On March 1, South Korean President Park Geun-hye renewed her call for Japan to come clean on its colonial and wartime atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of women. Her speech was delivered on the anniversary of the anti-Japanese uprising by Koreans in 1919 and in a year when South Koreans will celebrate the 70th anniversary of their liberation from colonial rule and quietly mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
It was not until two decades after the end of Japan’s colonial rule that the U.S. brokered normalization between South Korea and Japan in 1965. Given Seoul’s precarious position facing a hostile North Korea and its dependence on the U.S. for military support, it was not in a position to resist Washington’s pressures to strike a deal. The Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea required Tokyo to provide grants and soft loans worth $800 million as quasi-reparations, with Seoul agreeing to make no further claims for compensation. Problematically, while the joint communique noted the “regrets” (ikan) and “deep remorse” (fukaku hansei) expressed by the Japanese side, it was not accompanied by any specific mea culpa by the Japanese, and no reconciliation initiatives. It is not surprising that this unpromising start has not led to a warming of relations.
Normalization planted a time bomb that exploded in 2005 when the South Korean government released 1,200 pages of documents related to the negotiations. It emerged that Japan offered to directly compensate the 1.03 million Koreans conscripted for labor and military service during the colonial era, but Seoul demanded that it be paid the redress and took responsibility for distributing the compensation. The reports infuriated South Koreans because their government distributed very little money to the victims or their surviving families, diverting it mostly to infrastructure and heavy industrial projects. This led to demands that the South Korean government provide compensation as stipulated in the agreement. Ironically, Seoul echoed Tokyo’s position on redress, one usually castigated by South Koreans: that all issues of compensation have been resolved. It is in this context that the South Korean government’s angry denunciations of Japanese textbooks in 2005 seemed like a diversionary tactic.
Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman ruffled feathers with her remarks at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Of course, nationalist feelings can still be exploited,” Sherman said, “and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress. To move ahead, we have to see beyond what was to envision what might be. And in thinking about the possibilities, we don’t have to look far for a cautionary tale of a country that has allowed itself to be trapped by its own history.”
There has been speculation that her remarks were aimed at Seoul and that they played a role in the recent attack on Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, infuriating the attacker because she seemed to be leaning toward Tokyo in the history wars. Sherman’s remarks are accurate, as South Korean leaders have a track record of eliciting cheap applause by vilifying Japan, especially when their popularity is sagging as it usually does. There is, of course, much to vilify and Japan has not really taken the measure of the indignities and suffering it inflicted. When Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a powerful apology in 2010 about the traumas of colonial oppression, the media sought Shinzo Abe’s opinion and he dismissed Kan’s remarks as “stupid.” This is the usual pattern with Japanese apologies — scarcely uttered before they are swiftly undermined.
And so relations between these “frenemies” remain fraught, exasperating Washington wonks that fervently wish the whole history problem would vanish so these valued allies could enhance security cooperation.
Park understands that domestic business leaders and officials are concerned that she has been overplaying her hand on history in ways that are harming U.S. relations. There are also anxieties about China’s growing influence over South Korea, but even if there are good strategic reasons for Park to take a less confrontational stance on history, it’s hard to imagine the two countries as “Seoul-mates” because neither side can concede enough on the shared past to placate the other.
The impasse over history is thus not just a symptom of the underlying problem in bilateral relations, as Dartmouth’s Jennifer Lind recently argued in Foreign Affairs, but rather remains the crucial reason why the two nations remain at loggerheads. Colonial intervention and subjugation for four decades gives South Korea the unassailable moral high ground and the narrative of victimization is both powerfully appealing and intrinsic to a national identity based on anti-Japanese nationalism. History has become ever more politicized in South Korean democracy and cutting the Gordian knot will take much more than courageous leadership. Paradoxically, as the tragedies that divide recede further into the past, they have actually become more embedded in national consciousness and identity and less negotiable due to electoral politics.
The 1965 normalization was possible under a South Korean authoritarian government that could ignore or quell public opinion, but democracy has heated up the history wars. Even Osaka-born President Lee Myung-bak, arguably the most pro-Japanese South Korean leader since Park Chung-hee, resorted to playing the history card and staged a provocative landing on the disputed islets that South Korea calls Dokdo and Japan insists are Takeshima.
Recently, the Foreign Ministry changed its description of South Korea by deleting text affirming the two nations shared values of democracy, respect for human rights and a market economy, apparently out of pique over the trial of a Japanese journalist who is blocked from leaving the country. The website retains its description of South Korea as Japan’s “most important neighboring country,” a backhanded compliment given the competition in Pyongyang.
One sign of perpetrator’s fatigue in Japan is the Foreign Ministry’s website entry blaming the 2011 decision by the South Korean Constitutional Court for reigniting the “comfort women” controversy. The court ruled that Seoul was violating the constitutional rights of these women by not helping press their claims against Tokyo. University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden notes that the context of the comfort women controversy is missing and the Foreign Ministry’s selective narrative relies on the “entire absence of any other piece of the picture such as the Kono statement or the Asian Women’s Fund … it is the logic of blame the victim for the crime pure and simple.” Certainly Tokyo is weary of being relentlessly hammered on the anvil of history, but Abe and other revisionists aren’t helping matters.
Clearly, the shackles of the past hang heavily on both nations. Thus there is little to celebrate in this half-centennial of normalization because the “persistent normal” remains prickly rancor and bitter recriminations.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.