The two top Japan experts in South Korea’s newspapers are probably Shim Gyu-seon, an editorial consultant for the Dong-A Ilbo, and Seon Woo-jeong who sits on the editorial board at the Chosun Ilbo. They each recently published editorials offering their candid views on Japan-Korea relations. They were both critical in light of the deteriorating relations following the placement of a Comfort Woman statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan and the subsequent diplomatic retaliation on the part of the Japanese government.
On the issue of the statue, on January 16the Dong-A Ilbo wrote, “It must be pointed out clearly that erecting [the statue] in front of an official building belonging to another nation is problematic from an international treaty standpoint.” On the 18th, the Chosun Ilbo offered its own critique of the situation, saying “A sculpture was placed in front of the Japanese embassy in obstinate pursuit of mistakes made more than seventy years ago, and then another statue was placed in front of the [Japanese] consulate despite a promise having been made to strive towards a suitable resolution to the issue. There is no other country that has suffered in a way similar to Korea which has also behaved in this manner to its counterpart nation. Is South Korea a normal country?”
Beyond these editorials, both writers further criticize South Korean media’s coverage of Japan. Shim writes, in his editorial entitled “Will the compensation to 34Comfort Women grandmothers not make the news?” that “South Korea holds nothing back in criticizing any country and any institution, however powerful. But reporting on Japan treats the country as a kind of sacred ground. Reporting on Japan cannot free itself of popular emotion, and continues to languish in an overly simplistic anti-Japanism.” He continues, “South Korea is no longer a dependent variable of Japan. There is no reason to bind our own necks with whatever changes Japan makes. For seventy years, South Korean discourse has walked the easy road of satisfying domestic tastes by scolding Japan and only Japan. Korea-Japan relations will not be changed by journalistic soft-peddling.”
Shim is also the director of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a South Korean organization founded with one billion yen in aid provided in accordance with the Japan-South Korea agreement on the resolution of the comfort woman issue. Shim says he took the position because he “supports the possible second-best over the impossible first-best.”
As a result of his efforts, 34 women, or more than 70 percent of the 46 identified former Comfort Women (of whom 39 are still alive as of January 2017), have received compensation for their suffering in World War II. As Shim points out, the money is not necessarily a reward for removing the Comfort Woman statue, but is intended for the Comfort Women themselves. As the numbers quoted above clearly show, this money is already having a tremendous impact. Shim criticizes the South Korean media for failing to report on this.
For his part, Seon argues “In South Korean history, the fate of those who see Japan as important has been tragic. While the degree may differ, the situation is the same today. The plight of those who touch the tabooed area [of expertise in Japanese studies] and take an objective view of history is akin to that of those who throw themselves into a minefield. The more this is so, the more our awareness of Japan becomes divorced from Japanese realities.”
He continues, “[I have] studied various aspects of Japan. However, I have yet to arrive at a correct understanding of what Japan really is. What I do know, though, is that Japan is not a country that can be ignored. I know this because I know the history of ignoring Japan—every time Japan is ignored, suffering follows.”
While Shim can tolerate the denunciations leveled by the anti-governmental groups within South Korea who say that the Comfort Woman statue was sold off to the Japanese for one billion yen, he objects to any suggestion of a linkage between the one billion yen and the removal of the statues, as some in Japan have begun to demand that South Korea return the one billion yen despite the fact that some major South Korean media outlets have begun to advocate the removal of the statues. Failing to pay attention to these attitudes will not help the situation move forward.
Katsuhiro Kuroda is visiting editorial in Seoul for Sankei Shimbun.