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Global Perspective: Japan should try to mend fences with S. Korea

Makoto Iokibe (Mainichi)

By Makoto Iokibe, Chairman of Asian Affairs Research Council

    The Japan-Korea Forum was launched in 1993 to facilitate mutual understanding and improve bilateral relations through exchanges among various experts from Japan and South Korea. The forum held on Cheju Island proposed in 1995 that the two countries jointly host the 2002 Soccer World Cup instead of competing to invite the international event, paving the way for joint hosting. Throughout its quarter-century history, the gathering has cultivated a spirit of being frank and trying to establish relationships based on straight talk.

    I joined the forum for the first time in August 2001. Japan-Korea ties had become strained due to issues over Japanese history textbooks and visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese politicians. I asked Tadashi Yamamoto, chief coordinator for the Japanese side: "Have Japan-Korea ties ever been this bad?" He smiled and replied, "It was far worse before."

    In South Korea, the view that Japan committed the worst criminal act by annexing the Korean Peninsula in 1910 still persists. Many people have trouble escaping the notion that Japan was a villain that stole their homeland, even though new chapters in history have unfolded. One of my friends, who is also a scholar, recalls that during the 1960s when he was speaking in Japanese in Seoul, he was met by stern gazes and feared violence.

    Around that period, the South Korean government took measures to prevent an explosion of anti-Japanese sentiment. The administration of President Park Chung-hee suppressed massive protests and tried to develop the economy through cooperation with Japan, signing the treaty on basic relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965. The next two presidents, who came from the military, followed similar paths.

    Japanese conservative politicians conscious of Japan's responsibilities in the past, including Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, treated South Korea carefully. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a drastic visit to the neighboring country after he took power and put together an economic cooperation package. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and several other premiers officially apologized for Japan's rule of South Korea in the past and set up the Asian Women's Fund to compensate women who worked at Japanese military brothels. However, such overtures won few South Korean hearts and instead tended to raise questions about Japanese sincerity. When people with anti-Japanese views raised their voices, many South Koreans could not ignore them. In Japan, anger against South Korea built up due to its refusal of Japanese support and sincerity, creating an undercurrent that later fed anti-Korea arguments and hate speech.

    A fresh step forward in bilateral relations came from President Kim Dae-Jung. The South Korean leader visited Tokyo in 1998 to meet Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and agreed on future-oriented cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Kim did so as he appreciated Japan's postwar pacifism, democratization and support for developing countries with official aid programs. The president's policy of cultural openness drew the people of the two countries closer. South Korean TV dramas became popular in Japan, and pro-Korean sentiment finally took off nationally.

    However, this improvement met a major political blowback. Despite the growing positive sentiment among the people, politicians on both sides took actions insensitive to each other because of domestic reasons. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, showing no concerns for the subsequent freezing of ties with China and South Korea. President Lee Myung-bak chose to visit the disputed island of Takeshima, which is claimed by Tokyo but controlled by Seoul, and made provocative remarks on Japan's Emperor. He did so in a bid to shore up his declining support rate, pouring cold water on the pro-South Korean boom in Japan.

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was initially reluctant to sign deals with the South Korean government as he was worried about the possibility of Seoul's nullification of such agreements due to a negative domestic reaction. The premier, nevertheless, tried to make a final settlement on the so-called "comfort women" issue by offering 1 billion yen based on an agreement signed in December 2015 with the administration of President Park Geun-hye. He also signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Seoul for the exchange of sensitive national security data. These were excellent moves.

    Then President Moon Jae-in came to power in May 2017. He initially talked to Japan about a "two-track approach" in which he would pursue to settle both past and current issues. However, he seems to be someone who is fundamentally oriented toward past issues. Moon dissolved the foundation for reconciliation and healing, which was set up based on the 2015 agreement, and refused Japan's efforts to settle the comfort women issue. The Moon administration also maintained an uncompromising attitude toward Japan when the South Korean military demanded that Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) ships refrain from flying the rising sun flag, which is seen by some South Koreans as a symbol of Japan's wartime militarism, at an international naval review event in South Korea. The president's position remained the same when a South Korean destroyer sent fire-control radar signals at Japanese MSDF patrolling aircraft in the Sea of Japan. When the South Korean supreme court ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Korean workers who were mobilized to work at their factories during Japan's colonial rule, the South Korean government didn't move at all, despite Seoul's responsibility to bridge the gap between the top court's judgment and the 1965 Japan-ROK redress agreement, which states that the compensation issue was settled "completely and finally" with the pact.

    It is wrong for the people of Japan to ignore the past, but it is more wrong for the people of South Korea to continue to be controlled by the past. Some people in and around the Moon administration appear unable to control an impulse to expose South Koreans who were connected with Japan's past rule -- a drive with a posture of "rooting out all historic evils."

    Some South Koreans even allow themselves to take outrageous actions against present-day Japan because of Tokyo's past mistakes. Throughout the postwar period, the Japanese government had endured such actions without resistance. Finally, the Abe administration launched the first counterattack. It was a controlled, weak strike, but it created a large shockwave anyway because it was the first such move by Tokyo since the end of World War II.

    Should the administration have done so? Japanese public opinion says yes. However, political decisions should be evaluated mainly by their results and effectiveness. Actions based on the sentiment of inevitability, even with domestic support, mean little if they damage national interests and prevent us from seeing the big picture. And here are the actual results of Tokyo's latest moves: A sharp drop in South Korean tourists to Japan, which once reached 7.5 million a year from a country with a population of 50 million; boycotts of Japanese products with shrinking trade between the two countries; and a more obstinate Moon administration that discarded such an important agreement as GSOMIA. Is this outcome what the government of Japan wanted? I want a way out based on a major initiative of dialogue and agreement, a positive settlement. Despite our deep anger, we cannot move from our current location and distance ourselves from our neighbor. I also want the Abe administration to play a role of saving the world as a conservative force with dignity. And after all, we should not ruin the ties between the two countries with so many good people.

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