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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. In Northeast Asia, too.

by | August 22nd, 2014 | 06:58 am

In the early 1990s, when I was teaching international trade at Johns Hopkins University, students used to approach me wanting to write research papers on US-Japan trade relations, a hot topic of the day. I recommended two books: Reconcilable Differences? and War Without Mercy. The students had no trouble understanding why their professor would recommend a book on US-Japan economic relations that he had co-authored, but the recommendation of John Dower’s cultural history inevitably left them scratching their heads. No, I would explain, the Dower book carries a really important lesson relevant to contemporary trade relations: how myths, stereotypes, and half-baked shibboleths can have profound effects on policy, even the decision to enter and prosecute war.

I was reminded of this experience when reading through Pathways to Reconciliation, a summary report of a track-two dialogue sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, which has taken on the unenviable task of trying to promote reconciliation among Japan, South Korea, and China.  It is no trivial matter: as one of the American participants observed, “the unfortunate reality [is] that wartime history issues have kept the heads of China, Japan, and Korea meeting for two years. Is there a way to progress past this?”

One feels for the participants in the Stanford group: the issue is sort of amorphous yet undeniably important. In the end they come up with five recommendations:

  • Develop joint supplementary teaching materials (a lot of the focus is on the historical socialization process that the public education system provides) addressing broad themes such as the Nanjing massacre, the atomic bombing of Japanese cities, and sexual slavery (i.e. the “comfort women” issue) and forced labor more broadly.
  • Create ongoing history dialogues. These would be the province of scholars.
  • Establish educational fora where historians would share their understandings with journalists, politicians, and students. A lot of the discussion involved the role of the media in propagating information to the general public, for good or ill.
  • Establish a dialogue among museum directors in recognition of the role that these instutuions play in transmitting historical memory.
  • Fund and promote large-scale exchanges among middle and high school students. Unmentioned in the report is evidence that attitudes among today’s Northeast Asian young toward citizens in neighboring countries may not be so negative as typically portrayed in documents such as this one. The general public may have relatively relaxed and tolerant attitudes toward its counterparts elsewhere while objecting to policies undertaking by neighboring governments either in the past or today.

Well, at least it’s a start.