Recent diplomatic events indicate that South Korea has taken a hard stance toward Japan over the perception of 20th century history in Asia, including the issue of sex slavery under the Imperial Japanese armed forces.
The Abe administration cannot be too cautious in handling the historical perception issue as well as territorial disputes with neighboring countries. Kindling nationalism on any side should be avoided at any cost because this would greatly damage Japan’s relations with both South Korea and China.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Mr. Yun Byung-se, met in Brunei on July 1 — the first meeting between the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers in nearly nine months. Mr. Yun had canceled his visit to Tokyo in April because Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, two other Cabinet members and many lawmakers visited Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead including Class-A war criminals. Already cool bilateral ties grew chillier.
Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, without first meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In her speech at Tsinghua University, Ms. Park said that cooperation in the political and security fields in Northeast Asia is not making much progress because of “emotional conflict and distrust” over the issues of history and security. Her speech was apparently aimed at Japan.
In meeting with Mr. Kishida, Mr. Yun stressed that “correct historical perception” is a prerequisite for the stabilization and progress of bilateral relations. He also said that unless “extreme caution” is taken concerning the historical perception issue, “the soul of the [South Korean] people” will be hurt.
Japan needs to understand that Ms. Park is in a difficult domestic political situation. The 50th anniversary of the 1965 basic relations treaty between South Korea and Japan will take place in 2015. The government of Ms. Park’s father, the late President Park Chung-hee, signed it despite strong opposition from the South Korean public. Ms. Park fears that she will face strong criticism at home if she fails to get a satisfactory response from Japan over the historical perception issue
South Korea takes a wary view of Mr. Abe’s nationalistic leanings. Mr. Abe has defended his Cabinet members’ visit to Yasukuni Shrine, has stated that there is no clear definition of aggression and has expressed a desire to change the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which recognized the coercive nature of Japan’s wartime sex slavery.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on May 7 said that Mr. Abe had no intention of revising the Kono statement. Mr. Abe told the Diet on May 14 that he will not alter Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 statement in which he apologized for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression in the Asia-Pacific region. But these efforts at damage control have not dispelled South Korea’s suspicions about the Abe administration’s intentions.
It is not enough for the Abe government to merely mouth the importance of building future-oriented relations between Japan and South Korea. If Tokyo fails to mend its ties with Seoul, it will harm cooperative efforts among Japan, the United States and South Korea to deal with North Korea.
China and South Korea share a common dissatisfaction with Japan over the issue of historical perception and territorial disputes. If they deepen their bilateral relationship, Japan’s position in Northeast Asia could suffer. The U.S., China and South Korea might also form a united front to deal with North Korea, excluding Japan.
Although a quick improvement in the overall situation cannot be expected, it is critical that the Abe administration show through concrete and clear-cut actions that it is serious about improving Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.