One year has passed since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak set foot on the disputed Takeshima Islands (Dokdo in Korean) in the Sea of Japan on Aug. 10, 2012. Although Mr. Shinzo Abe returned to power in Japan in December and Ms. Park Geun-hye took office as South Korea’s new president in February, the bilateral relationship remains chilly and shows no signs of improving.
There are no mutual visits by the two countries’ foreign ministers and there is no prospect of a meeting between Mr. Abe and Ms. Park. Both countries should realize that the present situation is detrimental to their mutual interests and strive to use every available route of communication to improve ties.
Ms. Park is trying to present her country as a middle power in this region that posits itself between two big powers — the United States and China. When she visited the U.S. and China in May and June, respectively, she stated that Japan’s perception of 20th century history of this region is problematic.
She appears to be trying to increase cooperation with the U.S. and China to check the moves not only of North Korea but also of Japan. The Japanese government should recognize that Ms. Park does not give due weight to Japan in her diplomacy; it should improve communication with South Korea to remedy this situation.
The issue of historical perception has loomed big recently in South Korea’s judiciary. In July, the high courts of Seoul and Busan handed down ruling calling on Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Koreans who worked for them during World War II as forced laborers.
But an agreement attached to the Japan-South Korea basic relations treaty of 1965 says that individual citizens cannot file claims related to events that happened on or before Aug. 15, 1945, since Japan under the treaty provided $500 million in economic assistance to South Korea. Successive South Korean governments took the position that the issues related to South Korean forced laborers have been settled.
If other South Korean courts follow the rulings by the Seoul and Busan high courts, it will cause great damage to Japan-South Korea relations. There also may arise in South Korea a call for changing or abolishing the basic treaty, which has served as a foundation for Japanese-South Korean relations in the postwar period.
Ms. Park should thus refrain from any moves that undermine the basic treaty. A better way to handle individual claims for compensation would be for Japan and South Korea to work out private-sector measures for former South Koreans forced laborers outside the framework of the basic treaty.
Japanese politicians should refrain from any moves that hurt the feelings of South Koreans, such as calls for changing Japan’s past statements on its colonial rule and military aggression, and on the issue of military sex slaves.
For their part, Japanese citizens should not condone hate speeches made by some Japanese against Koreans. And South Koreans should try not to view Japan and Japanese people in a stereotypical way based on the experience of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea.