Korea's "Justice Trap" (Korea Times, June 18, 2014)


Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel was so popular during his trip to Korea in 2012 that I'm surprised he didn't apply for Korean citizenship before he departed.
By Casey Lartigue, Jr. 

He threw out the first pitch at a baseball game, pow-wowed with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and spoke to an overflow crowd of 15,000 at Yonsei University's open-air theater. Oh, and he had already reportedly sold more than 1 million copies of his book "Justice: What's the Right Thing to do?" in Korea in the lead-up to the trip.

Why was his book on philosophy so popular? My main guess: He tapped into what Professor David R. Henderson calls the "justice trap."

An associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., Henderson recently wrote, "Years ago, I came to the conclusion that seeking justice is usually not worthwhile no matter how unjustly you think you were treated. It can take your energy and take you away from achieving your other goals." Henderson suggests we should learn from the way professional athletes quickly get over a bad call from a referee. They move on, rather than falling into the trap of searching for justice.

He cites a discussion he had with Walter Oi, who lived in a horse stall at the Santa-Anita Racetrack during World War II when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration locked up Japanese-Americans in internment camps. Four decades later, Oi expressed opposition to the Reagan Administration giving compensation to Japanese-Americans. Oi said that yes, Japanese-Americans like himself were treated unjustly, but that the best thing for them was to move on and not create a new government program. That is, to use Henderson's phrase, not to get caught up in the Justice Trap.

I suspect that Koreans will ignore the sports analogy and the Japanese-American case. Move on from Japanese colonization? Forgive past atrocities? Until there is justice in the form of a list of demands fulfilled (direct compensation to victims, state-level apologies similar to Germany's to Jews, history books rewritten), then Japan can never be forgiven.

Lee Chang-sup, executive managing editor of The Korea Times, quotes Marshall Goldsmith, the author of "What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful," as saying that apology is the most powerful tool in human relations. "Expressing regret, or apologizing is a cleansing ritual," that can make you feel better. Lee quotes Goldsmith as saying the difference between successful and less successful nations and people is the ability to say "I'm sorry" and "Thank you."

Accepting that as true, my questions: 1) What if the recipient of an apology is caught up in a Justice Trap? Does Goldsmith say that successful nations and people accept apologies?
 Japan has offered apologies over the decades that Koreans have dismissed as not being "genuine." 2) Lee adds that Koreans hate to give apologies because they ''lose face." If true, then what are they doing when they refuse to accept apologies?

Based on my observation, if a Justice Trap did not exist, Koreans would create one. There is an endless desire to fix history, to make things fair today. Accepting that Korea has always been the victim, never the victimizer, and that it is innocent and deserving of apologies and justice, it seems that apologies are not easily accepted.

Looking at news reports of Korean politicians, celebrities, athletes and others apologizing with their heads bowed and handcuffs on their wrists, promising to donate the money they stole or to live better lives, apologies are rarely accepted as genuine by Koreans except when they are announced in a suicide note. I've heard some Koreans ask why can't the Japanese be more like the Germans when it comes to apologizing, but perhaps Koreans are not like Jews when it comes to accepting apologies?

I recently encountered one of the former members of the group that advocates for Korean comfort women, she was proud that her organization 
had blocked the Japanese government's Asian Woman's Fund from providing payments to the Korean comfort women during the 1990s.When the issue is justice, then other options ― such as raising money locally to support the comfort women ― are ignored by people living in a Justice Trap. The advocates for the comfort women ― perhaps the women themselves ― are caught up in a Justice Trap, determined to fight for proper apologies until the last comfort woman passes away. And even more after that, apparently.

Professor Sandel didn't set the Justice Trap. He is a philosophy professor who does what philosophy professors do ― ask a bunch of questions without providing answers. Korea just happens to be a perfect case because it is a country ready to make a bed for itself in the Justice Trap, with him coming along to tuck them in.

The writer is the 
Director for Iinternational Relations at Freedom Factory Co. Ltd. in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached atcjl@post.harvard.edu. 

That's me pictured with Harvard University Prof Michael Sandel, a generous guy who gladly took a photo with me even though I criticized him.