[Column] Why the US is blamed for aiding Japan's colonization of Korea

Posted on : 2021-11-16 16:25 KST Modified on : 2021-11-16 16:25 KST
When a country presents its national interests simply in terms of noble values, it raises the risk of conflict, as the unwillingness to compromise opens the door to disaster
Democratic Party presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung meets with US Senator Jon Ossoff on Friday at the party’s offices in Seoul’s Yeouido. (pool photo)
Democratic Party presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung meets with US Senator Jon Ossoff on Friday at the party’s offices in Seoul’s Yeouido. (pool photo)
Jung E-gil
Jung E-gil
By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic Party candidate in next year’s South Korean presidential election, stirred controversy recently after commenting to visiting US Senator Jon Ossoff that the Taft-Katsura Agreement of 1905 contributed to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Critics have gone after Lee for blaming the US for the peninsula’s colonization by Japan, which they attribute instead to Korea’s incompetence and ignorance of the reality at the time. At a basic level, there is some truth to that.

But it’s also more or less the same thing as blaming the victim of a beating by thugs for being weak. South Korean history books have taught us that the Taft-Katsura Agreement was what finally cemented Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s certainly what I learned.

When we look at the agreement reached in 1905 between US Secretary of War William Howard Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura, the focus should be less on the US’ acknowledgment of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula than on Japan’s affirmation that the Philippines was part of the US sphere of influence.

At the time, it was a matter of objective fact that the Russo-Japanese War had been won by Japan and that the Korean Peninsula had become part of Japan’s sphere of influence.

The agreement’s aim could be seen as an attempt by the US to ensure that the victorious Japan would not try to extend its influence to the Philippines. At the same time, it was also nothing more than a behind-the-scenes “understanding” between two senior figures representing the two sides.

If we really want to look for responsibility for the Korean Peninsula’s colonization outside of Japan, it would have to lie with the United Kingdom, which was a hegemon at the time. As it worked to block Russia’s southward expansion on the Eurasian continent, the UK found itself hard-pressed to deploy its military might in the Far East — a situation that led it to abandon its foreign policy of “splendid isolation” and form an alliance with Japan.

During the Russo-Japanese War, it was Britain that provided Japan with direct and indirect support. When Korea belatedly found itself colonized by a rising Japan in 1910, that also had ties to the UK, which saw Korea as part of the Qing Dynasty’s sphere of influence and thought little of its market value.

Britain felt that it would be enough just to preserve the status quo, and when Russia became more aggressive about its incursions into the peninsula, Britain turned to Japan to seal it off.

In fact, when the Taft-Katsura Agreement was reached, it didn’t function as a major variable determining conditions in East Asia. When Koreans point out that agreement and hold the US to account for it, that’s a reflection not only of our expectations of the US, but also of the US’ traditionally vague foreign policy approach.

The US had been dismissive of the balance-of-power realism that had traditionally prevailed among the European powers. It saw its dominance of the American continent as its manifest destiny — a foregone conclusion that would play a civilizing role.

It also opposed direct colonization in its foreign policy, proclaiming an idealistic approach of liberty, human rights and independence. Its territory was replete with resources and burgeoning markets. We see excellent examples of this idealist diplomacy in its Open Door policy of the 19th century, which curbed the European powers’ divvying up of China and the rest of East Asia, and in its advocacy of ethnic self-determination after World War I.

But in the wake of World War II, the US emerged as a hegemon, and the Soviet Union as a threat to it. The idealist perspective, with its pursuit of values, ran up against the realistic perspective that prioritized the national interest and viewed the power relations between states as a zero-sum game.

The problem here is the entanglement of idealism with realism. When a country presents its national interests simply in terms of noble values, it raises the risk of conflict, as the unwillingness to compromise opens the door to disaster. We find illustrations of this in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently, we’ve seen the same sort of thing with the antagonism between the US and China.

University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, an aggressive realist who sees confrontations between major powers as inevitable, recently published a piece in Foreign Affairs under the title “The Inevitable Rivalry.” In it, he delivers a blistering critique of attempts by the US to contain China in the service of abstract values after past administrations paved the way for China’s rise with policies of engagement.

He goes on to call for the US to stop being hypocritical with its foreign policy, suggesting, “If each side understands what crossing the other side’s redlines would mean, war becomes less likely.”

In a New York Times opinion piece titled “It’s Time to Get Honest About the Biden Doctrine,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the think tank New America, concludes that the Joe Biden administration’s foreign policy is an attempt to please everyone — from realists, and liberal internationalists, to human rights activists — that ends up pleasing no one. Arguing that US foreign policy needs to move beyond the nation-centered paradigm of the 20th century and evolve into a “people first” paradigm focusing on areas such as the environment and inequality, she calls for US-China cooperation on such a basis.

Mearsheimer urges confrontation from a realist perspective; Slaughter calls for cooperation from an idealist one. What they have in common is the way they favor being candid about practical interests and oppose packaging things in terms of idealistic values.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are scheduled to have their first meeting on Tuesday, albeit only via videoconference. If they can find out what each other’s “redlines” are on Taiwan and other issues, that will be a major achievement.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles