Learning from Putin’s mistakes on historical truth
The Russian invasion was based on a lie about Ukraine’s past. Now Tokyo and Seoul have a chance to curb their tensions over history with an incoming South Korean president.
In a fiery speech on Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin took issue with Ukraine’s version of its own history. “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia,” he claimed. Three days later, Russian tanks rolled into a country with a record of independence and democratic identity. It was yet another example of what can happen when two nations don’t share the truth about their shared history.
Now two other neighbors, Japan and South Korea, have an opportunity to avoid a similar confrontation. On May 10, South Korea’s president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, takes office with a pledge to offer a hand of reconciliation toward Japan. He seeks to resolve disputed accounts over the colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula by imperial Japan from 1910 to 1945 – along with the related issues of wartime laborers and sexual servitude of Korean women.
“The more important thing is that we look toward the future,” Mr. Yoon told The Washington Post. “I firmly believe that South Korea should not seek domestic political gains when looking to engage Japan diplomatically for the future. Our relationship with Japan has hit rock bottom, but that is not what the South Korean public wants.”
Indeed, polls show South Koreans now hold more negative views of China than Japan. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have further emboldened South Koreans to see Japan as a necessary democratic ally against an autocratic China threatening Taiwan.
“When I am president, South Korea-Japan relations will go well,” Mr. Yoon added. “I will change our attitudes and systems toward a normal diplomatic relationship.”
He has already held a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. And in a symbol of his intentions, a high-level South Korean delegation will be in Japan April 24-28 to explore the difficult and complex differences over their shared history and what to do about them. The mission is the second one dispatched by the incoming president after a delegation sent to Washington.
Mr. Yoon is also exploring ways for South Korea to work with Japan, India, Australia, and the United States in the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. That alliance of Indo-Pacific democracies is seen as deterrence against Chinese aggression. “Good alliances are necessary to prevent wars,” Mr. Yoon said last month as a candidate in the March 9 presidential election.
Since 1965, when the two countries normalized relations in a treaty, they have grappled with what happened under Japanese rule of Korea along with how to compensate for it and whether official Japanese statements of remorse are adequate. The election of Mr. Yoon, a conservative former prosecutor who won by a slim margin, may reflect a shift in South Korea to work more closely with Japan.
“During the process of seeking cooperation between South Korea and Japan, it will be needed to investigate the truth of the past and put our heads together over the problems that should be solved,” Mr. Yoon told reporters after his election.
Perhaps the Russian people will take note and demand the truth about Ukraine from Mr. Putin. Recognizing historical truths does have a way of dampening old resentments, opening the space for making amends, and most of all, avoiding war.