03.05.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The cancellation of Park Geun-hye’s visit to the 70th celebration of WWII victory

878432322So “she will not be coming” The Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea said on April 11 that Seoul will be represented by a special representative of the South Korean President. It is still being discussed who it will exactly be, but the most likely candidate seems to be Yoon Sang-hyun, a National Assembly deputy from the ruling party. According to the Ministry’s press release, “the presidential envoy’s attendance would contribute to improving Seoul-Moscow relations in the year marking the 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties.”

To be fair, here were several favourable, and unfavourable reasons, for whether the South Korean President should or should not go to Moscow. Those in favour of going spoke of the possibility of an inter-Korean summit and the demonstrative intention of reinforcing the “Eurasia initiative” in the implementation of which Russia’s role is crucial. Korea, freed by the victory in the Second World War, would be an equal participant in the celebrations.

However there were too many “contra” arguments. Firstly, the author once again draws attention to the fact that the possibility of Park Geun-hye making independent drastic decisions is limited. And at this point there was a call from Washington and a difficult internal political situation which at present has only been aggravated with the resignation of the prime minister Lee Wan-koo. In such a situation, the president is better off staying at home and not making any sudden movements that can cause criticism: the Right were already criticizing Park Geun-hye for the alleged surrender to Putin and the Left are willing to criticize her for her every action simply because she is the daughter of Park Chung-hee.

Secondly, South Korea does not currently have important projects to be discussed with Moscow. And that means that the visit would have been mainly of a demonstrative character, despite the fact that for such an “amateur performance” Seoul would have “paid the price” to Washington by making concessions in other, perhaps more important, areas. The pragmatist President may regard it as “unequal exchange” and, as for the inter-Korean summit in Moscow, Seoul expects this to happen in Beijing during the September celebrations devoted to the end of the Second World War to be attended by both leaders of the Korean states who received invitations.

Note also that Korea itself considers September 2 a much more important date than May 9. European history is not well known in Korea and for Koreans World War II is first and foremost the war with Japan. Of course, Koreans remember the war in Europe, but it is likely on the periphery of their mental map. It is roughly the same for the average Russian who has a very vague idea of the Pacific front of World War II. Yes, the war was out there somewhere between the Americans and the Japanese, but it was irrelevant to the Great Patriotic War. China has a similarly distorted image of these events, when for some historians World War II did not begin with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, but with the invasion of Japan into the central regions of China in 1937. Moreover, representatives of the People’s Republic of China quite often declare that China suffered maximum human losses in World War II, namely: more than 30 million people. In other words: what is important for us, is not so important for them.

But what about the liberation of Korea? – some might say. Didn’t the Soviet Union liberate the Korean peninsula from Japanese colonial rule? Yes, but there is one “snag” associated with the way the Koreans (especially Southern) perceive the liberation of their country.

Firstly, only North Korea was liberated in the course of direct military action with the help of the Soviet Army. For the majority of the territory of Korea, the liberation looked as if it was just suddenly announced to the population of the concentration camps: “The war is over, all are free to go.”

Secondly, in Korean history there was nothing even remotely similar to “Polish troops”: neither Kim Il-sung’s guerrillas, nor the armed forces of the Korean Provisional Government in exile took any part in the liberation of Korea.

Thirdly, the liberation was followed by the division of the country into zones of occupation, which under the influence of the “Cold War” grew into the split of one country into the North and South. Therefore, the question always arises in Korea, “how could we celebrate the beginning of the split of the country”, and August 15 is not so much the day of liberation as the day of the proclamation of the Republic of Korea.

It turns out that on the surface it looked like the Koreans freed themselves without an outside help, but at the same time without its own participation in it. They were like spectators at the feast and victory immediately had a very strange taste. Something similar is present in the discourse of Polish nationalism, when Hitler seems to have been vanquished by the Communist forces, not nationalists. So the enemy, of course, was defeated, but is it possible to say that it was our victory to be exact?

It is clear that with such an attitude to the liberation of the country in South Korea they are trying to conceal the circumstances of the “liberation”, all the more so that US troops were in the southern half of the peninsula only three weeks after the Japanese had raised the white flag. Soviet troops were not perceived as liberators, especially since they kind of didn’t “really reach” South Korea. Their role is belittled in every possible way, from the claim that the Japanese would have surrendered after the atomic bombing to defaming all excesses connected with the behaviour of the Soviet troops, ignoring tough battles against marauders and violators of military discipline. Therefore, it is not very surprising that these events are not interpreted in a purely positive way by official propaganda of the Republic of Korea.

Will the fact that Park Geun-hye is not going to Moscow have any political consequences? – In expert circles, it was understood from the very beginning that the probability of her going to Moscow was very low. That is exactly why the response of the Kremlin was very composed: that each country invited to the celebration determines the composition of its delegation and the format of the visits and that Park Geun-hye’s decision not to personally attend the celebrations will not affect the relations between Russia and Republic of Korea.

Ultimately, the representatives of South Korea are not the most important guests at this celebration. Victory Day is, first of all, a Russian celebration for Russians and gathering together a maximum of foreign distinguished guests has never been a priority of the Russian administration.

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”.