Instead of Reconciliation, A Widening Gulf

Elizabeth A. Cole Elizabeth A. Cole

In the first-ever Japan-North Korea summit last September, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apologized for the forced abductions of thirteen Japanese nationals who were taken to North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. North Korea had previously denied responsibility for these — and many other — disappearances; and for years the issue has soured relations between the two countries.

Five of the abductees are alive and now visiting their families in Japan (the other eight have died either of natural causes or by committing suicide, North Korea claims). The Japanese press has obsessively chronicled their Rip van Winkle-like return and documented their struggles in readjusting to life in a modern country.

One major consequence of North Korea’s unexpected apology – presumably made in hopes of obtaining Japanese economic aid – has been a derailment of Prime Minister Koizumi’s efforts to normalize relations with North Korea, which was his motive for meeting Kim Jong Il in the first place. The faces and stories of the Japanese abductees are incomparably more compelling to the Japanese public than accounts of their nation’s own past misdeeds, which included the abduction of tens of thousands of Koreans during World War II. In the eyes of the Japanese public, Japan is now the aggrieved party in its relations with North Korea.

Such competing memories of suffering are not limited to Northeast Asia: when Chechen terrorists occupied a theater in Moscow last October, ending in the deaths of hundreds of Russian hostages, the horror of this incident overpowered any awareness the Russian public may have had of Russia’s own long history of mass murder and displacement of Chechens.

A more positive comparison is offered by Poland and Germany. During World War II, German troops brutally occupied Poland, and in retaliation Poland expelled ethnic Germans from the country at the war’s end. But despite complicated legacies on both sides, the two countries now have a warming relationship. Some reasons include: an apology by the Germans at an official level backed up by reparations and domestic reform; wide-reaching public education and debate about the war; and, not least, Poland’s own development as a democratic partner that can openly discuss its own history of wrongdoing.

In contrast, North Korea’s apology over the abductees is a textbook example of what apologies should not be: made by the very person who launched the abduction policy, now the supreme state leader, and unaccompanied by any commitment to political and institutional change.

For its part, Japan has made only faltering attempts to acknowledge its own past failings. At last September’s historic meeting, Koizumi delivered a statement “humbly” expressing “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Korean suffering caused by thirty-five years of Japanese colonial occupation; but this is belied by his continued visits to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are honored, along with glacial progress (and even backsliding) toward revising Japanese history textbooks to include an account of Japanese military aggression. Making matters worse, unlike Poland, North Korea is not an open, democratic country that can freely research, teach, and debate history and its legacy.

Read More: Reconciliation, Asia, Japan, North Korea

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