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Japan and South Korea: Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Words: Pamela Kennedy
Pictures: Eric Jimenez

October 8 will mark the 20th anniversary of a declaration between Japan and South Korea to “squarely face the past and develop relations based on mutual understanding and trust.” This month, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea agreed to strengthen bilateral relations in recognition of this anniversary. Japan will even convene a panel of experts to discuss specific methods of improving relations, from people-to-people exchanges to diplomacy.

The panel is an excellent idea that might yield new opportunities to mend the rift between Japan and South Korea. About 51% of Koreans and 46% of Japanese have a bad impression of the other country, according to a 2018 survey by Genron NPO. Not great, but it’s actually a huge improvement on the Korean side – back in 2013, 77% of Koreans had a negative view of Japan. The reasons for the bad feelings focus mostly on historical and territorial issues, which should be a clear signal to the panel in Japan, and any South Korean counterparts that might form, where the most effort in improving relations is needed.

These issues repeatedly appear in the media from both countries. Just recently, the Japanese government decided to add its claim over the Liancourt Rocks (the islets of Takeshima or Dokdo) to a teacher’s guide for high schools, and Japanese and Korean newspapers took note.

The ill will between Japan and Korea goes back centuries, but the current disputes stem from Japan’s occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945, which included progressively more pervasive cultural assimilation policies. Then, during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army forced thousands of Korean women into sexual slavery as so-called “comfort women.” The Liancourt Rocks dispute revolves around murky historical documentation but seems to date from 1905, when the Japanese government incorporated the islets, prompting protest from the Korean government.

Japanese politicians, elected officials, and emperors (including Hirohito) have made apologies for Japan’s imperial conquests, the war, enslavement of women, and other issues over the years – there’s even a list on Wikipedia. Some of the apologies were long overdue, with the first apology to “comfort women” given by Prime Minister Miyazawa in 1992.

Some of the apologies were long overdue, with the first apology to “comfort women” given by Prime Minister Miyazawa in 1992.

The level of officiality of the apologies varies – which ones represent an official government apology? – as does the wording. This has led to accusations from Korea that the apologies are insincere or insufficient, and so the ghosts of the past continue to plague the present. An agreement between the governments of Japan and South Korea in December 2015 to be a final resolution of the “comfort women” issue, with a Japanese government donation to survivors, was called “flawed” by the next Korean presidential administration under Moon Jae-in, but ultimately not renegotiated. The tenuous relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has been further tested by the approval of some history textbooks in Japan that either water down or ignore Japan’s actions in World War II.

How Japan and Korea might resolve the historical and territorial problems in their bilateral relations is not a question for an American spectator to answer. But the US, a treaty ally and a strong trading partner of both countries, has a profound interest in Japan-South Korea cooperation. The US will depend on close collaboration between the South Korean and Japanese militaries in the event of conflict in Asia, particularly with North Korea.

Despite their troubled history, Japan and South Korea face many of the same challenges. They are democracies adjacent to China, though they perceive China differently as a regional power; they are both in the sights of North Korean missiles. They both have aging populations, and South Korea will soon join Japan as a country with a decreasing population.

Even as they host American military bases and troops, both countries are dealing with a US administration that does not show consistent support for the security interests of the Korean and Japanese alliances – Trump reportedly considered removing US troops from South Korea ahead of talks with North Korea – and has slapped tariffs on them to boot.

Somehow, South Korea and Japan – both governments and peoples – need to find a way to deal with the past in a way that allows for productive, warm relations. Otherwise, future opportunities for cooperation will continue to become entangled in old arguments, hobbled by history.

Pamela Kennedy is a Research Associate with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research institute.

Pamela Kennedy

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