The statement of the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, that the Republic of Korea, Japan, and China share responsibility for historical disputes, caused a sensation. Speaking on 27 February 2015 at the Carnegie Fund in Washington, with a speech devoted to US politics in the Asia-Pacific region, she emphasized that in the region “nationalist feelings can still be exploited. And it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.” She also noted that such actions exacerbated the situation in the region.
Although specific names and countries were not mentioned, in South Korea it was clearly taken as criticism. Under the pressure of public indignation and resentment on the part of various political forces, the South Korean government decided to request clarification from its main military and political ally, for if the statement of Sherman who occupies the third most important post in the structure of the US Department of State reflects Washington’s official position, this may adversely affect US-South Korean relations. In an interview to Korea Times, Hong Hyun-ik, senior research fellow at the King Sejong Institute, stated: “Her remarks are irresponsible because she holds Korea, China and Japan equally responsible. Of course, Japan is the most to blame.”
In what context is it necessary to take Sherman’s statement, and the subsequent outrage? It is no secret that in spite of Washington’s efforts, Seoul has no desire to reconcile with Tokyo, and demands a new apology for the crimes of the Japanese military during the Second World War. Park Geun-hye still refuses to hold a bilateral summit with the Japanese prime minister. This is largely due to the fact that Japan’s role in the Korean ideological paradigm is more complex than it may seem.
Both in the North and in the South, Japan ranks as the main villain, and the source of all Korea’s subsequent troubles. Japan has been allocated a regressive role, similar to that in the mythology of some CIS countries, which is attributed to the bloody Soviet legacy. The evil will of the Japanese is searched for everywhere, they take the blame that, due to the policy of assimilation, Korea has irretrievably lost a large part of their national cultural legacy. Even the spelling of the word “Korea” with the letter “K” is explained by the fact that the Japanese specifically imposed on the world spelling using “K” and not “C”, so that when the countries are listed in alphabetical order in Latin, Japan would always be listed earlier.
Yes, there are many allegations and facts that Japan is unwilling to recognize or actively ignores, “distorting the historical truth.” These charges are true, but if you look at the situation objectively, in the Korean public myth one can find quite a lot of unpleasant moments, which, on the contrary, namely the Korean side prefers to ignore. This is a question of who carried out the modernization of Korea and to whom they are obliged for many of the elements of the Korean economic miracle. These are very unpleasant facts, considering that the number of active supporters of the Japanese Empire among Koreans was not less than the number of active members of the resistance. As the author expressed in one of our discussions, “on the one hand, Japan really drank all the water from the tap, on the other – they built the water pipeline.”
Yes, Japan has effectively paid reparations and made an apology, but the way it was done was unacceptable to a number of Asian countries, and in particular, to the Republic of Korea. Indeed, in most cases, such payments are not formally called “compensation,” but are interpreted as economic aid.
However, in Korea itself these rather obvious things are either silenced or denied with anger. You can even talk about the policy of “wiping out Japanese traces,” resulting in Seoul having almost no buildings left which were constructed under the Japanese, and Seoul National University for a long time having no department of Japanese language for ideological reasons. To say something positive about Japan’s influence on Korea in colonial times for a Korean scientist is equivalent to academic or political suicide, and the charge of pro-Japanism is, in the lexicon of Korean nationalists, second in significance after accusations of being sympathetic to communism and the DPRK.
The shadow of the historical past, standing between the states of the Korean peninsula and Japan, is comparable to the legacy of the inter-Korean confrontation, and even supersedes it. It is understandably hard to forget grudges, but when each side immediately pulls from the closet another’s skeletons, and begins their mutual recounting with attempts to snatch additional compensation or allegations that, “of course they apologized, but they did not choose the right words and were not repentant enough,” this is definitely a conscious provocation of conflict. And then, having brought the situation to the necessary intensity, both sides use it for their own benefit, and this is exactly what drew the attention of the American diplomat.
Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.