date : 14-10-05 23:34
A Presentation Paper at the plenary of the 2014 Tokyo International Conference of NGOs on History and Peace
 name : historyngo
counter : 4,215  

Constructive suggestions and ideas for the resolution of Historical conflicts and dialogues between Korea and Japan from international perspectives and experiences


Today I would like to explore the role of history in reconciliation by focusing on the discursive space between transitional justice and conflict prevention and resolution.

By reconciliation I refer to a relative diminishing of animosity and conflict.  It is a process not a condition or a place one reaches.  A process of reconciliation can therefore be successful even during conflict, when new attitudes among conflicting parties, or members of parties in conflict, are developed. 

My argument is that while the memory of historical enmity is often a factor in instigating conflict, and is a hurdle in resolving conflicts, no professional community involves in ongoing conflicts resolution today and engaged in the promotion of human rights, peace building or international justice, attempts to address the political challenge presented by the memory and history of conflicts.          


Japan and Korea present a predicament in the field of historical redress and dialogues.   On the one hand there is a growing animosity and an ongoing political tension, which ebbs and flows with political developments and have been aggravated under the current governments.  The focus of the historical disagreements is well known, and the areas specific confrontations have been addressed by both sides, as well as by international scholars.   It is hard to imagine that one more commission on the Yasukuni Shrine, on textbooks, on sexual slavery, war crimes of the disputed Islands would resolve the disputes.  Neither is it a case of adjudicating legal history of the specific agreements, such as the San Francisco Treaty.  Rather it is a question of political will to engage in historical dialogue, and to recognize that serious historical dialogue can contribute to the resolution of the conflicts.  

This can build on the work by a developed civil society part of which works to bridge diverse and conflicting perspectives of the competing histories, and as this conference shows, there is a lot of good work that is being done.    

The recognition that the struggle over identity is a political activity and that there is a need to engage in public marketing of new reconciliatory narratives.  The challenge is to construct a political campaign to bring greater recognition of the need for bridging narratives, as well as to legitimate acknowledging wrongs.   To achieve that an important step is to mobilize professional communities that can support such changes.   The pertinent communities which need to be recruited are conflict resolution professionals, Transitional Justice advocates, and scholars, primarily historians and political scientists; especially the members of the last group, who currently mostly shy away from involvement.    This lack of wide involvement by academics and in particular by historians in constructing bridging narratives is a potential resource to be utilized.  Additionally, there is an opportunity to enhance civil society projects that engage the past constructively.   As part of a political campaign it is important to construct local and specific narratives that represent the controversies, but point to bridging narratives.  

The field of explicitly addressing the memories of extreme violence as a specific source of animosity is Historical Dialogue. 

What constitutes Historical Dialogue?

Historical dialogue is a field of scholarship and advocacy which addresses conflict and post-conflict societies engaged with the memories of their violent pasts. It studies the impact memory of violence has on contemporary politics, and is informed by the recognition that many contemporary conflicts germinate from memory of past violence.  This is particularly critical because understanding of the past is both concurrently malleable and fundamental to the identity of the nation, and as such is subject to reconfiguration and manipulation toward political ends. 

Historical dialogue aims to counter nationalist manipulation by promoting open conversation and engaging participation from all sides of the conflict in order to facilitate greater recognition of all sides and narrowing the sectarian differences.  In other words, the goal of historical dialogue is to contribute to conflict transformation, peace-building, democracy promotion, and reconciliation.  These narratives, in turn, can address root causes of conflicts and add to a goal of building sustainable peace; to foster empathy for alternative perspectives and facilitates the construction of a new public culture, both of which shape stronger civic democratic participation and identity in the long term.  Historical dialogue takes place throughout the world in a variety of fields, such as academia, journalism, education, and cultural production (film, art, and literature). 

Advocacy and scholarship of historical dialogue aim to empirically narrow sectarian and nationalists perspectives of past violence; to challenge national or ethnic mythologies of heroism, exceptionalism, and victimhood by explicating the ways history is misused to perpetuate conflict and to enhance open public discussion about the past and acknowledge the importance of history to resolving the conflict. 

The purpose of historical dialogue is to provide a framework for better mutual understanding of the identity of the nations\ethnicities which is based on nuanced history.    Historical dialogue includes various mechanisms, (many of which are represented in the conference) and include:

·                           collaboratively producing shared historical narratives which provide reliable facts and analysis to inform the public debate and discussion on contentious violent histories;

·                           civil society organizations and individuals who use different methodologies to counter nationalist myths and popular misconceptions and to present a nuanced national identity that recognizes the humanity of the other (the enemy)

·                           Acknowledge one’s own nation as responsible for various historical injustices. 

·                           These take the forms of

o traditional historical writings

o reports

o commemorations, memorials

o Education – especially Text Books

o old and new media

o movies, dramatic and documentary, and exhibitions.

o A related mechanism is Historical Commissions which have operated over the years in various countries

§  The role of historical commissions as a mechanism of conflict resolution is even less well explored.   (this is different than truth commissions.  It is not primarily dependent on victims’ testimonies.)

Each of these areas provides for a public space of discussion and engagement, and can inform the identity of the nation. 

Conflict Resolution Mostly ignores the Past

Conflict resolution describes multi party efforts to bring peace to an ongoing conflict.  It includes negotiation and mediation of various types, engaging the sides to a conflict, investigating their goals, ideologies, and motives among others.   Conflict resolution (or conflict transformation) experts direct their attention and analysis at disentangling the current situation and formulating a plan for the future.   To the degree that structural or root factors are engaged, the focus is on their current manifestation.  

This field mostly ignores the past relations between the parties and the memory of the violent past as an independent constitutive element of the conflict. Consider as an example the Global Peace Index, backed by luminaries such as Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama.[1]  Of the more than 20 indicators examined by the index, none is devoted to past relations and the impact a memory of historical violence has on contemporary politics.[2]

Attention among peace building experts to the past is mostly evident in Transitional justice, often through the debate of peace versus justice.  This debate riveted the profession particularly in the decade after the South Africa transition (since the mid-nineties), especially confronting the specter of lack of accountability.

Over time the slogan has shifted into one of “truth and justice,” where advocates emphasize that only when both goals can be accommodated can there be real peace.   This assertion deserves its own discussion, but too many examples suggest that the assertion was more aspirational than empirically correct.   


Historical dialogue aims to engage conflict resolution beyond transitional justice. It looks beyond individual culpability, and often the memories and identities are of a conflict that is too long in the past to involve accountability. Even when there are individuals to be hold accountable, historical dialogue does not aim at legal justice or at retributive policies, but rather at engaging the sides to the conflict with the goal of developing recognition of joint multi-perspective understanding of the past and challenging a zero sum rivalry.  


Emphasizing shared memories and shared narratives build on joint work in the best of cases. Short of joint work it recognized the proliferation of perspectives.  This proliferation reflects social discourse which integrates the individual memories in the social construction when pertinent. 


It is also important to recognize that while in many conflicts both sides have a certain measure of culpability, bridging histories does not aim at to diminish guilt and responsibility, and in some cases the responsibility is dramatically lopsided.

Bridging Histories         

A comparative tentative historical analysis shows that politicians and policies are enormously important is shaping the animosity-reconciliation spectrum.  It is also true that support and rejection of nationalist fervor is an important component in shaping political atmosphere.  It is possible to identify work in three spheres that can promote attitudes favorable towards reconciliation.   In each of these spheres the content is not pre-determine, and the activities in each are profoundly political even if the medium is not, it can lead to greater animosity as well as bridging perspectives.   

1.              The first sphere is of civil society, where conflict resolution activities and historical dialogue most likely already exist. This includes various manifestations of advocacy which contribute and promote pro-reconciliation efforts.  Such as diverse areas from memorialization to education, from interpersonal contacts to advocacy projects and cultural production.  All of which leads to new knowledge about and greater empathy towards the other.  

2.              This is related to the role of scholarship in shaping attitudes about the past and the other.  Here the struggle is between scholars who write from sectarian perspectives and those who challenge the nationalist view.  When the non-sectarians succeed to articulate their position in a popular manner, the public begins to accept historical narratives that challenge the moral purity or superiority of the nation. 

                                                                          i.      Famous debates include German responsibility for the outbreak of World War I (and the impact of the Fisher controversy), the acknowledgement of the widespread collaboration with the Nazi in France, the increasing recognition (and explicit public disputes) of the role of East Europeans in the Holocaust, or the Israeli responsibility to 1948 Palestinian displacement.  In each of these cases and many more, the historical studies reshaped the self-perspective of the nation. 

3.              The third sphere is the political interpretation of scholarly and civil society perspectives takes place.  This refers to action by politicians who utilize historical rhetoric to promote various policies, nationalists and reconciliatory alike.  These activities could range from implementing formal mechanism to study the past (multi-lateral historical commissions) to changing policies of commemoration (Japanese officials visits to Yasukuni Shrine), or sponsoring public representations of the violent past (museums, memorials) and implementing pro-active reconciliatory policies such as apologies and reparation programs.  


Scholars have to recognize that they cannot concurrently both recognize that knowledge is power and political, and attempt to shy away from politics when it comes to historical knowledge.  The claim that politicization of scholarship would diminish its value is wrong and is not an excused to avoid engaging the political consequences of the scholarly study.

Historical writing is intersubjective and provides a specific professional framework that delineates good from biased, or sloppy scholarship, and the authority of the scholarship will enhance the historical dialogue, not diminish the scholarship.   As a corollary the political goal has to be incorporated into the choice of topics and the selection of the scholars to be engaged.

History is political.  We should remember that historical scholarship and historical assertions are often used to aggravate conflicts.  The decision not to engage in a historical debate means leaving the field open to nationalists and conflict mongers, not avoid the politization of history.   


Constructive Suggestions 

·         The bridging of historical narratives is a long process. This has to mean that there ought not to be over ambitious goals for the immediate future, and instead realistic specific modalities should be established.

·         There have been several efforts of historical reconciliation that focused on specific narratives in order to resolve disagreements by presenting new insights about the conflict between the sides. 

o   There is a need currently to devote resources to devise a methodology of how to reach an agreement beyond the few participants in a specific program. The focus should be on how to build a constituency to reach these goals.    

·         Most historical studies done by individual historians are unlikely to shift the attitude of the public regarding controversial topics. 

o   Indeed it seems that the goal should be first to change the scholarly consensus about these controversies,

o   and secondly to shape public opinion. 

o   These are toll orders, but charts the way in which advocacy can change politics.

§  While there is no quick solution, in a similar way to human rights advocacy, historical dialogue advocacy focuses on particular issues while building a community and establishing norms. 

·         As I mentioned, there are significant resources which exist and ought to be recruited.

o   Indeed the civil society efforts provide ample evidence of good precedence at the micro level.   Groups which meet and establish rapport are good case studies.  The problem is to recognize that one time experience is limited and cannot be escalated to the wider society.  

o   The question presented of why despite the success of specific exchanges and cases, this is not transferred to the wider society, is a misleading focus. 

o   The energy should be directed to the dissemination of good cases, to establish rapport and joint projects among historians, so there will be many historians with the right professional standing in a position to challenge the official narratives. 

·         The contribution of Korean and Chinese historians is not only to document the violence against their countries and people, but also to examine and underscore the role of collaborators in the oppression.  

o   This I must emphasize is not to establish equivalency but rather to

§  (1) construct a good history that illuminates various facets of the narrative;

§  (2) show good will towards the Japanese participants in the shared narrative, and undermine the unrealistic myth that presents all Koreans, or all Chinese as victims.  Victimized nations also included offenders.  

§  This changes the narrative of the victims’ group and opens space to greater empathy.  It has pedagogic value in teaching people to take responsibility to their own history, and of the violation of their own predecessors. 

§  To agree on the scope of the violence (for example the approximate number killed), not to present the most polarized perspectives as historically legitimate perspectives.  

§  This should build on the various commissions, including the history textbook commissions as a way to narrow differences. 

·         For example, developing joint projects of commemoration can serve as building blocks for future empathy. 

·         There ought to be increased historical research at many levels both to expand the archival research to bring new evidence to light and to engage new groups in research.

o   For example engage students in archival research of local aspects of the historical violations such as research of local army units; or part of annual trips by schools, and exchange programs.

·         As important Attention should be given, and resources devoted, to the building of the international field of historical dialogue.

o   International legitimacy would strengthen regional actors and norms concerning historical accountability.  

o   There are networks of civil society organizations, and that could be strengthened. 

o   New approaches should be explored, including international conferences and academic resources to attract scholars to the field. 

o   Establish interdisciplinary work that would bring historical dialogue into the mainstream of conflict resolution.   

[1] Others include former US president Jimmy Carter, archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel laure