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Lawyer and president

July 17,2019
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Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A noteworthy article was published in the latest issue of the Philosophy and Reality, a quarterly magazine published by the Institute of Philosophy and Culture. It was a 28-page special contribution by Yang Seung-tae, a professor emeritus of political science at Ewha Womans University, entitled “The liberals in Korea must end their historical view of falsehood and hypocrisy.”

Yang noted that the liberals have led the historical perception of South Korea’s modern political history, particularly during the democratization process. He said they were able to do so thanks to the poor historical views of the conservatives in South Korea, an offshoot of their longstanding hatred of communist ideology. But Yang argued that the liberals were no different in their shallowness. Their historical view has not advanced any further from the must-read book, “Understanding History Before and After Liberation,” among the activists in the 1980s.

The liberals have argued that although we had abilities to pursue modernization on our own, we were deprived of the opportunity because immoral Japanese imperialism plundered our sovereignty, Yang said. The liberals also believe that even though we had the ability to realize unification and democracy on our own after liberation, the pro-Japanese dictatorship cooperating with outside forces caused the national division and delayed our democratization, according to Yang.

Yang said such historical views are false and hypocritical in two ways. First, the liberals failed to grasp the flow of the history as a whole and used a particular moral stance to make one-sided determinations of wrong and right, he said. Second, they blamed others for the historical responsibility of ruining the country although we ourselves are responsible.

“Instead of moving beyond the historical view of falsehoods and hypocrisy, the Moon Jae-in administration — captivated by dogmatic moralism, narrow-minded nationalism and the obsolete ideology from the declining era of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) — produces endless reactionary policies and causes unnecessary friction and chaos at home and abroad, hindering the national interests,” Yang wrote in his criticism of the administration.

I quote Yang’s criticism at length because now is a critical moment when we need a balanced historical view. The conflict between South Korea and Japan over the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on the forced labor issue has turned into an economic row. The Shinzo Abe administration deserves strong criticism for using trade restrictions as a weapon to retaliate against the Moon administration. But it is his administration that failed to resolve a diplomatic issue through diplomacy from the beginning.

When the forced labor victims filed a suit to seek compensations from a Japanese company in 2000, Moon, a lawyer at the time, served as their defender. Last October, the Supreme Court’s full panel made a final ruling that they are entitled to compensation. During the trial period, Moon was a lawyer who should represent his clients, but now he is the president, who must consider our national interests first.
Even as the Supreme Court ruling was shaking the foundation of bilateral relations, which are based on a 1965 treaty, Moon did not act, citing the separation of powers, respect for the victims and rights of individuals. Despite the need for action, he was captivated by the logic of a lawyer and did nothing although a tsunami was approaching the country. As we expected, Japan’s retaliation became reality, with the damage going to the private sector.

Instead of going to war, conflict between two countries should be resolved through diplomacy. Diplomacy is the art of expressing a nation’s top priority — its own interests — in ways that don’t offend other countries. We must not be shaken by emotions. The president, the administration and the ruling party should have been cool-headed, but they are actually instigating the people. Some said it is time to rise, while the president said South Jeolla residents helped Admiral Yi Sun-sin protect the country against Japan with only 12 ships. That only fuels anti-Japan sentiment. Others say it is time to remember the public movements to collect gold to overcome the foreign exchange crisis of the late 1990s, while a presidential aide posted on Facebook a song to remember the Donghak Pheasant revolution against feudalism and foreign influences, including Japan, in the twilight of the Joseon Dynasty in the 19th century. They are the officials who must stop the president’s misjudgment, yet they are pushing the president into a dead end.

Ahead of an upcoming cabinet reshuffle, top presidential aides are reportedly competing to get their desired posts. No straightforward, honest advice is heard. It is no wonder that diplomacy is not working.

Whenever the administration changes, officials dig up old matters and attack Japan with something from history. How long do we have to continue this kind of diplomacy? The government is keeping a low profile before North Korea and China, while asking the United States to mediate a bilateral dispute between South Korea and Japan. How long do we have to continue this childish play?

The water was already spilled. Before there is a greater damage, we need to protect our national interests based on cold reason. If there was a bad move, we must admit it and find a compromise with Japan. If the administration wants to make up for the economic crisis and deadlock in inter-Korean relations with “Japan bashing” ahead of next year’s general election, that’s a big miscalculation.

“A truly strong man admits to the rival’s strength when he lost a fight and tries to become stronger. A weak, cowardly man does not draw up a plan to beat the rival after losing a fight. He only cries loudly and tells other people that the rival had beaten him up,” Yang wrote, asking if we are the weak, cowardly man.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 16, Page 31