In the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima last Friday, controversy continues to boil in Korea, with some begrudging him for crushing hopes that he would pay respects at a Korean memorial.
He lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and embraced some survivors of the 1945 U.S. nuclear bombing, but Obama stopped short of visiting a monument set up within the park in dedication to Korean victims. He instead remarked at the onset of his speech that he had come to mourn not only the Japanese but also “thousands of Koreans” killed in and after the disaster.
Obama should not be blamed for failing to make the stop at the monument. However, he did mistakenly estimate the number of Korean victims, which Seoul officials and historians put at between 30,000 and 40,000.
As with the trip itself and the encounter with the survivors, it must have been a delicate decision to mention the Korean victims.
Albeit for a brief moment, the world should have been reminded that Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula in the early years of last century. Some would recall that aside from the nuclear strike, many Koreans were also forced into sexual servitude on frontline brothels, slave labor for the Japanese war machine and other brutalities.
The real failure in fact lies more with the absence of detailed action plans when Obama reiterated his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.
The world has become even more dangerous since he unveiled the initiative and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, on the back of North Korea’s unrelenting nuclear development and the ascent of transnational terrorist organizations including the Islamic State group. Despite a recent nuclear deal with Iran, other bomb-makers such as China, India and Pakistan continue to modernize and beef up their arsenals.
It is undisputable that for some, Korean survivors in particular, it would have best soothed their torment if Obama had paid tribute at the monument. Their expression of regret is legitimate.
As for most other Koreans, however, their concerns pivot around Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unabated revisionist ambitions, to which critics say Obama offered a de facto indulgence. Standing side by side with Obama, the premier spoke of “tragedy” but nothing about the country’s imperialist past.
Seoul’s Cheong Wa Dae and Foreign Ministry both refrained from making a statement following the Hiroshima outing. The diplomats could not have pressed hard for Obama’s exclusive message for Koreans. It would have taken the U.S. leader a farther 150-meter walk to see the monument, something that might be considered a distraction at an event designed as a milestone in bilateral U.S.-Japan ties.
Now that Abe has scored high on the watershed visit, it is time for him to make his own bold decision to tackle persistent historical tension and bring Korea-Japan relations back on track in earnest.
A chief source of sour public sentiment here is a Dec. 28 settlement between Seoul and Tokyo on the “comfort women” issue. It was an upshot of 20-months-long of grueling negotiations yet it failed to satisfy many of the victims.
In a show of his sincerity, the prime minister can first provide written apologies in line with the agreement and then sit down with the former comfort women on his next trip to Seoul. If that happens, as the Hiroshima survivors did with Obama, the aging sex slavery victims may grip Abe’s hands, shake off ill feelings and finally regain their honor.