FROM THE KEIHIN REGION (35) From neighboring far-off South Korea
[ SOCIAL AND PASTORAL BULLETIN No.152 / Dec. 15, 2009 ]

From neighboring far-off South Korea

Abe Keita (Franciscan priest)  
A few days ago, I made a private visit to South Korea to attend a joint meeting of the Japanese-Korean committee of the JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) which was held in Seoul (South Korea). Included in the agenda of the meeting were peaceful relations with North Korea, historical awareness and current social problems.
Each time I visit Korea I find changes everywhere. The abundance of Japanese signs at historical sites and tourist attractions really surprises me. Tourist guides and desks offering information in the Japanese language for tourists from Japan can be seen everywhere, so much so that if there were no Hangul signs, people could easily imagine they were in Japan.
My first surprise at the joint meeting was the movement opposing the revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and the high interest shown in the political Manifesto of the new Japanese government. On the other hand, the Korean side explained that, in contrast to Japan, they could not push the Korean government to introduce a peaceful Constitution with a similar clause like Article 9, due to the delicate political situation of the Korean Peninsula. We easily understood the difficult situation of North-South Korean relationships. Again, we had frank and joyful exchanges of opinion and spent the time of the meeting in a very friendly atmosphere.
During the meeting they organized field visits to help us grasp more vividly the critical condition of North-South relationships and to become more aware of the history of the Korean Peninsula. It was then that I strongly felt the consciousness gap with South Korea, a close neighbor of Japan which at the same time remains quite distant. Even now, every Wednesday, people continue to demonstrate in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest against the problems of the former military comfort women, used by the former Imperial Japanese Army, and appeal for suitable solutions for the people involved not only from the Japanese side, but also from the Korean government itself. War itself gave rise to those problems and I felt this time that militarization is closely linked to women's human rights.
South Korea, like Okinawa, also has many American military bases. At present, there are 96 military establishments in the country, many of them formerly built by the Japanese Army during the occupation. The American military's position is that they took over that land from Japan and do not have any obligation or necessity to return it to South Korea.
The Daejeon military treaty between South Korea and the United States was signed during the Korean War in July 1950 and only later was a Mutual Security Treaty between both countries concluded. Nevertheless, the American military stationed in South Korea continue to maintain a semi-status of extraterritoriality. As sometimes happens in Okinawa, violent incidents against women also take place there, but people are urged to remain patient, under the excuse of "national security."
Back in 1992 a woman working at the military base of Yoon Geum-yi was cruelly killed. The criminal was an American soldier, but the Korean side could not investigate the crime because the soldier remained under protection on the base according to the American-Korean military treaty. The incident gave rise to an explosion of an emotional movement against American military bases that had been seething for years. As a result, a headquarters for a movement to abolish all crimes of American military bases was established in 1993. That has helped to increase Korean awareness of the issues concerning military bases there.
Nevertheless, the threat of the North impels the Korean population to refrain from demanding demilitarization and fostering any strong movement against American military bases. South Korea, caught between the North and the demilitarized zone, has built a system ready for emergencies any time. The country borders the North and often experiences the need to confront emergencies.
During the meeting they guided us to an observation tower near the border with North Korea. Listening to the explanations given, I thought that, although we also have American military bases in Japan, our country is not usually under any threat and thus we can live free from worries. Also, the fact that we do not have military conscription makes our situation quite different from that of South Korea. While looking at the military observation post and the North Korean landscape from the observation tower, I felt that, though South Korea is our neighbor, it still remains a far distant country.
=====     Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved     =====