Posted : 2013-01-10 17:19
Updated : 2013-01-10 17:19

South Korea's path forward in uncertain year

By Joseph Yi

The past year witnessed extraordinary political dramas, from the re-election of the first African-American president to the first, truly democratic elections in Egypt. Elections and leadership changes swept major Asia-Pacific countries, including Taiwan (Jan. 14), Russia (March 4), North Korea (April), America (Nov. 6), China (Nov. 15), Japan (Dec. 16), and most recently, South Korea (Dec. 19).

Uncertain times call for pragmatic policies based on strategic interests and political values. The rise of a great power is destabilizing for the international system, wrote Thucydides, the 5th century BC Athenian. Instability is compounded when the rising power, i.e., China, includes an authoritarian, one-party government that seeks popular legitimacy by projecting national power abroad.

Chinese Communist Party leader and military chief Xi Jinping has called on the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) to "push forward preparations for a military struggle," and has pushed sovereignty claims in disputed territories (e.g., South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyu islands).

In Asia, another source of instability comes from a declining one-party autocracy, North Korea, whose young leader Kim Jong-un has launched ballistic missiles. North Korea is propped up by China, which prefers a communist buffer state to a unified, western-allied Korea on its border.

The maxim, "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst," suggests that pluralist democracies (e.g., Australia, India, Japan, The Philippines and South Korea) seek stable, prosperous relations with autocracies (e.g., China and North Korea); but hedge against potential threats with robust military and economic ties among allied democracies. Still, a strategy based on shared interests and values swims against powerful currents of historic grievance and bitterness, especially between South Korea and Japan.

In the past year, South Korean activists and politicians have heightened their campaign for an official Japanese apology and compensation to be paid to former Korean "comfort women," who were forced into military prostitution during the Pacific War. Activists rally weekly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, the foreign minister addresses the United Nations, and the South Korean President lands on the Dokdo islets, all in the name of forcing the Japanese government to address the issue.

From one (mostly Japanese) perspective, the Korean demands seem endless: the Japanese government has already issued more than 50 official apologies related to the Pacific War and provided general reparations to South Korea in 1965 and specific aid to comfort women in 1995. In another (mostly Korean) one, Japanese apologies are half-hearted and lack societal and political consensus.

A central fact of politics is that outside pressures rarely influence positive, internal change ― much more likely the reverse. The at-times vitriolic South Korean campaign has soured Japanese public opinion and strengthened right-wing, nationalist politicians. The two countries have shelved measures on economic and security cooperation, including military intelligence-sharing and a $57 billion currency swap.

Similarly, American human rights legislation directed against Russia, or European pressures against Israel, fuel nationalistic retaliations (e.g., ban on American adoption of Russian orphans; more Israeli settler housing). Few South Koreans believe that public demonstrations or condemnations would greatly influence the North Korean regime.

Fundamental changes come from within, from domestic political actors dissatisfied with the status quo. Influential leaders in the Chinese and Russian communist parties pushed for dramatic economic and political reforms. Civil rights activists and politicians challenged racially segregationist laws in the U.S. and in South Africa. Progressive leaders throughout Europe cooperated to tone down parochial nationalism and to promote regional integration.

In the past four decades, many Japanese activists and organizations have exerted enormous efforts to pursue justice and reconcile with the former victims of imperialism. Due to their efforts, in 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono explicitly apologized to comfort women and admitted the complicity of the Japanese military. In 1995, a Japanese governing coalition, led by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, expressed its "deep remorse" and set up the Asian Women's Fund, with public donations and state funds, to offer monetary compensation and health and welfare support to the surviving victims.

Leaders in Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other former victims of Japanese imperialism support greater ties with a liberal-democratic Japan. Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced plans to visit Japan in spring 2013, for supporting her country's developmental and democratization efforts. Perhaps most remarkably, Vietnamese leaders welcome those countries, including Japan and South Korea, whose militaries inflicted so much damage to it in past wars.

Progressive-minded actors in Korea could assist, rather than undermine, the efforts of their Japanese counterparts to further tolerance, truth and justice. They could also examine more critically their own countrymen's complicities. In the 2009 book, ''The Comfort Women, Korean American scholar C,'' Sarah Soh details how abusive fathers, ruthless contractors, and other elements of Korean patriarchy contributed to the trafficking of young, vulnerable women during wartime, and beyond.

Soh writes, "Despite the borderless, globalizing capitalist economy, nation-state interests and identity politics deriving from a colonial history still constitute major barriers to discovering what the South African reconciliation tribunal has called ‘healing and restorative truth.'" A balanced, critical approach to the past is more conducive to building a community of liberal-democracies committed to universal justice than the narrow, anti-Japanese identity and nationalistic politics prevailing among many activists today.

Times of uncertainty and danger call on democracies to return to their core, strategic interests and foundational values. South Korea and Japan both need to be active partners in a community of liberal-democracies committed to mutual security and liberal freedoms. Let us protect what we cherish most.

Joseph Yi is assistant professor of public administration at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and lecturer of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul. This work was supported by Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Research Fund of 2012. He can be reached at:

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