Opinion >

The Politics of Historical Memory

Chris Green and Clara Fontana  |  2012-06-11 16:20
For decades now, political and economic conditions in East Asia have been at the forefront of discussions surrounding global policy and international relations. China, Japan and South Korea have all become global players, North Korea remains a thorn in their side, and regional issues have thus becoming increasingly relevant on the international stage.

There are also still tensions in the background which stem from historical wrongdoings. The post-War antagonism that regularly flares up between Japan and China, North and South Korea alike is one of the best examples.

When one considers strained relations of this kind, comparisons with European reconciliation efforts following World War II are often drawn. The ability of many European states to come together after such unprecedented brutality had taken place is widely cited as a great example of post-conflict reconciliation.

The German governments overt contrition is greatly credited with prompting that reconciliation. Though recent financial problems have brought widespread wobbles, the overall success of the European Union is likewise usually linked to Germanys, and Europes, ability to confront its past and resolve historical injustices.

However, Professor Thomas Berger of Boston University, the author of War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II (to be released in July), made some revealing remarks during an Asan Institute for Policy Studies speech in Seoul on Friday. Although not exactly challenging the prevailing view outright, he did say that the European resolution is actually incomplete, and has in any case been far messier than many seem to think. In his own words, The Europe that is talked about is not the Europe that is really there.

Warfare left Europe utterly dismembered. Physically, entire cities were razed. Enormous sections of whole populations were lost, and those that were lucky enough to survive the conflict were left to suffer the memories of their victimization afterward.

Europe was politically dismembered as well. Relations between many countries were at an all time low. Europe had to piece itself together under remarkable strain; forced to cope with the reality of neighbors that had been victors and losers, victims and aggressors.

Each European state attempted to address these issues of victimhood, guilt and reconciliation in their own way. There were a number of countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, which drove ethnic Germans out of their territories. Others sought compensation for their losses (for instance France), or demanded vengeance through efforts such as completely declawing the German military. War crimes tribunals were held and new international standards of peace and human rights created specifically in order to provide charges for them. Governments seen as corrupt underwent massive purges through lustration. Germany was effectively carved up between those on the winning side in the war.

Nevertheless, Germanys longstanding stance is consider to have been an overall success, as German relations with its neighbors today are mostly healthy, further encouraged and maintained by the establishment of the European Union and Germanys powerhouse status within it.

Elsewhere, Japan did eventually also begin to offer public apologies for its past aggressions. Although early political displays of contrition were undermined by accusations of self-justification and grey areas of denial, expressions of guilt and remorse became more explicit as time went on.

However, this effort has faced accusations of insincerity by both the North Korean authorities and South Korean public opinion, and although it is of little day-to-day economic consequence to most of those involved (though not the North, which stands to gain many billions of dollars in reparations should it accept the restoration of relations), the fact is that conditions do occasionally grow strained.

In the case of North Korea, as in China, Berger believes that the absence of democracy has played a core role in perpetuating this antagonism against Japan. Authoritarian, non-democratic regimes all suffer from a lack of legitimacy, which is a constant threat to the continued rule of those in power. North Korea is an obvious example of this, and in part the Kim regime has long used Japan as a legitimizing factor in justifying its own control by presenting the neighboring country as an aggressor.

To suddenly retract this position, withdraw all the rhetoric and propaganda that presents Japan as an evil enemy and accept Japans apology for its aggression in the past could, and likely would, be very destabilizing for the regime.

Ironically, despite formally restoring relations with Japan in 1965, South Korea unwittingly plays into this dynamic, perhaps sucked in by North Koreas attempts to convince the people south of the 38th parallel that although it is economically outmuscled by the South it can still claim moral superiority on the Peninsula. Because the North Korean authorities maintain their claim to an autonomy that South Korea, partly due to its U.S. military presence, cannot match, and since the Mt. Baekdu bloodline myth is partly predicated on Kim Il Sungs leadership in the anti-Japan guerilla struggle, this is unlikely to change without change in Pyongyang.

Not only that. Many political figures in South Korea may fear that should the conditions become ripe for forgiving Japan of its historical abuses, doing so could create domestic troubles for themselves. Pro-North Korea activists in South Korea would likely try to latch on to any move to accept closure, presenting it in such a way that it delegitimizes the South in comparison with the North.

There are other problems involved (the issue of comfort women being among the most prominent), but the fact remains that the absence of a complete reconciliation in Northeast Asia represents yet another example of the way the division of the Korean Peninsula is capable of holding back the development of the region as a whole, both economically and, perhaps, psychologically as well.
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