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Korea and Japan should not abandon their shared values

Posted March. 19, 2015 07:21,   


I was in Beijing last week. Fortunately, air pollution was not severe probably because the Chinese government took measures for the opening of the National People’s Congress. But what made me uncomfortable was the blocked access to Gmail, which I use all the time. Google withdrew its business from China last year due to Beijing’s censorship and hackers’ attacks presumably from China. I value the bond among Korea, China and Japan, but I strongly felt that China is a controlled society unlike Korea and Japan.

As if he were trying to hold China in check, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used to stress the bond between Korea and Japan based on the “shared values” – freedom and democracy. As part of his efforts, he visited Korea in October 2006 when he just became a prime minister and said, “Both Korea and Japan the share basic values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, the rule of law, and the market economy.”

He was different, however, when he addressed the Diet in February. He mentioned “Australia, ASEAN countries, India, and Europe” for the countries that shared basic values but he described Korea only as “one of the most important neighboring countries.” The expression was also changed in the website of Japan’s foreign ministry.

I think it is not mature enough for him to make Korea angry with such a thing. And there is a reason: a former Seoul bureau chief of the Sankei Shimbun was accused for defamation charges and cannot leave Korea until now. Even Japanese people who are critical of the right-leaning newspaper deplore the regression of Korea.

Just as the ruling that did not accept the request to return stolen Buddhist statues back to Japan, there have been suspicions that the Korean judiciary branch sides with the anti-Japanese public opinion. In addition, President Park Geun-hye shows a close relationship with China while consistently rejecting a summit with the Japanese prime minister. It may sound satirical but Prime Minister Abe might have thought it is now rude to include Korea to the group of countries with “shared values.”

To be fair, Prime Minister Abe should not abandon the “shared values” as a democracy in terms of dealing with the past militarism, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Otherwise, it cannot win the hearts and minds of the international community. German Chancellor Angela Merkel who recently visited Japan shared Europe’s experience with Abe, saying, “Dealing with the past is a prerequisite for reconciliation.” I am well aware that Korea praises this.

However, does it mean that what Korea did was great? Reconciliation was realized with Germany’s apology and France’s tolerance. To Americans, it would be weird to see Korean lawmakers appeal to the U.S. Congress not to allow visiting Prime Minister Abe`s address in the Congress.

Both Seoul and Tokyo seem to be engaged in a “chicken race” escalating into the worst-case scenario, with only three months left before the 50th anniversary of the normalized bilateral relationship. For being unable to sit idly by, former Korean Prime Minister Lee Hong-gu and former National Assembly Speaker Kim Soo-han visited Tokyo and decided to have a “senior meeting” with former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. I hope that they could show wisdom in a larger context.

The most impending issue is comfort women but there is something that bothers me. Park Yoo-ha, the author of “The Empire’s Comfort Women,” which was also published in Japan, was accused for defamation charges in Korea. It was surprising that the court ruled a temporary ban on the publication of the book. Even worse, slander and mudslinging are rampant due to the misunderstanding and distortion of the book, which is regrettable.

The book points out that extreme arguments in both countries made things worse, urging for a brave breakthrough. It was highly appreciated in Japan not because the right wing nationalists were happy about it but because it won the hearts and minds of reasonable people who want to resolve the conflict.

It is natural that there is disagreement over the book because it challenges stereotypes. Wouldn’t it be nice to discuss this in the press? If the government were to prosecute the author, it would never help addressing the problem and developed countries will stigmatize Korea as a country that suppresses the media. Then, who will be happy about this? I also desperately hope that Korea would not abandon the shared values as well.