As South Korean President Park Geun-hye begins her second year in office, there is little prospect that the chilly ties between Japan and her country will grow warmer anytime soon. Park and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should take concrete steps to remedy this most regrettable state of affairs.
Since her inauguration on Feb. 25, 2013, Park has met with the leaders of 29 countries on 33 occasions. But Japan is notably missing from the list. Although new South Korean presidents traditionally stop in Tokyo after visiting the United States for the first time, Park chose not to do so on her return from Washington this past May. Both Abe and Park should realize that this frigid state of affairs is extremely abnormal for neighboring countries.
The approval rating for Park is relatively high at around 55 percent. The only president to enjoy a higher rating since South Korea democratized in 1987 was Kim Dae-jung. Park’s relatively high approval rating is mainly attributed to her hard stance toward South Korea’s opposition forces, North Korea and Japan.
It was her father, President Park Chung-hee, a former officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, who normalized diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan in December 1965 — despite strong domestic opposition.
Park apparently fears being regarded as pro-Japanese. She has taken a tough stance toward Japan concerning historical issues such as the use of Korean sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese armed forces in the 1930s and 40s. For example, in a speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing last June, Park said cooperation in the political and security fields in Northeast Asia was not making much progress because of “emotional conflict and distrust” over issues of history and security — an apparent shot at Japan.
But Abe’s nationalistic actions are also taking a toll on the bilateral relationship. He visited Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead as well as convicted Class-A war criminals, in late December, provoking strong reactions from China and South Korea, and an expression of disappointment from the United States.
Although Abe says the door for dialogue is always open, he should realize that his Yasukuni visit effectively closed the door. He also should be aware that discussion in Japan about rewriting the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono — that coercion was used at “comfort stations” and that the sex-slave system damaged the honor and dignity of recruited women — is taking a toll on bilateral ties.
As long as Japan and South Korea’s leaders continue their confrontational stances, exchanges between the two countries’ governments and private sectors will continue to wane. If communication channels between the two countries cease to function at various levels, anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea and anti-South Korea feelings in Japan could build to a boiling point, causing damage that would be hard to repair.
Both Abe and Park should realize that the current situation is harming the interests of both countries and take concrete action to resolve it. Bilateral cooperation is urgently needed on security problems — including on how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development — and economic matters.
Abe and Park should strive to improve bilateral ties in time for U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to both countries in April. Cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea is indispensable for ensuring regional stability and peace. Abe and Park should make serious efforts to hold a summit at an early date so that Japan and South Korea can make joint efforts to solve issues in a calm and rational manner.