HONOLULU – When visiting South Korea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was up to Tokyo and Seoul to put history behind them and move forward. Yet, recent events show history is still the issue in bilateral ties. Although these inimical relations are not new, officials in both countries continue to incense their counterparts. While Tokyo needs to recognize the consequences its actions are having on relations, Seoul is not blameless. This trend cannot continue, but they should refrain from looking to the United States to mediate their dispute.
The actions by Japanese officials that anger Seoul are well reported. Shortly after Shinzo Abe became premier, he stated there was no set definition of what constitutes aggression. This riled Seoul as it raised doubts about his commitment to Japan’s 1995 official apology for the colonization of the Korean Peninsula and invasion of other countries. And while Seoul was maddened by visits to Yasukuni Shrine by members of Abe’s cabinet and his Liberal Democratic Party throughout 2013, Abe’s December visit infuriated Seoul, which views visits as glorification of Japan’s wartime past.
But the affronts felt by Seoul increased in 2014. It started with Japan’s Ministry of Education announcing revised teaching manuals for schools to claim territories in dispute with China/South Korea as “integral parts” of Japan. Moreover, comments by Katsuto Momii, chairman of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) appointed by the NHK board of governors packed by Abe, set off a firestorm of anger in Seoul when he defended the wartime comfort women system as something that existed in all countries. Just when the brouhaha appeared over, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo would review the testimony of South Korean women that served as the basis for Japan’s Kono Statement, the 1993 official apology for comfort women. Fearing the statement’s revision, Seoul denounced Tokyo’s actions as historical revisionism.
Seldom reported outside of Japan, concurrent incidents by South Korea incensed Japan, thereby furthering the bilateral antagonism. Since Park Geun-hye came into office in late February 2013, comments by administration officials have taken direct aim at Japan. In April, Finance Minister Hyun Oh-Seok infuriated Tokyo by saying the damage caused to South Korea’s economy by Japan’s weakening yen was riskier than the dangers posed by nuclear North Korea. The following month, Tokyo was enraged when Park criticized Japan during her U.S. visit. While reports suggest she took the unusual step of pressing her concerns directly to President Barack Obama, she publicly, albeit indirectly, criticized Japan during her speech before Congress. In September, she once again angered Tokyo when she told U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that lack of trust with Tokyo was due to Japanese leaders’ regressive remarks about history and territorial issues.
Seen by Tokyo as further aggravation, Seoul is exporting their bilateral problems to third countries while stubbornly refusing to meet with Japanese officials. In addition to supporting efforts to change the name of the Sea of Japan in American textbooks, Seoul is supporting the building of statues honoring comfort women in the U.S., which Tokyo sees as promoting the idea that Japan has not acknowledged or made efforts to redress the issue. Tokyo was also maddened by Seoul’s efforts to help construct a statue of Ahn Joong-geun in Harbin, China, a Korean national celebrated as a hero in South Korea for his 1909 assassination of Hirobumi Ito, four-time Japanese prime minister and first resident general of Korea. Officials in Tokyo again interpreted Seoul’s moves as stoking anti-Japanese sentiment.
Clearly bilateral relations are strained. Behavior in both capitals continues to fuel mutual anger that deepens the animosity. Worse, it lends to a further deterioration of the publics’ views of each other. In a February 2014 poll released by Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Koreans’ favorability of Japan ranked at 2.4 (10-point scale), just above the 2.1 for North Korea. Additionally, a November 2013 poll showed that 85 percent of Koreans believed Japan was untrustworthy, second to North Korea’s but more untrustworthy than Iran, Russia and China. When asked about whether Japan posed a threat, 55.9 percent believed it did, third after North Korea (61.4 percent) and China (59.7 percent).
Likewise, South Korea is increasingly unfavorable among Japanese. In an October Cabinet Office poll, 58 percent said they had no affinity for South Korea, a jump from 35.3 percent in October 2011. Similarly, a December Yomiuri Shimbun poll showed that 72 percent of Japanese cannot trust South Korea, close to the 88 percent who cannot trust China.
And while the vast majority of Japanese viewed North Korea and China as countries likely to become military threats, South Korea (45 percent) ranked above Russia (40 percent) for the first time since polling began in 2000.
It is simplistic to believe that Japan alone is responsible for the current state of relations. Undoubtedly Japan bears full responsibility for its colonization of the Korean Peninsula and the war it unleashed in Asia. Numerous Japanese governments have acknowledged this and apologized. But for reconciliation to occur, effort by South Korea is required. Seoul has to stop repeating the mantra that Japan’s efforts are insincere. Seoul needs to acknowledge Japan’s past apologies and compensation and clarify specifically what these efforts lack. And to prevent others from calling into question its efforts, Tokyo needs to refrain from behavior that is known to provoke negative reactions, including revision of past apologies. Importantly, Abe should publicly remonstrate and/or fire officials who make comments contradicting Japan’s official apologies. It would also behoove Park to meet Abe to demonstrate her seriousness of wanting to overcome the past instead of exporting historical issues to third countries or demonizing Japan in the U.S. As long as she refuses a summit, her motivations appear more political given her ability to promote Trustpolitik with totalitarian North Korea but refuse dialogue with democratic Japan.
While the U.S. wants its Asian allies to cooperate, Washington should go-slow in offering its mediation to Tokyo and Seoul. Washington risks putting itself in a position of siding with one ally over the other, which would have a disastrous consequence on U.S. strategy in Asia. How will Tokyo react if the U.S. insinuates that Japan’s efforts have been insincere? How will Seoul react if the U.S. suggests Japan’s apologies have been sufficient and supports the San Francisco Peace Treaty as having waived all compensation claims against Japan? Fundamentally, can the U.S. even play a neutral arbiter role? After all, it played a key role in crafting the Peace Treaty, meting out justice in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and determining ownership of territories after its occupation of Japan ended. Seen from this perspective, U.S. actions helped sow the seeds for current tensions.
As bad as current bilateral ties are, the onus is on Korean and Japanese leaders. While Washington can encourage its allies toward better behavior, Park and Abe need to demonstrate leadership through words, deeds and bilateral dialogue.
They also have to want to move away from history and stop using it for political ends. Unfortunately it is unclear if either of the current administrations wants to take this step, one that promises to be difficult and demands concessions.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and an adjunct fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The views expressed are his.