Hiroshima Memo: History-based understanding is crucial in sharing the experience of Hiroshima in South Korea

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

“Hibakusha are hibakusha, no matter where they reside.” This is the message printed on the Kwak Kwi Hoon’s business card. In this spirit, Mr. Kwak, 84, has been fighting for over 40 years on behalf of Korean A-bomb victims living in South Korea. He has been seeking to win the same status for them under the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law as Japanese hibakusha, but the Korean hibakusha have often been denied these relief measures.

Mr. Kwak experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima while conscripted to the former Imperial Japanese Army. It was natural, then, that he would come to press the Japanese government for an apology and compensation over the effects of its colonial rule in Korea. At the same time, he has had to contend with the lack of awareness in South Korea about the damage wrought by the atomic bombings and about A-bomb survivors.

The dominant view in South Korea is that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the surrender of Japan and hastened the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule. For this reason, with the gap in perception between the Korean and the Japanese people so great when it comes to the bombings, it is difficult to appeal for nuclear abolition and peace on the Korean Peninsula. In 2004, members of the Hiroshima World Peace Mission, including an A-bomb survivor, visited China and South Korea and were taken aback by this gap in perception.

Mr. Kwak, who experienced the tragedy of the bombing of Hiroshima firsthand and knows the situation in both South Korea and Japan in regard to the bombings, was invited to take part in the Peace Mission session held in South Korea. In an exchange with young people in their 20s and 30s, the participants discussed nuclear weapons development in North Korea. Those who supported the idea of nuclear weapons possession argued that “Nuclear weapons are vital for the protection of our nation. And it’s unfair for North Korea to be prevented from possessing them when other countries, like the United States, hold them.” In response, Mr. Kwak, a former high school principal, cautioned them by saying, “Remember that nuclear weapons might be used at any time.”

North Korea conducted its second nuclear test at the end of May. Mr. Kwak expressed strong concern over future nuclear weapons development in the region, warning, “If Japan should develop nuclear weapons to counter North Korea, East Asian countries would be exposed to the constant threat posed by nuclear arms.”

There are believed to be a sizable number of people in South Korea who feel that the nuclear weapons developed by North Korea could be shared if the two Koreas are reunited. In Japan, too, some politicians claim that nuclear weapons are needed for protection. Mr. Kwak finds both ways of thinking to be extremely dangerous. “The U.S. and the nations neighboring North Korea should work together to stop nuclear development in North Korea,” he stressed.

Perhaps, for some of the Japanese people, Mr. Kwak’s candid opinions cause discomfort. However, taking his frank view seriously is the only way to lead both Japan and South Korea to a better understanding of one another based on our shared past. At that point, Hiroshima’s appeal for peace would strike a more responsive chord among the South Korean people. And the number of South Korean cities that have joined Mayors for Peace, standing currently at only three, would surely increase.

(Originally published on June 8, 2009)

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Kwak Kwi Hoon, honorary president of the South Korean Atomic Bomb Sufferers Association, speaks in Hiroshima (June 13, 2009)