As Japan and South Korea mark 50 years since the normalization of postwar bilateral relations Monday, the anniversary is unlikely to yield much to celebrate.

Relations between the two Asian powerhouses are at possibly the lowest point since the end of the war. According to a May poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 73 percent of respondents said they “cannot trust” South Korea — a record high for the second year in a row. And the suspicion runs both ways, with 85 percent of South Koreans voicing mistrust of Japan.

At the core of today’s mutual animosity are historical issues involving Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule. According to the Yomiuri poll, which was seeking opinion on Abe’s upcoming war anniversary speech, some 76 percent of Japanese respondents believe repeated apologies by Japanese prime ministers for a variety of historical issues are “sufficient.” This contrasts sharply with South Korea, where a mere 4 percent believe the apologies were enough.

Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times said the root cause of this unbridgeable perception gap can be traced to the nature of a treaty and five related agreements the two countries signed in 1965. The deals were designed to settle all compensation issues surrounding Japan’s contentious 1910 annexation of the Korean Peninsula “completely and finally,” as was clearly and carefully inserted into one of the agreements.

But as democracy came to South Korea in 1987 after decades of authoritarian rule, save a brief period in the early 1960s, nationalism and citizens’ groups became more powerful than ever.

Under these forces, public frustration over the 1965 deals — concluded under hard-line President Park Chung-hee and continually bottled up under a series of authoritarian rulers — exploded in the 1990s.

“The conclusion of the deals in 1965 was kind of a political compromise,” said Yuki Asaba, a professor of South Korean politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture graduate school. “The South Korean side compromised over the settlement of historical issues.”

In making the deal, Asaba said, Park had prioritized practical economic benefits over resolving historical issues, given the need for financial assistance from Japan amid the dire economic straits in South Korea at the time.

Under the 1965 deal, Japan provided South Korea with a total of $800 million as “economic cooperation” that consisted of a $300 million grant in economic aid, $200 million in loans and $300 million in loans for private trust. Seoul’s annual budget was $350 million at the time.

“The sum was definitely a considerable amount since it was bigger than the national budget of South Korea,” Asaba said.

Under the terms, Japan provided the funds to the South Korean government in a lump sum.

The South Korean government later reportedly took responsibility for compensating individual victims of Japan’s colonial rule. Some of the money was used to pay about 2.6 billion won ($5.38 million) to relatives of some 8,550 victims of Japan’s forced labor, based on a 1974 law stipulating that Seoul would pay 300,000 won ($620) per death, according to media reports.

But the South Korean government used most of it to build infrastructure, including a steel plant in Pohang and an expressway linking Seoul and Busan, Asaba noted.

Amid today’s politically charged environment, many victims who weren’t among those who received the money have begun calling for compensation directly from Japan, including some of the former ianfu (comfort women), Japan’s euphemism for the females who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during the war in military “comfort stations.”

Tokyo, for its part, has consistently maintained that the 1965 treaty and agreements settled all compensation issues involving Japan’s colonial rule, as stated in them.

And South Korea did not raise any official objections to Japan’s position for decades.

“At first, the South Korean government took the position that issues regarding the past were all solved by this treaty,” said Kan Kimura, a professor and Korean affairs expert at Kobe University’s graduate school.

But as the comfort women issue gained more public prominence in the early 1990s, Seoul began to shift, claiming the issue was not covered by the treaty and agreements, Kimura said.

Then, in 2005, the South Korean government announced that its former comfort women, survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and the displaced draftees on Sakhalin island were all entitled to receive individual compensation from Japan following a recommendation by a private-public committee examining compensation rights.

Moreover, in August 2011, South Korea’s constitutional court ordered the government to begin negotiations with Japan on resolving compensation claims for former comfort women, saying failure to seek a solution with Tokyo “constitutes an infringement on the basic human rights of the victims and is a violation of the constitution.”

“Ultimately, thanks to the democratization of its political system, the South Korean public now understands that public opinion can and should influence not only the government’s domestic policy, but also its diplomacy,” Asaba said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.