THE BLOG

Japan-Korea: Making A History Out of History

29/07/2015 10:18 BST | Updated 23/07/2016 10:59 BST

In early July, a debate unfolded between Japan and Korea concerning the final agreement on the registration of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It all began on May 4 - when UNESCO announced its recommendation of a few facilities to be considered for registration as World Heritage Site, namely the inclusion of Meji-era industrial revolution sites in the list of the World Heritage landmarks.

After the fall of the Edo shogunate, Meji Japan put an end to the country's isolationist policy and opened its eyes to developments in Western culture. It was a desperate struggle to catch up to the world of Occidentals.

This period, punctuated by the first Sino-Japanese war and the Russo-Japanese war, was testimony to the fact that the Japan of the time was not poised to make military incursions and expand into Asia. Japan, was purely devoted to the development of industry.

Korea, ever since UNESCO's announcement, had been engaged in active opposition to the agenda.

Korea had externalised similar reactions when Tokyo won the bid to host 2020 Summer Olympics.

But finally, on July 5, UNESCO added Japanese sites to the world heritage list when the two countries reached an agreement. As for UNESCO, its decision of approval of the sites as World Heritage is based on historical facts, and doesn't take any relevancy from the current tautness between Japan and Korea.

This whole incident is, however, interesting. In May and June Korea had sent letters to UNESCO World Heritage Committee members urging them to vote against the registration of the sites in concern. The Korean National Assembly even went to the extent of adopting a stern resolution to criticise Japan's actions toward the registration.

Korean President, Park Geun Hye, in his remarks to UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova, said, "Japan's registration is in contravention of the spirit of the World Heritage Convention and will invite unnecessary rifts between our two countries."

According to Korea, "Of the twenty three sites Japan aims to register, seven of them are engaged in forced labor, totaling 57,900 Korean nationals."

On a later date, the Korean government, in advance of a foreign ministerial conference on June 17, reported a contradictory number that said, "1,516 victims of forced labor."

Japan, maintaining a diplomatic poise, said, "The reason these sites are being petitioned for registration is because the success wrought from the transmission of industrialization techniques from the West to Japan from the 1850s (the end of the Edo period) to 1910 (Meiji 43) is considered a noteworthy accomplishment of universal importance. Korea's issue regarding expropriation of Korean nationals during WWII concerns a different time period and situation."

It is believed that things got worse when Japan invited the Korea foreign minister to underscore the fiftieth anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries. One of the key "spoken" promises made in the meet, as confirmed by Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, was to "work together toward to the registration of World Heritage Sites."

According to Japanese government, the Korean government, once again, betrayed the goodwill agreement made with Japan leaving Japan to ponder over its relations with Korea.

On one side, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's May-visit to the United States may have appreciated Japan's brand value on the world podium, as on other, Japan once again found it hard to maintain a healthy equilibrium with Korea.

Despite the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965, whereby the issue of damage claims filed between Japan and Korea "is hereby complete and final", Korea remains seemingly persistent in its efforts to lobby Japan for apologies and reparations. To date, Korea's anti-Japan education is a dominant throughout Korea.

Korea, since World War 2, has been blaming Japan for numerous atrocities, and demanding financial compensation. In contrast, China also has also made numerous incursions to Korea in the last 2,000 years. But Korea, has not once asked for an apology or sought any kind of compensation.

Records show that during the Korean War, Korea had sent its own citizens to become comfort women for the American army. When it came to the Vietnam War, Korea tortured and forced young Vietnamese women and children into becoming comfort women also.

5,000 Vietnamese victims have been inscribed on these memorial monuments in conflict. Another private research think tank has put the estimate to over 30,000 victims.

Korea's forceful motives and actions are overbearing, as it has maintained in its refusal to impart historical teachings to its citizens. Many Koreans are unaware of the past of their country.

The salted relations between the countries not just damaged UNESCO's objective of bringing about permanent peace between the two nations, but it also embarrassed UNESCO.

Korea's attempt to leverage UNESCO's spirit of peace as a tool to stir up political issues is something the world is aware of. If Germany, UNESCO's host, had taken a little more time to understand the depth of conflicts between Korea and Japan, it possibly might have avoided these new crusades.

This episode bears some similarity to the issues ongoing in Greece. Seventy years after WWII, Greece is buttonholing the European government for compensations. One cannot help but see the resemblance in Greece's conduct vis-à-vis Europe and Korea's vis-à-vis Asia.

Many countries, since WWII, have spent years to empathise with their history and make sure that they never make the same mistake again. The historic efforts have been worthwhile, bearing the fruits of peace and prosperity we are able to enjoy today.

That said, there will still be countries that might take a longer time to reflect on their own past and move on. We cannot let countries with narrow minds to stride around us and force us in to compromise our future.

While Germany and Japan are advised to inquire into their souls, Korea is suggested to really consider the ramifications of robbing the country of its honor and its countrymen, should it try to not forget the past and live in the present.