(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 16)

Historical amnesia

Looking back on past is vital to avoid repeating mistakes

Korea celebrated the 78th National Liberation Day Tuesday.

It was good to see President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife follow Oh Seong-gyu, a wheelchair-bound Independence Army veteran, into the ceremony. Kim Young-gwan, another former independence fighter, was also beside the first couple.

However, Yoon’s speech made many people wonder why he invited the two centenarians to the event.

After giving formal praises and thanks to patriotic martyrs, he made no mention of why they had to sacrifice their youthful years, or their entire lives, and what the nation should do so it will not repeat the unfortunate past.

“Korea and Japan are partners who share universal values and pursue common interests,” Yoon said. “As partners that cooperate on security and the economy, Korea and Japan will be able to jointly contribute to peace and prosperity across the globe, collaborating and exchanging in a future-oriented manner.”

The president then reiterated how the free and democratic South has emerged victorious over the totalitarian and communist North in every way. He also attacked “blind followers of Pyongyang disguised as progressives and democracy and human rights activists.” The conservative president targeted civic groups, labor activists and political opponents. It was a far cry from his predecessors, right or left, who reflected on the past and stressed unity.

Unlike in the past, there was no mention of national reunification, even as a fleeting remark. What would patriotic martyrs say if they saw their divided fatherland, with the two split halves accelerating their confrontation instead of seeking reconciliation? One could not help but wonder what Oh, the former independence fighter, must have thought when he heard those words. He lived in his “former enemy country” until recently after leaving Korea amid the left-right fight in the aftermath of national liberation.

True, one cannot live in the past. The future should be more important than the past. There are also times when you must sacrifice the lesser for the greater. However, burying the past and moving to the future is difficult when perpetrators and victims do not share historical viewpoints.

While Koreans celebrated their liberation, some Japanese politicians and cabinet ministers paid homage to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined. Side by side them are tens of thousands of Korean soldiers and laborers forced to serve Japanese colonialists and memorized there against their will. Liberation will not come for these victims until Tokyo separates them from the shrine.

Some surviving former sexual slaves and forced laborers have yet to receive the Japanese government’s apologies and formal compensation. They refuse to accept comforting words and money from the Korean government. All Tokyo has to do is say sorry and pay token money. But Japan would never do so, implying much regarding their future moves.

According to a survey, about a quarter of Gen Z in Korea do not know the exact meaning of National Liberation Day. Nearly one-third of them also see no problems touring Japan on this day. Millennials are a little better. The situation may be similar among Japanese youngsters. A nation can forgive historical adversaries but must not forget it, especially when some of the former perpetrators don’t reflect on the past and would even return to it. The survey shows many younger Koreans do not know historical facts or know them incorrectly. Such historical amnesia is harmful to Japanese youngsters, too.

Former President Kim Dae-jung was right when he sought reconciliation with Japan. He noted that the unhappy history was only during some 35 years of the 1,500-year history of exchanges. Likewise, the division of Korea must be less than a century in the nation’s 5,000-year history.

The right path is to prevent effective subordination to former occupiers and rectify the wrong by reunifying this divided peninsula in peaceful and democratic ways.

President Yoon might have the three-nation summit with the U.S. later this week in mind when he refrained from saying what he thought was uncomfortable about Japan in his speech.

Koreans will closely watch how his one-sided moves work in the next four years.

Source: Yonhap News Agency