LONDON — On Jan. 22, two of the world’s leading powers celebrated the 40th anniversary of a remarkable reconciliation. At the historic Palace of Versailles, France’s President Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder toasted a treaty signed in 1963 by their visionary predecessors, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. After three fierce wars between 1870 and 1945, new leaders resolved this must never happen again. Ancient enemies had to learn to become best friends.
To do that took two things: courage and community. Rather than wallow in rancor or rebuild walls of suspicion, Europe’s farsighted postwar leaders ignored the voices of hate — and built institutions instead. Right after 1945, with Nazi atrocities still a vivid memory, they began to work actively together: laying the foundations of what would become the European Union.
That is statesmanship, which, sadly, is a quality thin on the ground in East Asia. Seeing how close France and Germany are today — despite differences and occasional rows — is a painful reminder of half a century of lost opportunities in East Asia. One has to ask: If in Europe old foes could bury the hatchet, why — even in 2003 — can’t Japan and South Korea do the same?
Northeast Asia in general lacks the security or economic architecture of Europe or other parts of the world. But you have to start somewhere. Despite past enmity, and much as each views the other as a polar opposite, Japan and South Korea have far more to unite than divide them.
Culturally and geographically, this has long been true. Japan and Korea share a dual heritage of Buddhism and Confucianism, gained from China. Both are sea-girt, hilly, resource-poor, temperate, densely populated rice cultivators, that learned to live by trade and on their wits.
Their modern economies compete across the board, from ships to chips. But this, too, creates shared interests in an open global trading system. Japan and South Korea are the sole Asian members of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, the global grouping of developed countries. Their institutions and governance have similarities too — hardly surprising, given 40 years of Japanese rule in Korea. Korea Inc. was designed to emulate Japan Inc., even if Seoul is now superseding that model faster than Tokyo has so far.
In energy, both Japan and South Korea import all their oil and gas and rely heavily on nuclear power. This gives them shared anxiety about the Middle East and a common need to protect Southeast Asian sealanes.
In broader security terms, each is a close if not always smooth ally of the United States, whose troops they both host. North Korean missiles and worse threaten them alike.
Geopolitically, while rightly transcending the old Cold War divisions, Japan and South Korea each have cause to keep a wary eye on the uncertain evolution of their giant neighbors, Russia and China. And both are liberal democracies, even if not always well-functioning ones in the eyes of many of their citizens — whose critiques, however, signal grassroots political health.
I could go on. In sum, a Martian coming new to this would ask: Why are two neighbors, with so much in common, not the best of friends? Why don’t they all learn each other’s language? Why wasn’t a free-trade area, now under endless slow consideration, created years ago? Why isn’t there intimate institutional cooperation between Japanese and South Korean parliamentarians, bureaucrats, academics, indeed everyone? Why not pool resources, seek a common voice?
Alas, these are rhetorical questions. Yet they should not be. In 2003, 58 years after the end of World War II and Japan’s occupation of Korea, it is frankly ludicrous that issues from a long-gone past, however hurtful, should still obstruct much-needed future-oriented cooperation.
Both sides’ political elites are to blame for this absurd and damaging state of affairs. Japan should long ago have apologized, once and for all and sincerely, for the sins of empire, and properly compensated “comfort women” and other victims. The Yasukuni Shrine issue must be settled (why not build another?). Revisionist textbooks, whitewashing the past, hardly help.
Yet Koreans, too, are at fault. To be colonized, often brutally, was the common fate of the non-Western world. But most got over this. Nations, like individuals, need to heal and move on. To harp on the past and cultivate a sense of national victimhood creates warped perceptions and bad choices. Many young South Koreans dislike Japan and the U.S., but like North Korea and China. Is this wise? That is what happens when gut feeling trumps cool rational calculation.
Some leaders on both sides have tried to change all this, above all South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and the late Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. But the next South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, is unknown in Tokyo and proud of never having visited the U.S. Another trait Japan and South Korea share, alas, is an inward-looking and self-obsessed political culture — a dangerous weakness in an era of globalization.
Is Lee Su Hyon forgotten already? It’s just two years since this brave young Korean student died trying to save a drunk in the path of a Tokyo train. His grandfather was a slave laborer in Japan; yet Lee came to learn Japanese, wanting to be a bridge between the two nations. For a moment his death touched them both; then it was back to business as usual. Even cohosting last year’s soccer World Cup was more two separate coordinated exercises than a real sharing.
When will the majority, on both sides of the Sea of No Agreed Name (and what a stupid row that is), at last wake and wise up to how much they have in common, put future before past and belatedly begin the active alliance-building that should have started half a century ago? Maybe never.
In both countries statesmanship is in short supply. Politicians and the press take their cue from a disgruntled public opinion, rather than boldly seeking to mold and shape it.
Both nations are the losers. Future Japanese and Koreans will look back and ask why their ancestors were more pusillanimous than perspicacious. In 2013, when France and Germany celebrate half a century of win-win cooperation, shall I have to write this article again?
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