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.

U.S. Forces Korea via AP
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, center, shares meal with South Korean and U.S. military officials during his visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, April 7.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Learning from Putin’s mistakes on historical truth
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today