Shared pain of war and colonisation does little to heal Korea's bitter divisions

Donald Kirk sees no sign of a breakthrough in North-South relations, despite efforts to bridge the gap, as they separately mark their liberation from colonial rule

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 2015, 11:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 8:50am

The tragedy of Korea is that "liberation" on August 15, 1945, was the prelude not to lasting peace and freedom but to the division of the peninsula and the Korean war, the bloodiest slaughter in Korean history. The tragedy endures 70 years later with North and South Korea still engaged in a confrontation that explodes periodically in senseless killing - and the constant danger of a second Korean war.

Thus, it's logical that North and South Korea should fail, in the run-up to a holiday marking freedom from 35 years of Japanese rule, to get together in any semblance of goodwill, dialogue or shared memories of the suffering endured under colonial subjugation. If anything, prospects for cooperation between the two Koreas seem dimmer now than at any point since the era of the "sunshine policy", when the summit in June 2000 between South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il briefly raised hopes for reconciliation.

Kim Jong-il's son, Kim Jong-un, this month snubbed Kim Dae-jung's widow, 93-year-old Lee Hee-ho, who had accompanied her husband to Pyongyang and then attended Kim Jong-il's funeral in 2011. By refusing to see her when she visited Pyongyang this month, he dashed hopes of renewed North-South dialogue. North Korean rhetoric is now full of claims that the North defeated the Japanese, thanks to the heroics of Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, elevated to power by the Russians after returning from the Soviet Union in 1945. Kim Il-sung had led guerillas on raids against Japanese outposts but sat out most of the war near Khabarovsk.

South Koreans would rather not give much credit to the US for defeating the Japanese but don't claim to have driven them off the peninsula, which suffered severe hardships during the war, though it was spared from battle. Rather, South Koreans remember the times of resistance to Japanese rule, notably the revolution of March 1, 1919, observed as a national holiday, almost as important as August 15.

South Koreans have another reason for celebrating August 15. It was on that day in 1948 that the Republic of Korea came into being and Syngman Rhee was inaugurated as its first president. The next month, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was proclaimed in North Korea with Kim Il-sung as prime minister, deepening the division between North and South.

South Koreans celebrate August 15 as their national day while also observing their "foundation" day in early October when the Korean nation was born four or five millennia ago. North and South Korea share the mythological story of the birth of the first Korean ruler, Dangun, but are never likely to agree on the reasons for the defeat of the Japanese.

The latter-day mythology propounded by North Korea extends, of course, to the Korean war. North Koreans are told the Americans and South Koreans invaded the North in June 1950 , triggering a North Korean response that ended with the North's "victory" in the truce in July 1953.

North and South Koreans, though, do share a common bond in their enduring bitterness over Japanese rule. Whatever words of regret or apology Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe utters, we may be sure neither North nor South Korea will be satisfied. The North Korean response is sure to be vitriolic and full of hatred. South Korea will go on with familiar complaints - Japan's refusal to provide full compensation for "comfort women" enslaved by Japanese forces and distortions of the iniquities inflicted by Japan's imperial forces rank high.

Most disheartening, though, is that North Korea, pursuing its nuclear weapons programme, persists in threatening a holocaust that might well be worse than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that preceded the Japanese surrender. South Koreans hold out no such threat as they celebrate Korea's liberation - a shared experience that should bring the two Koreas together but instead dramatises the differences that keep them apart.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea