By linking internal, external, and regional aspects of historical injustice, the project seeks to move beyond state-oriented approaches and binary categories such as victim versus aggressor in dealing with historical injustice and explores new concepts and approaches in order to move on to the next stage of more transnational, cross-cultural process of reconciliation.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing phenomenon of "coming to terms with the past." Many issues of historical injustices related to World War II, which were left unresolved and frozen during the Cold War, have been exhumed and explored with renewed vigor, confronting human rights abuses committed by the previous regimes and engendering counter-narratives on wartime memories.
If the twentieth century is remembered as a century of war, Asia is certainly central to that story. In Northeast Asia where issues of historical injustices seem to have generated a vicious circle of accusation and defense, overcoming historical animosities has become one of the most important issues for the future of the region. The region has witnessed phenomenal economic growth and the spread of democratization in recent decades. There are many recent indications that point to a greater integration of northeast Asian nations, economically and culturally. Yet wounds from past wrongs committed in times of colonialism, war, and dictatorship are not fully healed.
Situated in a broader global human rights movement, in South Korea, the successful democratization movement and growing civil society has brought out more commitment to unearth and redress crimes in the past. External cases include the military atrocities and abuses committed by Japan such as Korean Comfort Women and forced laborers during WWII. Internally as well, exploitation of military Comfort Women by Koreans, massacre of civilians by their own government before and during the Korean War, and atrocities committed by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War are all cases in point. With the application of universal human right standards in coming to terms with the darker past, it is a direct expression of Korean civil society and democratic activism of the 1990s. Indeed, South Korea presents one of the rare cases where both internal and external injustices are being addressed.
The Korean Studies Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center held a conference entitled "Rethinking Historical Injustice in Northeast Asia: The Korean Experience in Regional Perspective," May 26–27, 2004. It sought to rethink the issues of historical injustice and reconciliation in Northeast Asia from Korean perspectives. By linking internal, external, and regional aspects of historical injustice, it sought to move beyond state-oriented approaches and binary categories such as victim versus aggressor in dealing with historical injustice. It explored new concepts and approaches in order to move on to the next stage of more transnational, cross-cultural process of reconciliation.
Among the distinctive features of the conference was the attention to Korean experience in regional and transnational dimensions. The conference participants-activists and scholars from diverse disciplines provided comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives on dealing with past wrongs, struggles for reparations, and politics of memories in contexts of Japan and China. Among the discussions were issues attached to American POW forced laborers during WWII, violence during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, discourse about North Korea at state and popular levels in Japan, and the politics of representation in war memorial museums in Korea and Japan.
Through multi-dimensional discussions across disciplinary and national boundaries, it left a number of questions to be further examined: if reconciliation is a mutual and interactive process, how do the deepening cultural and economic integration in the region affects historical reconciliation, and vice versa? Can we come up with any Northeast Asian approaches to historical injustice and reconciliation? What is the role of the United States in regional reconciliation? In other words, can reconciliation in Northeast Asia proceed without the U.S. support?
The conference opened up new problematics in need of further discussion in depth and vigor, and the papers presented were published as an edited volume.