Why history is a problem for Park Geun-hye in confronting Japan

Author: Peter McGill, London

Relations between South Korea and Japan have deteriorated significantly in recent years. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has refused to hold any bilateral meetings with her Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Park lays the blame for poor Japan–ROK relations squarely on Abe for his historical revisionism.

In particular, Park has accused Abe of undermining an acknowledgement (the 1993 Kono statement) and apology (the 1995 Murayama Apology) issued by previous Japanese governments for Japan’s wartime system of military brothels where many ‘comfort women’ worked as sex slaves.

In her speech to mark the anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule on 15 August 1945, Park called upon ‘Japan’s leaders to take a correct view of history and especially to take proactive measures acceptable to the comfort women victims of the Japanese imperial military while they are still alive’.

Outside of Japan, Park’s standpoint that Abe is responsible for bad Japan–ROK relations has been widely accepted. Her government has shown remarkable success in occupying the moral high ground and in presenting an image of national unity.

In reality, history is as much a political battleground in South Korea as it is in Japan. The notion that there is a ‘correct view of history’ would strike many South Korean intellectuals as absurd.

Park is under fire at home for seeking to reinstate censorship of textbooks and for promoting a school history book that critics say paints too rosy a picture of Japanese colonialism as well as the dictatorial regimes that followed.

In Japan there is widespread suspicion of Park’s motives. This may partly be a defensive reaction stemming from injured Japanese pride. The contrasting fortunes of Japan and South Korea since the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 — the swift recovery and dynamism of South Korea’s economy and companies like Samsung, compared to Japan’s long stagnation and the decline of its electronic giants — have stirred resentments.

But Japanese are right to point to the domestic advantages for Park of attacking Abe. Just as assailing ‘Japanese militarism’ is useful to Chinese President Xi Jinping in diverting attention from failings of the Chinese Communist Party, Japan provides an easy emotional distraction from Park’s own vulnerabilities.

But the reputation of Park’s late father, Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961 and was assassinated in 1979, is a mixed blessing.

To his millions of admirers, Park Chung-hee was a hero who strove tirelessly to build the prosperity enjoyed by South Koreans today. To his detractors, Park Chung-hee is remembered as a dictator who suppressed all opposition. Just as damaging to his daughter’s political inheritance was his affinity to Japan, a nation he greatly admired.

In 1940 Park Chung-hee enrolled at the Japanese military academy in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, and after graduation served as a lieutenant in Japan’s Kwantung Army, allegedly helping to hunt down partisans fighting for Korean independence.

Manchukuo’s development from scratch of heavy industry to supply the needs of the Kwantung Army, using a novel state-led system of planning and control, served as a blueprint for economic planning in South Korea during the 1960s and 1970s. Most senior bureaucrats who served under Park Chung-hee had previously worked for the Japanese during the 1910–1945 colonial period.

The chaebol family-controlled conglomerates that Park Chung-hee fostered, such as Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo, were also modelled on Japan’s pre-war zaibatsu (business conglomerates). ‘The miracle on the Han River’ (South Korea’s post-war economic boom) therefore came after an earlier test bed of Japanese militarism.

In a further twist, the key bureaucrat behind Manchukuo’s industrial development was Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was subsequently Hideki Tojo’s right-hand man for commerce, industry and munitions. Imprisoned from 1945 to 1948 as a ‘Class A’ war crimes suspect, Kishi later became prime minister and a revered role model for Abe.

Park Chung-hee’s interest in Japan extended to its modernising revolution in the 19th Century. He once ordered his ambassador to Tokyo to send him every book he could find on the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Such links to Japanese militarism became politically toxic in South Korea with the advent of democracy at the end of the 1980s.

One of the more theatrical acts of Kim Young-sam’s presidency (1993–98) was the demolition of the dome of the old Japanese General Government building on 15 August 1995 — the 50th anniversary of liberation. Japan had built its colonial capital right in front of the Korean royal palace and Kim made great play out of obliterating this vestige of colonialism.

Bitterness towards Japan was strongest during the 2003–2008 presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, a former labour and human rights lawyer. Under a special law enacted in 2005, an investigative commission listed 452 Koreans who had collaborated with Japanese colonisation. In 2007 the property of descendants of nine of those collaborators was confiscated. The crackdown was highly divisive — most of South Korea’s social elite can trace their family privileges and fortunes back to cooperation with Japanese colonisers.

South Korean NGOs compiled their own lists of collaborators. A directory published in 2008 by the Institute for Research into Collaborationist Activities named 4776 individuals, including Park Chung-hee.

Under Park Geun-hye the word collaborator has again become taboo in ruling circles, and government websites related to the 2005 law have been removed. A once vigorous campaign to seek compensation for Korean forced labourers at Mitsubishi and other zaibatsu during the Pacific War has also been wound down and relegated to an obscure corner of the prime minister’s office.

Peter McGill is a journalist specialising in East Asia, where he was based for 20 years.

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