A Korean day to remember — for America

A Korean day to remember — for America
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For many, Aug. 15 marks the end of World War II in 1945, when Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his nation’s surrender to the Allied Powers via radio broadcast. Now all but forgotten in the United States, “Victory over Japan Day,” or “V-J Day,” was keenly observed under this politically insensitive moniker during the Cold War.

The date is decidedly not forgotten in Korea — North or South. It marks “Liberation Day,” the dawn of an era free from the yoke of Japanese colonial rule. This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea (Aug. 15) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Sept. 9). Hence, the observance of Liberation Day and developments in inter-Korean relations have policy implications, which mostly favor North Korea.

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An inter-Korean summit meeting, the third this year, is scheduled to take place in Pyongyang next month, as rumors swirl of yet another Pyongyang visit by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE and a possible follow-up summit to the Singapore meeting between President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE and Kim Jong Un. North Korea stands to gain key concessions under the guise of “peace” and “denuclearization,” a happy façade behind which to hone and complete its nuclear posture review. For example, Pyongyang’s 45-year-old insistence on a peace treaty with the United States, aimed at the abrogation of the U.S.-ROK alliance, now seems within reach.

 

Meanwhile, that freedom for the Korean people was made possible, essentially, by the United States’ victory over Japan presents certain inconvenient complexities for the South.

This crucial bit of history — that liberation for Koreans came courtesy of the United States — is never mentioned in North Korea. In the unabashedly dishonest historiography of the DPRK, victory over Japan was won virtually single-handedly by Kim Il Sung — the fictitious great emancipator of the Korean people, real-life Soviet-sponsored state founder, and grandfather of current North Korean despot, Kim Jong Un. Thus, the plain fact that the United States virtually single-handedly defeated Japan in World War II is of no historical inconvenience in the totalitarian North.

South Koreans dutifully observe Aug. 15 each year, but with a slant. While residual anti-Japanese sentiments are not nearly as pronounced as those in the North, the main thrust of the South Korean president’s annual Liberation Day address tends to coalesce around the theme of inter-Korean unity, both the history of Korean resistance against Imperial Japan and a summons to inter-Korean solidarity vis-à-vis the outside world — as in the United States.

The latter part of this Korean-themed commemoration has negative implications for U.S. policy, all the more today, in the year of the North Korean leader’s transformative beneficence. Nothing galvanizes the Korean people like the remembrance of the uniquely totalitarian and cruel Japanese atrocities. A less virulent version of anti-U.S. stance comes in a close second. This August, the crescendo in the rubric of “Korea Standing as One” likely will further paint the United States as the principal obstructionist to peace.

To exorcise demons, whether of the Japanese past or imagined American future, sells in the South, where many subscribe to the North Korean view that the United States is the main hurdle to Korean reunification. Inter-Korean projects such as the separated family meetings scheduled for this month and a September meeting between Korean leaders all feed the powerful Korean aspiration to forge a common future in defiance of outside powers. Unconvinced?

Consider South Korea’s presidential Liberation Day speeches. Curiously, the causal effect of the sacrifices of U.S. servicemen in vanquishing Imperial Japan and Korean liberation are not only assiduously accorded the silent treatment, but the role of the U.S. in Korea is occasionally frowned upon. President Moon Jae-in, giving his Liberation Day speech today outdoors in the sweltering heat of Yongsan, Seoul, the site of the pre-1945 Japanese military base and post-1945 U.S. military base, did mention the “ROK-U.S. alliance,” but only in the context of the recent relocation of the U.S. base.

Calling the grounds where he stood “the center of exploitation and subjugation,” Moon remarked that Yongsan, having “long been taken away from us,” now has been "returned to the arms of the people after 114 years" and has “finally become an integral part of our territory.” The implication that the U.S. military presence in Korea was an exploitative continuation of Japanese colonialism or, at least, an unwelcome usurpation of Korean sovereignty, was noteworthy.

Taken together with Moon’s remarks in last year’s address that the “division of the nation is the unfortunate legacy of the colonial era that made it impossible for us to determine our destiny on our own in the midst of Cold War rivalries,” Aug. 15 each year may be said to become more an occasion for the public accentuation of anti-Japanese sentiment and pan-Korean ethnic grievances than a celebration of the South Korea-U.S. relationship and the shared interests and values between the two democracies.

None of this would matter if blatant anti-Japanese sentiment or latent anti-U.S. sentiment dwelled solely in the realm of transitory and emotional public opinion, independent of government policy. However, such sentiments occasionally spill over into policymaking and fuel Seoul’s unconventional approach to engaging the Kim dynasty: for example, pumping cash and other blandishments into Pyongyang while hoping for the best.

Woefully, most Americans remain oblivious to the politics of pan-Korean ethnic nationalism. Coded messages between Seoul and Pyongyang on unconventional subvention schemes in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolutions under the rubric of “Korean minjok” (ethnic nation) are self-sanitized for American consumption under the benign-sounding English translation, “inter-Korean cooperation.”

On this day, Americans should ponder the tremendous sacrifices made by previous generations to bring freedom and peace to Korea. Commemoration is not merely to remember and pay respects to one’s predecessors. It is to preserve and protect, to carry on the ethos that defines the act we honor. For the Trump administration to turn a blind eye to Seoul’s sanctions-busting schemes and actually enable them by continuing to placate the deceptive North Korea tyrant would be to tarnish their legacy and accelerate the onset of a more ominous future.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University's Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.