Huh, who was once a top aid of former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, spoke at an event in Tokyo Friday to promote the building of an international tunnel that would stretch 235 kilometers across the southwestern tip of the Sea of Japan that divides Japan and the Korean peninsula.
Like the European equivalent across the British Channel, the project to build a Far Eastern version of the Chunnel has been on and off – like the historical undercurrents of love and hate that flow back and forth between these two countries.
Of late, however, thanks to an economic crisis of historic proportions, the tunnel project is drawing greater attention. Some are viewing it as a prospective "New Deal" that could stimulate economic development in both countries.
Japan’s former Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa, for example, recently commented on the economic stimulus merits of giant projects like the channel tunnel.
More officially, late last year the Japan-Korea Cooperation Committee of academics and entrepreneurs issued a joint statement following two days of discussions, concluding that "the undersea tunnel may contribute to the integration process of Northeast Asia."
While policymakers discuss the merits of the tunnel, engineers have already quietly begun experimental excavation at Karatsu, the city at the westernmost location facing the channel.
A video of the digging operation was shown by its sponsor, the International Highway Foundation of Tokyo, at the Friday event. In addition to digging about 540 meters, the foundation has conducted both geological and geographical research in the area covering Tsushima and Iki Islands, two important stepping stones along the possible tunnel route.
Addressing the participants in fluent Japanese, Huh said that there is definitely serious interest in the tunnel scheme. Earlier this year, the tunnel digging was widely reported by South Korean media following an inspection tour to the site. Consequently the mayor of Busan, the city where the tunnel is likely to emerge on the Korean side, stressed the vital need for the tunnel as part of the city's future development.
In response to his appeal, however, nearly 30,000 angry messages by email, fax or blog attacked the mayor as a “traitor," according to Huh. Although over 20,000 people per day travel between the two nations, "There are still deep and lingering anxieties among Korean citizens over closer connection with Japan," Huh pointed out.
Huh referred to a medieval Japanese invasion of the Korean peninsula, and more recently the colonization of the peninsula in the early 20th century, which ended with World War II. These events produced a mistrust that has been hard to dispel. Therefore before the tunnel is built, Huh emphasized, "A tunnel of heart must be established between the two peoples."
Huh, who has an extensive knowledge of Japanese history, having studied at a Tokyo college and worked as Tokyo correspondent for a Korean newspaper, analyzed what he called “a dark side of Japan's modernization.” Though Japan's successful Westernization was guided by the best and brightest of its leaders in the early days, this process eventually led to the catastrophic failure and destruction of the nation through decades of wars.
By following the Western models of colonialism and military hegemony, Huh believes, "Japan lost its inherent cultural identity and harmonious neighborliness with Korea and China."
As a more recent case in point, he talked about Japan's failed attempt to muster support for its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. "Very few Asian countries voted for Japan, despite its massive contributions to the U.N. budget, its official development assistance and its financial help during the Asian financial crisis in 1997," Huh said.
Japan must stand on very high ethical ground if it wants to win recognition as a great nation, he said.
By contrast, China is expanding its hegemony and growing more confident with its ever-growing economic power. Its gross domestic product will almost certainly supersede that of Japan this year. In order to counter China's ambitions, South Korea and Japan should stand firm and cooperate with each other, Huh warned.
"The tunnel connecting the two nations would be the very symbol of such cooperation," he said.
Huh explained that some Japanese have long supported this idea. He spoke highly of the late Eizaburo Nishibori as a major force behind the current drive for the tunnel scheme. As a noted scientist and explorer, Nishibori directed Japan's first winter station team in the Antarctic over half a century ago.
According to Huh, Nishibori was inspired upon hearing a proposal for this tunnel by one of its earliest proponents, the Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who described it as part of a grand plan to link all the world’s continents through an international highway. This was in 1981 in Seoul, South Korea, during the International Conference for the Unity of Sciences.
Nishibori then worked to bring together people who shared this vision, including leading specialists involved in constructing the Seikan Tunnel that links Japan's major island of Honshu to northern Hokkaido. His efforts paid off in setting up the Japan-Korea Tunnel Research Institute, which has done extensive groundwork on the project and proposed three possible routes for the tunnel.