History hinders creation of East Asian community
By Lee Tae-hoon
World leaders convened last week with a shared vision of making a nuclear free world in Seoul, where heads of G20 countries gathered in November 2010 for a coordinated response to the global economic crisis.
It appears that Seoul has become a popular venue for heads of state to roll up their sleeves and discuss challenges that face them while putting aside ideological and political differences.
But would it be possible for Seoul to hold a history summit for state leaders to narrow differences on thorny issues that undermine the foundation of friendship among neighboring countries?
Would the leaders of China and Japan put their heads together with the Korean president to settle historical disputes and mend relations that have soured over such issues as the sexual enslavement of Asian women by the Japanese military during World War II?
Unfortunately, the answer is no, but persistent efforts must continue to be made toward reconciliation on history, according to Chung Jae-jeong, president of the Northeast Asian History Foundation (NAHF).
“Nothing would be more ideal than heads of state taking the initiative and holding ample discussions to seek ways for harmonious coexistence through reconciliation and mutual understanding over controversial historical issues,” the 60-year-old history scholar said.
“Unfortunately, East Asia lacks the foundation necessary for the establishment of such a high-level consultative meeting.”
Quest for East Asian community
President Lee Myung-bak unveiled his vision of a “New Asia Initiative” during his visit to Indonesia in March 2009 that was intended to lead the debate on the future of Asian regionalism.
China has yet to articulate the creation of a new regional community but has been vocal about a trilateral free trade agreement among the three Northeast Asian nations.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama proposed a plan for an East Asian community in September 2009.
Still, little progress has been made in the creation of an effective regional community.
Chung said contrasting interpretations of historical wrongdoings in Northeast Asia have been one of the biggest stumbling blocks.
“History is memories of the past but people remember things differently,” he said.
“It is natural for different ethnic groups and countries to perceive the same historical events differently.”
The scholar stressed that conflicting views over past military aggressions of Japan have greatly hampered the establishment of an effective forum of the three nations to discuss historical issues.
The NAHF has been involved in the publication of the Korea-China-Japan joint history textbooks and the hosting of some 70 symposiums annually, including the international NGO history forum for peace in East Asia.
It provides financial assistance for exchange programs for history teachers of the three countries and those willing to undertake research into unresolved historical and territorial issues in the region.
Denial of past wrongdoings
Chung said Korea, China and Japan need to narrow down their conflicting views on historical events and muster up courage to acknowledge the distortion of the truth.
“Japan did not admit the wrongdoings it committed against Koreans during its 35-year colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula even during the talks for the normalization of ties between Korea and Japan in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.
Some Japanese leaders, including then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and Prime Minister Naoto Kan, have issued apologies, expressing their deep regret over the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the early 20th century.
However, other Japanese leaders, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, made remarks contradicting Japan’s earlier admission of past wrongdoings.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihoko Noda recently made remarks that the “Peace Statue” — a monument of a young Korean girl set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to remember the victims of Japan’s sexual enslavement — distorts facts.
Chung said historical reconciliation is a prerequisite for regional cooperation and regional integration in Northeast Asia.
“People in Korea and China cannot help but suspect that Japan still harbors imperialistic ambitions.”
Japan has yet to give up its territorial claim over Dokdo, Korea’s easternmost islets that it annexed in 1905 prior to the colonization of the Korean Peninsula in 1910.
Tokyo has also been at odds with Beijing over the denial of the Nanjing Massacre.
Takashi Kawamura, mayor of Nagoya, reportedly told the Chinese that he believed “conventional acts of combat” took place in Nanjing not mass murder and rape.
“It is true that a substantial series of people died in a battle. However such a thing as the supposed Nanjing Massacre is doubtful to have taken place,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
Little progress in the creation of a Northeast Asian community is also attributed to lingering fears that a more powerful nation will exert unsolicited pressure on other countries through it, Chung said.
He said Japan’s efforts to create a regional bloc still reminded neighboring countries of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere that Japan had earlier sought to impose by force and was the reason Japan started the Asian phase of World War II.
“In Europe, every country including Germany, shares the view that the Nazi regime was responsible for World War II that put the entire Europe into crisis,” he said.
“But in East Asia, Japan has been reluctant to do so even after its defeat in the war, raising concerns that it continues to harbor military ambitions and wants to exploit other countries by force.”
However, he noted that the age of imperialism has long been over and countries like Korea and China, which have cemented their positions as major players in international communities, should no longer worry about it.
“Figuratively speaking, Korea was a shrimp in waters full of sharks a century ago,” he said. “Now, Korea is more like a dolphin. Not as big as the sharks, but smart enough to live alongside them.”
Accepting apologies, truth
Chung said that Korea should be more appreciative of Japan’s efforts to apologize for its past wrongdoings and seek co-prosperity with neighboring countries.
“Koreans have long demanded Japanese politicians enact a law that officially proclaims its wrongdoings through legislation but I personally believe that it is impossible in consideration of Japan’s domestic politics,” he said.
“Japanese leaders have asked for forgiveness numerous times and they were sincere, though some of its right-wing leaders have made provocative remarks that undermined the credibility of earlier apologies.”
He said it is important for people in Northeast Asia to have a cold heart and examine why other countries have different views on historical events, rather than accusing each other. He said Chinese people claim Mt. Baekdu is their territory and the Great Wall extends to the ancient city of Seorabol, now Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province.
“There is no use venting anger toward China for their having inaccurate information as it will only escalate historical conflicts that prevent us from drawing consent and overcoming differences,” he said.
Chung stressed that Koreans should settle the two issues through discussions and further research, as well as by holding events, such as exhibitions and forums to help them better uncover the truth behind such conflicts.
“Give an opportunity to the Chinese to learn that the Japanese government took away the diplomatic rights of Korea when it signed the Gando Agreement with China,” he said.
The Korean territory of Gando was given to China by Japan against the will of the Korean people in exchange for the right to construct Southern Manchuria railroads and the right to mine coal in Busan.
“Let them learn that the Great Wall had nothing to do with the walls erected at Seorabol, then we can come to a shared view on history.”
Chung noted that Korea will be the most ideal country among the three countries to promote a Northeast Asian community as no other country would suspect it harbored an ulterior motive.
Who is Chung Jae-jeong?
Chung Jae-jeong is a historian who specializes in the modern history of Korea and Japan.
Born in 1951 in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, he studied history education at Seoul National University and earned his master’s degree in Korean history at the University of Tokyo in 1982.
Chung became president of the Korea-Japan Historical Society in 1992, when he completed a Ph.D. in history at Seoul National University. He lectured in history at Korea National Open University from 1983 and 1993.
He started teaching at the University of Seoul in 1994 and became the dean of the public university’s graduate school in 2009.
He was a member of the Korean-Japanese Joint Committee for History Research from 2003 through 2010.
His publications include “Invasion of Japan and Korea’s Railway,” “Korea and Japan in History Textbooks,” “History of Korean-Japanese Relations as Seen from Kyoto” and “The Illusion and Reality of Colonial Rule.”
He has been president of the Northeast Asian History Foundation since September 2009.