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Hither and Yon

Could today’s South Korea fight off invaders as did its legendary Adm Yi?

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Shots of the treacherously swirling seas off Korea’s southwestern coast in the film “Roaring Currents” — about an epic battle in which Adm. Yi Sun-sin’s iron-clad turtle boats withstood a Japanese fleet — conjure images of how the overloaded ferry the Sewol sank in those same waters in April.
Unlike the captain of the Sewol, Adm. Yi remained very much on the bridge of his command ship, his pose awesomely heroic, as is that of the great statue that dominates Gwanghwamun in central Seoul. Viewers may wonder why Yi’s vessels performed so brilliantly while the Sewol capsized, slowly sinking, taking 304 of its 476 passengers to their deaths.
The warriors who insured Adm. Yi’s defeat of the Japanese in 1597 exemplify the fighting spirit of the Korean people as they withstood an attempted invasion in the late 16th century.
The episode epitomizes stirring Korean resistance to subjugation by Japan more than 300 years before the Japanese turned the Korean peninsula into a colony. You have to wonder what happened to the Korean spirit in the intervening three centuries and also ask if Koreans today could fend off a similar assault by a marauding power.
The film’s reminder of the Sewol tragedy has got to be one reason for its enormous popularity in Korea. People can’t get over the incompetence of the crew of the Sewol, their cowardice as they fled the ship. That awful day will endure as a terrible moment in Korean history, just as the victory of Adm. Yi’s turtle ships is remembered as one of Korea’s brightest successes.
Quite aside from the film’s value as a reminder of the Sewol tragedy, however, the movie raises other issues, some difficult, others less so.
Most obviously, the movie plays upon Korea’s long history of hatred of Japan. Nobody who watches the film is going to come away with the impression that some Japanese are fine people. The Koreans outsmarted and outfought the Japanese, sending the huge Japanese force slinking back to Japan or to other ports in Korea. There could be no other way to portray the Japanese just as American films in the early decades after World War II also caricatured the Japanese.
Koreans get that image of Japan while Seoul newspapers carry reports of the evils of Japanese colonial rule, of Japan’s refusal to provide proper compensation for World War II “comfort women,” of Japanese Cabinet members visiting the Yasukuni shrine, a memorial to several million Japanese who died fighting for Japan. Nobody forgets that among those Japanese venerated at the shrine are a number of leaders designated as “war criminals” for their iniquitous behavior.
When it comes to the Japanese, Koreans rely heavily on symbols. Dokdo, the pair of rocky islets known as Takeshima to the Japanese, provides a cause and a rallying cry for resistance against Japanese invasion. No matter how loudly or often the Japanese repeat their claim to Dokdo, they have to know they will never recover it for as long as Korea maintains a garrison there and tourists come and go for a look at what all the fuss is about.
Yet the publicity over the film raises other questions, some of them quite disturbing. What has happened to the Korean fighting spirit since Adm. Yi’s momentous victory? Would Koreans these days be prepared to fight tenaciously against a much larger foreign force?
Ultimately one wonders how strong Korea’s armed forces really are. Would Korea’s latter-day military leaders really be prepared to fight as courageously, and as intelligently, as did Adm. Yi and his officers and men all those centuries ago? And what if the enemy were not the Japanese but the North Koreans, all fellow Koreans? How interested would young Koreans be in facing the country’s worst enemy, not Japan but North Korea?
Another question is whether it’s a good idea for Koreans to be laying on such heavy-handed anti-Japanese heroics when Koreans should be finding ways to get along with the Japanese.
The ties between Korea and Japan go deep. Long before the Korean War, the Anglican Church, the British equivalent of the Episcopal church in the U.S., formed close relations with Korea’s colonial rulers. Thousands of Korean business people worked with the Japanese up to Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Cultural ties go deep as well. Korea in recent years has loosened regulations that made it difficult to show Japanese films.
South Korea and Japan need each other more than ever considering the persistence of the threat from North Korea and China’s inordinate desire to play big brother. The source of most of North Korea’s fuel and much of its food, China counts on South Korea for investment in heavy and high-tech industries while building up a highly favorable trade surplus with the South.
The timing of release of “Roaring Currents” is remarkable. So are some of the film’s lessons — not all of them adulatory and positive. It’s great to admire the heroism of Korean sailors four centuries ago, but is South Korea today ready, willing and able to engage in modern warfare with other obvious enemies so nearby?

Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering war and peace in Northeast Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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