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Historical fictions

The agony from our colonial days still feels vivid today.
Aug 16,2017
“The Battleship Island,” a big-budget movie about a group of Koreans forced to labor on Japan’s Hashima Island during World War II, has drawn six million people to theaters during this extraordinarily hot summer. The film hits close to home and not just because its run in theaters coincides with Aug. 15, the day Korea was liberated from Japan.

A few years ago, a group of university colleagues and I were stuck in a storm while on a history-themed trip to Hashima Island, the film’s eponymous “Battleship Island.” The island, in all its horrid magnificence and decaying concrete, showed itself among the furious waves, while we trembled in fear of the turbulence which drowned the many Koreans who tried to escape the island’s coal mines.

On our way back, we stopped by the coal mines run by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries during World War II. They are in ruins now and proudly display the mining tools used, as if its corporate history were the symbol of Japan’s industrialization and modernization. Outside is a sculpture of Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro. There are no mentions of Korean laborers.

A scene at the end of “The Battleship Island” depicts a revolt against Japanese soldiers while laborers attempt to flee the island on a coal carrier. But no revolts were reported at Hashima. The scene was entirely fictional. Exactly 72 years have passed since Korea’s liberation from Japan, but we still vent out our rage and revenge in fictional space. The agony from our colonial days still feels vivid today.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China pays tribute to 300,000 victims of Japanese wartime brutality. “We can forgive humans, but we cannot forget the history,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said. But from the way Xi is behaving these days, he seems to want revenge for all the humiliation that China went through in the 20th century. Vindication and a show of newfound muscle against Japan is understandable.

But why China wants to take it out on Korea is beyond comprehension. Korean auto, beauty and retail products have been clobbered by a ruthless Beijing-orchestrated boycott. Korean entertainers are suddenly unwelcome. Bilateral ties have retreated to their worst since the normalization of ties in 1992.

Some say the Chinese bubble is bound to burst. But what triggered it faster than expected was a trivial flame, which is often the case in diplomatic affairs. Former President Park Geun-hye suddenly announced she would bring in the Thaad antimissile system. If she had conferred the matter or at least sent an envoy to China to explain it, Beijing would not have responded so emotionally. The diplomatic front suffered a major casualty from the clandestine and uncommunicative governing style of the former president.

The former administration is also partly to blame for worsening ties between Seoul and Tokyo. Many suspected Park of having a good plan because she outright cold-shouldered her Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, in Group of 20 meetings.

But the governments of Seoul and Tokyo then announced out of the blue that they had reached a deal to settle the “comfort women” issue, under which Japan formally apologized and offered to pay 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to surviving victims and their families.

In retrospect, Park could have had some coaching from her clandestine mentor and friend Choi Soon-sil, given the unnatural language in the statement on the comfort women deal. “This will be a final and irreversible settlement,” she said as if referring to a North Korean nuclear program.

Why and how the deals regarding comfort women and Thaad deployment arrived suddenly must be parsed out. The two decisions have ruined this country’s relationship with Japan and China. They have caused immeasurable dents on national resources and dignity. Seoul must rigorously explain and convince Beijing and Tokyo why it has gone back to the two issues. The impotent and irresponsible leader responsible for the two deals has been removed from office and is behind bars.

Japanese intellectuals believe colonial aggressions and damages have been compensated through the 1965 Basic Agreement that normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries and paid Korea $800 million in full war settlements the following year. Japanese commoners cannot understand why Koreans go back to done deals and bring up past issues over and over. They think Koreans are annoying, and the Chinese are also losing patience with Koreans for being gutless against American pressure. North Korea is becoming more audacious in provoking the United States.

The revolt against an unjust and brutal foreign force as depicted in “The Battleship Island” provides little comfort and does not revive the true meaning of liberation. The inflictor remains unremorseful. We should have drawn up a strategy beyond reparations from Japan.

The arrogant rise of China suggests it can be even more brutal than Japan. Korean diplomacy is in a pitiful state against an overbearing China, Japan and United States. We will be able to find a breakthrough by first tracking down who is responsible for the poor state of our foreign policy today.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 8, Page 31

*The author, a professor of sociology at Seoul National University, is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Song Ho-keun