Suppose there are two types of men: One is a pleasant fellow to be with, and the other is not. One enjoys respect and adoration in the community, while the other does not. Which one would you prefer to be?
The first man has a positive attitude. Although he has some sad memories of his past life, he does not harbor any grudges or enmities. He is generous enough to “forgive and forget” because he knows “a happier heart is the key to a happier life,” as Gandhi said. He tries to learn from the past and yet his motto is “let bygones be bygones.” He is a future-oriented person who constantly looks ahead and never looks back. He knows that “what has done cannot be undone,” as Lady Macbeth utters in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Therefore, he is a progressive who is moving towards the future constantly.
The second man has a negative attitude. He is full of grudges and resentment about things that happened in the past. As for the past mistakes or wrongdoings of his neighbors, he never forgives and forgets. He is obsessed with the dark past and has no interest in making a bright future. He is foolish enough to believe that even what has been done in the past can be undone. In his eyes, the past is something he should investigate so he can identify those who were responsible for his past miseries and punish them. Therefore, he is hopelessly regressive, returning to the past repeatedly, even though he falsely claims that he is a progressive.
Undoubtedly, no one would be attracted to the second man because he would definitely make his home miserable and depressing. Suppose your partner is a man who is resentful about things that had happened even before he was born or things that are not directly relevant to him. Suppose he casts a doubt on the authenticity of his genealogy, including the legitimacy of his father, arguing that he may be an illegitimate son. Suppose he investigates your past in order to find out if you had had any other partners before you met him. Undoubtedly, if married, your life together would be wretched.
Eventually, not only his partner and children, but also the whole town might think of him as a toxic paranoid person and turn against him. He might then lose respect and integrity in his family and town. Still, however, that kind of person does not care about his reputation because he firmly believes that he is right and represents justice.
Embarrassingly, some of our politicians seem to fall in the second man’s category. Instead of leading the country toward the future, they drag people into the labyrinth of the past, instigating grudges and enmity about things that happened in the past. Preoccupied with the principle of an “eye for an eye,” they investigate the past in order to punish their political foes and take revenge on those they believe wronged them in the past. Consequently, those politicians have sent hundreds of people to prison and ruined their lives completely.
It is well known that those resentful politicians and their ardent followers do not think that the way South Korea was established as a country was legitimate and thus denounce Korea's first President Rhee Syngman and first modern writer Yi Kwang-su as Japanese collaborators. Then, a question arises, “If South Korea is not a legitimate country, is North Korea the authentic nation, then?”
To make matters worse, those past-obsessed politicians do not hesitate to ruin friendships with other countries. One way they do this is by fostering blind enmity against other countries, even when this stance ultimately threatens our national security. Another problem is that once damaged, friendship between countries can seldom go back to normal. It requires time and tremendous diplomatic efforts to patch things up later. Thus, politicians have to think twice before ruining a friendship with another country, even though they may think they have good reasons.
The same thing applies to our relationship with Japan, too. Despite a regrettable history, we cannot remain stuck in the past forever, antagonizing each other. In that sense, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent visit to Seoul for a summit rekindled our hope for the reconciliation of the two countries. Despite opposition from the Japanese right wing and the Korean left wing, it is high time to put an end to enmity.
We are now living in an era in which Korea and Japan are fellow travelers amidst unprecedented international crises, such as North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s challenges. As Robert E. Kelly aptly points out in “19FortyFive,” South Korea-Japan tensions only help China and North Korea. If so, it is obvious what we should do.
We should be wise enough to move forward. As Monica Murphy aptly put it, “Only a fool trips on what is behind him.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.