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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 45-57

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The Beginning of History:
Remembering and Forgetting as Strategic Issues

Gerrit W. Gong

Those who assume time heals all wounds are wrong. Accelerated by the collision of information technology with concerns of the past, issues of "remembering and forgetting" are creating history. They are shaping the strategic alignments of the future.

Remembering and forgetting events define what individuals and countries remember and when, as well as what individuals and countries forget and why. Remembering and forgetting issues tell grandparents and grandchildren who they are, give countries national identity, and channel the values and purposes that direct the future in the name of the past.

They are the personal and policy aftermaths of peoples and countries--including Germany, Japan, and China--whose identities and international roles are rooted deep in history. Remembering and forgetting issues thus encompass, but are by no means limited to, Germany's Holocaust; Japan's colonization of Korea and later brutal occupation of China; China's civil war; and Taiwan's February 28 incident, when Chinese mainlanders killed native Taiwanese in 1947. Efforts to promote justice and reconciliation are now manifest in issues as diverse as slave and forced labor claims in Japan and Germany, "comfort women" and World War II textbook lawsuits in Japan, and Agent Orange allegations in Vietnam or the Philippines.

In Asia and elsewhere, companies and states should prepare for the intensity, speed, scope, and emotional resonance of remembering and forgetting events for at least four reasons. First, modern technologies are digitally enhancing our memories and then broadcasting our most passionate personal concerns and most polarized divergences. They are playing and replaying our worst nightmares through cyberspace, with an expanding global and personal reach. [End Page 45]

Reflecting technology's propensity to compress time and to juxtapose images and issues from different time periods, the context for thinking about remembering and forgetting issues is shifting from governments to individuals, who often feel the strongest about history's most sensitive events. For example, as U.S. and South Korean public interest focused on the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War in June 2000, emotional television interviews and current footage of bullet marks from the 1950s at No Gun Ri bridge illustrated the nationalistic Korean concern that U.S. soldiers fired on and killed South Korean citizens at the Korean War's outbreak--an issue which, had it been mishandled, could potentially have reshaped the U.S. military presence in and strategic alignment with South Korea.

Second, the juxtaposition of memory, history, and strategic alignment in Asia and elsewhere means that key relationships, such as among China, Japan, North and South Korea, and the United States, are destined to be expressed in historical terms. Issues of history will thus become the international vocabulary to describe shifting strategic alignments during coming periods of watershed change.

For example, the language of remembering and forgetting concerns permeated the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize Committee's honoring of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung for his work to "overcome more than 50 years of war and hostility between North and South Korea," and "for South Korea's reconciliation with other neighboring countries, especially Japan." Kim's efforts, however, were aimed well beyond simple reconciliation. They sought nothing less than to change the images upon which history pivots, thereby broadening constructive strategic alignment in South and North Korea, Japan, China, and the United States.

Not surprisingly, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's October 2000 trip to Pyongyang--representing the most senior U.S.-North Korea exchange in 50 years--had its origins in Japan's 1998 written apology to South Korea for past historical suffering. This apology, expressed in the vocabulary and issues of history, was signed by Kim and Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi. This effort at historical reconciliation by Seoul and Tokyo facilitated Kim's and Chairman Kim Jung Il's June 2000 South-North intra-Korean summit and the subsequent October 2000 visit to Washington by North Korea special envoy Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok and the...


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