Forgiveness and fear
In the wake of a gathering of world leaders in Hiroshima, Duncan Bartlett reports on East Asia’s current dilemma: how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme
The US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 killed 140,000 people.
At the time, a large number of Koreans were living in the city. Japan colonised the Korean Peninsula between 1910 to 1945, and conscripted people to work down mines and in factories in order to support its war effort.
Some 20,000 ethnic Korean residents of the city are believed to have perished as a result of the explosion.
When South Korea’s President, Yoon Suk Yeol visited Hiroshima in May 2023, at the invitation of the Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, the two men jointly laid a wreath at a cenotaph dedicated to Korean victims of the bomb.
Mr Yoon met members of the Korea Atomic Bombs Victim Association, who called for a world without nuclear weapons and warned Russia against using a nuclear bomb to attack Ukraine.
One of the association’s most esteemed members, Park NamJoo, now 90, lives in Japan.
In August 1945, she was a student at a girl’s school and was riding a streetcar when there was a sudden flash of light and a thunderous noise. Covered in blood, she fled to the banks of the Ota River. Her home and school were destroyed. Ms Park has suffered from breast and skin cancer as a result of radiation exposure.
For many decades, she chose not to speak publicly about her traumatic experiences. But in recent years, she has opened up to the media because she wants people to know that not only Japanese but Korean, Chinese and others also suffered in the atomic bombing.
She explained that: ‘Hiroshima was a sea of fire. Everything was broken to pieces. Everywhere was rubble. It was beyond description. It was inhumane.’
South Korea’s leader, Yoon Suk Yeol told her group: ‘As President, I deeply apologise that your homeland could not be there while you were suffering from pain and sadness.’
Ms Park has reflected deeply upon the issue of who should apologise for the agonies of the era.
‘Apologising offers an opportunity for rapprochement between both sides’ she told one reporter. ‘The United States should apologise to Japan, and Japan should also apologise to Asian countries for its aggression.’
Ms Park feels that Japan bears responsibility for not stopping the war.
‘Japan had no fighting power left, and yet an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,’ she said. ‘It was a brutal act, just like a massacre. And despite knowing the power of the bomb, the United States went on to drop a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. I can never forgive the U.S. for this.’
Nevertheless, she feels gratitude for her long life in Japan and holds firm to her Christian faith.
‘I’m Catholic. Wearing a rosary and with a statue of the Virgin Mary next to me, I pray at night for a peaceful passage to heaven,’ she said.
Shortly before President Yoon arrived in Hiroshima, Prime Minister Kishida became the first Japanese leader to visit Seoul for twelve years. In a powerful speech he said that his ‘heart hurt’ when thinking of the suffering and pain during Japan’s colonial rule.
Within South Korea, there is a widespread view that the victims of forced labour from that period should be compensated, although how this is to be achieved is controversial. A few years ago, courts in South Korea said Japanese firms such as Nippon Steel should provide the money. This was firmly rejected by the Japanese government so–in a recent compromise–another system of compensation was agreed.
In Hiroshima, Joe Biden praised President Yoon for working towards a rapprochement with Japan. The three leaders held a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit.
Prime Minister Kishida warned of the ‘grave situation’ in East Asia. Last year, his cabinet authorised a sharp rise in defence spending. South Korea has also raised its defence budget, amid warnings that North Korea is on the verge of another nuclear test.
Following a meeting with President Biden at the White House in Washington in April, President Yoon said that any attempt by the North Koreans to use nuclear weapons would result in ‘a decisive and overwhelming response’ from US and South Korean forces, ‘including US nuclear capability.’
Opinion polls suggest that many people in South Korea support the idea of the country developing its own nuclear weapons but the Biden Administration intends to prevent this scenario, fearing an arms race in Asia would follow. Instead, the U.S. plans to keep South Korea firmly under its nuclear umbrella.
Joe Biden has said that the U.S. navy will send a submarine armed with nuclear warheads to the Korean Peninsula. Its deployment is described as a ‘constant and visible sign of extended deterrence’.
In addition, South Korean officials are being invited to join a forum concerned with nuclear and strategic planning, known as the Nuclear Consultative Group.
The arrival of so many world leaders in East Asia for the G7 event in May provided diplomatic networking opportunities for President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has said he wants South Korea to be ‘a global pivotal state’.
The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to South Korea in May, ahead of his visit to Japan, and two EU leaders – European Council and European Commission presidents Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen –followed Mr Yoon back to Seoul after the G7.
They urged North Korea to comply with UN Security Council resolutions by ‘abandoning all its nuclear weapons and any other weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missile programmes and existing nuclear programmes, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.’
Their declaration stated that the EU supports the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace. Mr Yoon and Joe Biden used similar language in a joint statement published after their summit in Washington.
In Seoul, President von der Leyen addressed the North Korean threat. ‘The European Union will never accept the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons as a normal state of affairs,’ she said. ‘And just like we do not accept Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, we condemn the DPRK’s constant nuclear sabre-rattling.’
In the minds of many South Koreans, though, the tough language of friends and allies is scant protection against the ever-present threat from the North.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs