Alexis Dudden on Japan-Korea relations

Tue, April 22, 2008

Dr. Dudden asked what sort of course would be practical for Korea's relations with Japan, considering the many issues that remain from Korea's experience as a Japanese colony. As an example of one such course, she focused on the current policy of Lee Myung-bak, the newly-elected South Korean president. Lee's approach is that an apology from Japan is no longer necessary and that the two countries should concentrate pragmatically on immediate economic and diplomatic interests. This is in contrast to the previous administration of Roh Mu-hyun, though it is in certain ways consistent with earlier South Korean governments.

Dr. Dudden criticized Lee's approach, highlighting his ignorance of the powerful force of history in Korean society. She further argued that President Lee cannot motivate the Korean people to downplay or dismiss their feelings of historical grievance simply by suggesting or arguing for it. The Korean people will not allow the government to manipulate public sentiments, since the events of the colonial period have been perceived as not only cruel and oppressive, but also as illegal.

As an example of government manipulation, Dr. Dudden explained the terms that the South and North Korean governments use to refer to the era of Japanese rule. These terms reflect the ways in which each claims legitimacy in the present. The South describes the period of 1905 to 1945 as the "colonial period," whereas the North calls it Japan's "military occupation" of Korea. Dr. Dudden pointed out that the two governments' official choice of words helps to confuse or distract their citizens. Seoul's language distracts from the nature of its relationship with the U.S. by avoiding the expression "military occupation." At the same time, the North's use of this expression is only possible because its people have no access to non-government sources of information. It uses the expression to condemn Japan while the country itself governs through military force.

Dr. Dudden also addressed the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute. She stressed that this had not been an issue for Koreans until the U.S. military withdrawal in 1949. At the news that the MacArthur Line would be expanded to include the island, Korean politicians and newspapers denounced Japan and planted the idea of an "illegal Japan" in the people's consciousness. They viewed the dispute as a means to demonstrate their Korean-ness.

Dr. Dudden asserted that it is no longer possible for the government to simply tell Koreans not to ask Japan to apologize in the name of economic and diplomatic progress. There are still too many unresolved issues about the colonial past. These issues are now the property of the Korean people; how they are resolved will depend on the people themselves and not on government action. President Lee may think he can manipulate public sentiment in the same ways as authoritarian governments did in the past, but Korea's democratization has made this impossible

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