South Korea's Leader Tries to Turn His Back on History

News Abroad

Ms. Dudden is associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of the forthcoming, Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States.

South Korean president-elect Lee Myung-bak has wasted no time stirring things up in Seoul. True to his Hyundai Construction CEO stripes, the businessman-politician for the people wants to act quickly on his campaign pledge to increase peoples’ incomes. One way to do this, he believes, is by rapidly destroying government bureaucracies that he says waste time and money. He promises to be president of the bottom line.

Of course many are eager to have more cash in their pockets. Lee’s vow to dissolve institutions such as the Ministry of Unification in order to accomplish this, however, may prove more difficult than he imagines. His pronouncements have swiftly prompted calls for less grandstanding from all sides, as any action would require parliamentary approval.

Noticeably, the most confusing remarks — producing a number of stern editorials even from those who helped usher him into office — were Lee’s January 17 statements to foreign correspondents that he “does not want to tell Japan to apologize or engage in self-reflection” among other things. In keeping with his desire to place primacy on smooth economic relations in the region, Lee made clear that the long-standing “history troubles” between Korea and Japan would take a back seat under his rule. Along these lines, he announced moreover an end to the government-backed commissions established to investigate so-called collaborationist activities during the era of Japan’s colonial rule (1905-1945).

Tellingly, some of Lee’s supporters started doing immediate damage control, explaining that while he may have said that Japan won’t need to make further apologies, he didn’t mean that Japan wouldn’t have to apologize. Or whatever. Life on the other end of the spectrum is much simpler. Spokesman for the centrist United New Democratic Party (UNDP), Choi Jae-sung, blasted, “Lee is wholly removed from the feelings of the Korean people. He must retract his statement and apologize to the Korean people.” UNDP members still hold a majority in parliament when combined with splinter left-wing groups. No doubt frictions will only escalate.

Lee may in fact be able to redirect recent relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Japan’s equally throwback-to-the-1980s Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo welcomed his comments. Yet even an incremental upward swing in relations between the countries would not be that difficult, given that they have been at rock bottom for the past several years, or at least hovering nearby.

Lee Myung-bak and his back-to-the “future-facing” team will, thus, probably maintain calm with Japan during the coming months. If, however, (or more likely when) some Japanese extremist sets sail for Dokdo/Takeshima and claims the islands for Japan as happened several years ago, it is highly doubtful that Lee would be able to sustain his “no more apologies necessary” gambit domestically.

In South Korea, part and parcel of the nation’s democratization process has been the widening determination to gain popular control over the apologies that the country’s leaders long performed in handshakes and bows behind closed doors. This trend poured onto the streets in 2002-2003 when tens of thousands demanded an American apology for the tragic deaths of two young schoolgirls crushed by a US military vehicle. Protests between 2004-2006 shifted focus onto Japan and the Dokdo/Takeshima standoff, yet the mass urge for a direct apology from the person perceived as most responsible for his nation’s wrongdoing — George Bush and the Japanese emperor — revealed that diplomats no longer controlled the discourse on apology.

Simply put, different in all of South Korea’s recent protests from prior demonstrations against America or Japan is that the demand for apologies without doubt now stems not only from the bottom up, but from the middle class. Those in charge who fail to recognize this and fail to work with such demands to make them part of the democratic process may suffer at election time.

For decades, South Korean military regimes relied on the strategy of using Japan as a foil to legitimate themselves at home. Thus, for example, even as Park Chung-hee accepted his now-documented bags full of money from Tokyo, he and his cronies fostered anti-Japanese movements to distract the peoples’ attention. Creating an “illegal” Japan made “legal” those who ruled South Korea by nefarious means. Those days are over, though, and while the scars of the dictatorship era may still be too raw to do full-fledged truth commissions and the like, telling Koreans that it is better not to ask Japan to apologize won’t work unless you steal their voices away from them. The still unresolved legacies of the first half of the twentieth century are simply too fraught to wish away for economic and diplomatic interests. Besides, they’re in the peoples’ hands now.

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