Editorial in Korea: The Battle Over History in Asia Reflects Underlying National Rivalries

Roundup: Talking About History

Editorial in Korea Times (Aug. 29, 2004):

Japan's rightist groups have relapsed into historical distortion. The Tokyo education board has adopted a history textbook that deletes or rationalizes Japan's past atrocities for use by a top high school. The Japanese Foreign Ministry is reportedly stepping up diplomatic efforts to claim Tokto as its territory and calls the East Sea as the Sea of Japan. The world's No. 2 economy pursues a matching political power by becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
To the west of the Korean Peninsula, Beijing, armed with its newly earned economic confidence, is trying to portray the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo as a vassal state of China. As some foreign media see it, China might be guarding itself against the territorial claim for its northeastern region by a unified ``Greater Korea.'' But Korea, ill prepared even for an unexpected unification by the sudden collapse of North Korea, can hardly afford to do so. Rather, most Koreans believe the Chinese move as preparation to claim the North Korean territory if and when such a situation happens.

In this post-Cold War era marked by regional integration for economic co-prosperity, nationalistic expansionism is raging in Northeast Asia, reviving old hostility among historical rivals. Japan in particular, based on its military alliance with the United States, is increasingly self-assertive. Currently, Tokyo is also in territorial disputes with Moscow over the Kurile Islands and Beijing over the Senkaku isles. It is regretful that this part of the world is rowing against the stream of global historic trends.

Korea, sandwiched between the two expanding powers, needs a careful but aggressive national strategy to ensure its survival. President Roh Moo-hyun's promise not to raise Japan's problems in the past should never mean Korea would remain silent in the face of present provocation. Seoul also ought to secure a far stronger pledge by Beijing to stop historical distortion than the present ``verbal understanding.'' The country can no longer expect neighbors' benevolence by leaving everything at their disposal.

Important in this regard is our own correction of historical wrongs, such as ferreting out pro-Japanese collaborators. Some say this would cause internal splits in the face of an external enemy, but this is not the case. If Korea puts its disgraceful past with respect to Japanese colonial days under the carpet, it would be tantamount to encouraging Tokyo to repeat its past mistakes.

Seoul needs both short- and long-term strategies to win in the ongoing three-way ``history warfare.'' The nation should be able to not only refute the logical blind spots of the Chinese or Japanese assertions, but also publicize its positions effectively to third countries. For this, the government should make historical research a national agenda and enhance historical education for students and the general public.

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