It was extraordinary to see two national leaders having a hard time putting a face on a two-hour-long summit meeting that apparently did not produce any substantive agreement. At an internationally televised press conference following the summit in Seoul on Monday, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun said: “We have reached an agreement at a minuscule level with regard to the history issue.” But he promptly added that the consensus was a result of prior diplomatic contacts between the two countries rather than the summit itself.
This means that despite their allegedly long, serious and frank exchange of views Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Mr. Roh failed to see eye to eye with each other on what must be done, or not be done, to improve the current tense relations. Obstacles to reaching more than a minuscule-level accord, Mr. Roh said, were contentious history issues, specifically, Mr. Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine — where Japan’s World War II war criminals are enshrined with the nation’s war dead — and sanitized history textbooks.
According to reports, Mr. Roh carefully chose his words in telling Mr. Koizumi that he should stop paying homage to the war dead at Yasukuni because Mr. Koizumi’s visits to the shrine are the core issue in the history-related conflict between the two countries. Mr. Koizumi responded by repeating his stance that his visits are intended to show his resolve that Japan will never wage war again.
Mr. Koizumi also stated that, after considering various domestic circumstances, he would look into the possibility of building an alternative facility to honor the war dead. However, this reference must have fallen far short of sounding convincing to Mr. Roh because at a summit in 2001 Mr. Koizumi had promised to review the idea of building a separate tribute facility, but nothing has come of that.
The current controversy between Japan and South Korea (and China as well) over Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni is sort of a personal problem that he should strive to solve for himself. Some 60 percent of Japanese think that he should cast off his stubbornness and seriously rethink whether his shrine visits as prime minister benefit the people or not.
The issue of the shrine visits comprises a basically different problem from the historical-perceptions gap, the narrowing of which will require every positive effort by all peoples concerned over a long period. Therefore, the two governments’ agreement — reaffirmed by the two leaders at the summit — to launch a second round of joint history studies that will take into account the issue of history textbooks as well could turn out to be far more significant than it looks.
Earlier this year, Japan and South Korea made public the results of discussions that scholars from the two countries have conducted over three years in three joint subcommittees on ancient history, medieval history, and modern and contemporary history. The launching of the joint study was based on an agreement between Mr. Koizumi and then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.
Japan had a political motive for agreeing to the joint study, since Tokyo was trying to cool down a textbook controversy that had led to a deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations. Seoul insisted from the beginning of the joint study that the results should be reflected in textbooks, but Japan has stated consistently that, in view of its textbook-screening system, the results cannot be directly reflected. The agreement reaffirmed in Seoul apparently indicated a step forward on this aspect of the problem.
The first round of joint study witnessed many differences in the views between the two countries, especially concerning modern and contemporary history. For example, there was intense debate over the validity of the 1910 Annexation Treaty and the 1965 Japan-ROK Treaty of Basic Relations, which normalized relations between the two nations. Such debates brought into relief the width of the divide in historical perceptions.
The experiences in the first round of joint study have taught the two nations that it will not be easy for the two peoples to reach agreement on the history problem. A long time will be required. The important thing is to continue the joint studies and hope that the accumulation of such studies will become a catalyst for burying the differences in historical understanding.
As Mr. Roh noted after the summit, although a willingness for peace, enhanced exchanges and strengthened cooperation are helpful, they will not guarantee peace. Concrete action is necessary. On this count, the heavier responsibility is Mr. Koizumi’s.
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.