After 70 years of division, leaders Moon Jae-In of the Republic of Korea (“the ROK” below) and Kim Jong-Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“the DPRK” below), crossed the DMZ in unison for the first time. This was a historic moment that moved many people, myself included, to tears, but as a Japanese citizen, I felt an unbearable sense of shame, for the Japanese government is doing nothing apparently to contribute to this movement, and worse still, seems to be inhibiting it.
Modern Japan exploited the Korean Peninsula as a stepping stone to its continental invasion, forcefully annexing the peninsula in 1910 and exercising over it extremely inhumane colonial rule for 35 years. Japan’s defeat and the following liberation of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 only made way for the United States’ intervention that divided the Peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel. The United States used the local, pro-Japanese populations to establish South Korea as its anti-Communist military stronghold.
The divided Peninsula was made into a major “hot” battlefield of the early Cold War years. During the Korean War years from 1950 to 1953, the United States conducted airstrikes, dropping four times the number of bombs on Korea as it used on Japan during the 1945 air raids. Most of North Korea’s major urban centers and thousands of villages were destroyed. Rather than reflecting on its brutal acts in Korea, Japan just enjoyed the great profits from this war. Even now, many Japanese remember the Korean War days rather as a time of economic boom.
Despite the great reduction in the number of tactical nuclear weapons following the 1991 treaty, it is nonetheless this nuclear superpower that continues to exert military power through Korea and Japan (particularly Okinawa), with bases, stationed personnel, and repeated military exercises—effectively acts of war.
The core of the Korean nuclear threat undoubtedly lies with the United States, who first brought nuclear weapons to the Peninsula in 1958. Despite the great reduction in the number of tactical nuclear weapons following the 1991 treaty, it is nonetheless this nuclear superpower that continues to exert military power through Korea and Japan (particularly Okinawa), with bases, stationed personnel, and repeated military exercises—effectively acts of war. The idea that only the DPRK should get rid of nuclear weapons and that such action amounts to the denuclearization of the entire peninsula is a convenient interpretation made by the United States and its many client states, including Japan.
The attitude taken by the Japanese government and media on the inter-Korean Summit held in April displays neither the necessary understanding of the historical context, nor a proper grasp of the essential threat, mentioned above. With major Japanese media criticisms focusing on the lack of mention of the Japanese abductees in DPRK in the joint statement, and on the presence of “Takeshima” as part of the Korean Peninsula picture on the desserts served at the dinner party after the summit, the widespread attitude is incredibly narrow-minded and Japan-centric. (Takeshima, or Dokdo in Korean, is the island off the East Coast of the Korean Peninsula that is effectively administered by the ROK, yet contested by the Japanese government). Hardly any attention is paid to Japan’s own responsibility for the division of the Peninsula and its crimes during its colonial rule of Korea.
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The current Abe administration’s mantra is “the abductees, nuclear weapons, and missiles,” in that order. Are “the abductees” Japan’s highest priority? When the DPRK was conducting nuclear and missile tests last year, the Japanese government was supporting more pressure and even military solutions rather than diplomatic approaches, with little concern for the safety of the abductees in the DPRK. The moment that peace between the Koreas was within eyeshot, the Japanese government suddenly did an about-face, and played the abductee card.
I hope readers will take a moment to step away from the noise of government statements and news broadcasts for a moment, and read the entirety of the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. The word minjog, meaning “people,” or in this case “Korean people,” appears more than ten times. The declaration makes it painfully clear to its reader its core objective, which is the reunification of a people who were humiliated by Japan, and who then became prey to the Cold War division. One clause of the Declaration goes as follows: “South and North Korea affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord…”. To me, this was reminiscent of Okinawans, who, like Koreans, aspire to the pursuit of their right to self-determination.
As for the issue of the Japanese abductees, I believe that the following clause applies: “South and North Korea agreed to endeavor to swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation…” There are significantly more South Korean abductees than Japanese abductees, and there are also cases of North Koreans being tricked into defecting. It is not only the Japanese who have been abducted.
Furthermore, the word “abductees” makes the people of the Korean Peninsula think of the history of forced labour and the military “comfort women” under Japanese colonial rule. The “settlement of past history” that is supposed to take place in the case of a conference between Japan and the DPRK must include nothing less than a genuine apology and compensation for Japan’s colonial rule. The issue of “the abductees,” too, must be discussed within that larger framework in order be brought to a resolution.
After decades of suffering afflicted on the Peninsula’s people, the leaders of the two Koreas have sworn cooperation towards a shared future of their people. How should each citizen of Japan, the former colonizer, look at the way the leaders of the divided Koreas have held hands and pledged the solidarity of their people towards a shared future? I believe that our unwavering commitment to honestly face history will guide us in the right direction.
The original article in Japanese appeared in Ryukyu Shimpo on May 2, 2018. Translated by Koki Norimatsu and Joseph Essertier.