is not the answer.
It’s not the answer in Russia, where an opponent of Putin’s war on Ukraine was murdered on the streets of Moscow in broad daylight. It’s not the answer in China where the ruling Communist Party needs a new raison d’etre after embracing capitalism without liberalism. It is not the answer in Japan, where a conservative government needs a cover for its inability to end a decades-long economic malaise. It is not the answer in South Korea, where the government wants to show its Japan-bashing credentials are just as good as those of the rabid propagandists of North Korea.
Let’s take the last case, Korea, where the anniversary of the 1919 nationalistic uprising against Japan’s colonial rule was marked last Sunday.
I took the opportunity to spend some time watching a South Korean cable news service that day and witnessed a cavalcade of commentary portraying the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945 as one unrelieved series of atrocities. Apart from it being an historical distortion (though Japan could be a brutal colonial power, considerable economic development accompanied its rule), one has to ask what is the use of stoking public animosity in 2015 over events that ended 70 years ago?
The next item in the station’s news bulletin continued along the same lines. It proudly described the work of the government’s Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators’ Property. Perhaps you have never heard about this entity. Anyone who considers South Korea an advanced democracy should, I suggest, know about it. In 2005, the South Korean parliament passed a law enabling this “collaborators’” commission to seize the property of the descendants of those deemed to have assisted the long-since-ended Japanese occupation. That’s right, the sins of the grandfathers and great grandfathers, it was decided, shall be visited on the present generation!
A police officer, for instance, who carried out a search order in 1915 for his Japanese overlords, under this extraordinary law, can be retrospectively condemned and his distant descendants hauled into court, branded as a “collaborator’s family”, and stripped of their property. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been seized already, and the commission has its eyes on another $100 million this year, according to the news report. The money is paid over to the descendants of approved former “freedom fighters”.
South Africa, under Nelson Mandela, gave the world a superior model for dealing with the errors and evils of the past: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela, to his credit, recognized it was better to heal wounds rather than rub salt into them––in the pursuit of social cohesion and, just as importantly, in the service of a genuine desire to reveal the truth of past misdeeds. South Korea advances the pursuit of a truthful accounting for the past not one inch by a policy of retribution, by whipping up public feeling with propaganda parading as history. It is the sort of thing one might expect from North Korea, which has little else going for it, and not from a modern, outward-looking state.
President Park Geun-hye inherited a situation when she took office two years in which relations between South Korea and Japan were as bad as they’ve ever been since the end of World War Two. Whether or not she wanted to steer a different course, her hands were tied by inflamed domestic sentiment and the provocative noises coming from Japanese nationalists, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In her March First anniversary remarks this week, President Park repeated calls for Japan to show proper contrition for such past episodes as the coercive use of women for prostitution––the so-called “comfort women”––organized by the Japanese military.
I have written about this in previous blogs, taking issue with nationalist revisionism in Japan; but the debasement of history is not a one-sided affair by any stretch of the imagination. Koreans, for instance, find it difficult to face up to the fact that the Korean War was a fratricidal conflict. Sure, the scene was set by decades of colonial rule and a ham-fisted U.S. occupation after 1945, but what ensued was Koreans killing Koreans, in one of the most vicious conflicts of modern times. This is not a perspective you’ll get, unalloyed, from either Seoul or Pyongyang.
Instead of Truth and Reconciliation, the nations of East Asia are hung up on Un-Truth and Recrimination. The concept of reconciliation in exchange for truth is desperately in short supply, and yet it is the only way forward from what is a bitter, corrosive and dangerous flirtation with populism and prejudice––in South Korea, Japan and China alike. President Park, in her recent remarks, at least acknowledged that a natural flow of mutual exchange with Japan––through tourism, investment and trade––was worth protecting. It seems to this observer she wants to move towards a more constructive bilateral relationship. Indeed, preparations are underway for an important trilateral meeting soon of the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea. It should be a staging post on the way to a long-overdue trilateral leaders’ summit, though no timetable has been made public.
It is time for East Asia’s powerhouse nations to embrace Truth and Reconciliation––and abandon Un-Truth and Recrimination––in their handling of grievances over past misdeeds. Whether the leaders of the three nations have the vision and guts to break from their recent pandering to nationalist cheer-squads is the great imponderable. They could all use a hefty dose of humility and, by taking a history lesson from a much wiser and greater leader than any of them, the late Nelson Mandela, start building bridges for this and future generations.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan and South Korea for 11 years for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.