Japan-South Korea relations remain hostage to history


Political relationships in East Asia remain hostage to history, with historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with history weighing down ties even between America’s closest regional allies — Japan and South Korea. Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in a snap national election in December 2012, these two countries face a stark choice: find ways to stem the recrudescence of bitter disputes over history or stay locked in a frozen political relationship that plays into China’s hands.

Indeed, no country loves to play the history card more than China, as illustrated by its recent declaration of two new national days to remember Japanese aggression. Not content with the other days it has dedicated to remembrance of its long conflict with Japan, China designated Sept. 3 as “War against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” and Dec. 13 as Nanjing Massacre Day. But what if the victims of China’s aggression since 1949, such as Vietnam and India, dedicated days to commemorate Chinese attacks on them?

Although history is never an objective chronicle, it greatly shapes national narratives. In East Asia, the “history problem” has spurred a resurgence of competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms.

South Korean-Japanese and Chinese-Japanese disputes over territories, war memorials, textbooks and natural-resource reserves are linked with history. Even the Chinese-Korean relationship carries the baggage of history, as underscored by China’s revisionist historical claim to the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, founded in the Tongge River basin of northern Korea. This claim prompted U.S. Senate Republican staff members to warn in a December 2012 report that Beijing “may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean Peninsula.”

The squabbles over history and remembrance, besides reinforcing negative stereotyping of rival nations and helping to rationalize claims to territories long held by other states, remain the principal obstacle to political reconciliation in Asia. Attempts to rewrite or sugarcoat history, including by revising textbooks or erecting memorials for newfound heroes, promote greater interstate rancor and recrimination.

Nothing better illustrates history as a barrier to improved regional politics than the Japan-South Korea relationship. As vibrant democracies and export-oriented powerhouses with traditionally close cultural linkages, the two share many values. But resurgent history issues have brought their political ties under strain, frustrating the efforts of U.S. President Barack Obama to promote greater strategic cooperation between them so as to enhance the trilateral security alliance at a time when China has become assertive.

South Korea’s accusations of Japan’s historical denialism have some ring of truth. But it is also true that President Park Geun-hye, the 62-year-old daughter of the military general who served as South Korea’s dictator for 18 years until 1979, has sought to pander to nationalist sentiment at home by being tough on Japan, especially to play down her father’s collaboration with the Japanese military while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. Since coming to power in February 2013, she has not held a single formal meeting with Abe, insisting that Japan first address lingering issues over its annexation of Korea.

Abe last year refrained from visiting controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which for China and South Korea remains a symbol of Japan’s pre-World War II militarism. But in late 2013 — after Beijing aggressively established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) usurping international airspace over the East China Sea and covering islands it claims but does not control — Abe inflamed nationalistic passions in China and South Korea by praying at the shrine.

A century-old case of a Korean activist, Ahn Jung-geun, illustrates how South Korea and Japan view history in diametrically opposite terms. A terrorist for Japan (which hanged him) but a hero for South Korea, Ahn assassinated Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, in 1909 at the Harbin city railway station in China. Years ago, South Korea put Ahn on a 200-won postage stamp, while Japan placed Ito on its 1,000-yen notes.

But the case has resurfaced with a vengeance since 2013 after Park asked Xi to honor the assassin. To drive a wedge between America’s two main Asian allies, Xi was quick to agree to Park’s request: he built a memorial eulogizing Ahn, prompting Japan to denounce China for glorifying a terrorist and propagating a “one-sided” view of history “not conducive to building peace and stability.” That memorial has been likened by some to building a statute in Dallas to John F. Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

South Korea has eliminated the last vestiges of Japanese colonial rule so as to exalt the Korean people’s past. But not all Asian states seek to obliterate their colonial past. India continues to transact much of its key government business from British-colonial-era edifices, while Taiwan — a former Japanese colony — also has a forbearing view of its imperial subjugation.

Many nations blend historical fact with myth. Harmful historical legacies, however, create impediments to making rational policy choices. According to Adm. Dennis C. Blair, a former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, “The history of Asia from the 1930s to about 1955 or so was not pretty in any way … I don’t think any country can have a monopoly on righteousness, or on guilt and shame.” He said “the attempt to hold a ‘we were right’ and ‘you were wrong’ sweepstakes is not going to help our children and grandchildren understand what happened there.”

Park has sought closer ties with China when South Korea’s natural regional partner is democratic Japan. Abe’s victory in a snap election last December places him on strong political ground to reach out to Park and find ways to put history behind them through a grand bargain — Japan more clearly expressing its regret and remorse over its militaristic past and South Korea agreeing not to rake up historical grievances.

Japan and South Korea can learn how France and Germany have put their past behind them to forge peace and reconciliation. The two Asian neighbors cannot change their past but they can strive to shape a more cooperative future.

Brahma Chellaney, a regular contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist.

  • Yosemite_Steve

    It’s rather unfortunate for the author’s credibility that he persists in the canard that China was the aggressor in the 1962 Sino-Indo war over Aksai Chin. The Indian government’s Henderson Brooks report leaked in 2014 made it quite clear that Aussie journalist and scholar had it quite right in his definitive book, India’s China War published in 1970, that it was the Indian army which blundered into very aggressive positions, provoking the Chinese into attacking them and sent them packing with their tails between their legs. The author’s stance on this shows in spades that nationalists are blind to their own country’s faults, no matter what nationality.

    • nupuramail blog

      Chinese forces had an open route to plains of India ? But chinese communits had not stolen technology then, to supply deep inside India. The truth is that since communism was imposed on China, Chinese had become murderous and expansionist. They proliferated nukes. Only last year they tried to settle issues using military.

      Nehru , an idiot, failed to recognize the aggressiveness in china with his hindi-chini bhai bhai.

    • nupuramail blog

      The Chinese were militarily active since 1959, that is about a decade after incorporating tibet into china, they had invaded into Indian territory. Nehru had a lot of faith on Chinese behavior instead of military planning, when Indians planned for the border patrols in 1960.

      This was the time when chinese communist party remained silent when 10 of millions of chinese died of famine.

      China won, Nehru realized he had misplaced faith. He never recovered. China was aggressor – Tibet was colonized for maoists, long accepted borders were violated militarily.

      • Mishmael

        Your Indian nationalism is transparently obnoxious and unconvincing to non-believers.

      • nupuramail blog

        May be you see what you want to see. So nice.

  • Richard Solomon

    BOTH Park and Abe have to stop pandering to their right wing nationalists if they are to begin to reduce the rancor between their governments and people. Each will encounter significant flak for being ‘soft’ on the other. But strong, effective leaders can overcome these challenges if/when they make a concerted effort at rapproachment. It will take time and energy to do this. But there are more advantages to both countries in coming together in order to deal more effectively with China and N Korea than there is in maintaining the status quo of a frozen relationship.

    • Yosemite_Steve

      I could not agree more. Unfortunately I don’t see it happening. I don’t know about Park, but it’s obvious that Abe is quite committed to the right wing ideology himself. There simply is no teaching these guys to give Japan’s future interests top priority and it’s tragic. So much potential for statesmanship goes for naught and the consequences could be far reaching. In that regard this article is very, very valid and maybe I should not have nit-picked on a somewhat small point of disagreement.

      The problem is that the right wingers are too deep into the Japanese power structure, militarists at all levels kept their careers in Japan after the war and remain unrepentant to this day.

    • Mishmael

      People in the West and their Indian cheerleaders do not seem able to understand that “shared democratic values” do not trump everything before them. Koreans do not automatically look to Japan to “deal with” North Korea and China. They also look the other way to deal with Japan.

  • Elvis

    I’ve read this author’s posts before and he is definitely hard core anti-China. First of all like Yosemite_Steve said research has documented how the Sino-Indian War was one in which India was at fault. They decided to take advantage of perceived Chinese weakness an occupied positions on disputed terrain, and were unprepared to defend those territories once they made their move. China in turn launched a brilliant operation to dislodge the Indian forces and once that was done, rather than occupy the won territory or occupy those positions, the Chinese withdrew to their old positions. Not the actions of an aggressor.

    Second, Abe is a right-wing idealogue obsessed with restoring Japan’s military power and right-wing culture/politics. He is only focused on the economy right now to give him time to make the changes in foreign policy and to the constitution that he attempted to make the 1st time. This is a man whom in his heart of hearts denies Japanese culpability for the war in the Pacific or its attempted conquest of China, & denies atrocities such as Nanjing and the sex slaves. He belongs to an element in Japan that believes Japan is the rightful hegemon in the Far East (after the US of course, in other words junior partner – though before 1945 believed Japan was the only hegemon in Far East), believes Japanese culture is superior to its neighbors, & Japanese race superior to the other Far Eastern peoples.

    Not true of course, since for most of the last 3000 years the hegemon in the Far East (first in China proper, then in East Asia, and finally in all of the Far East) was the Chinese civilization – Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Jin, Sui, Tang, & Ming dynasties or the “barbarian” dynasties which ruled over the Chinese state – Qing and Yuan. China was also the center of technology & industry in the Far East, and a world leader from the time of the Greeks to the time of the Mughals. Japanese civilization borrowed heavily from China, making them cousins – while Korean & Vietnamese civilizations which borrowed even more from China are like siblings.

    As for Korea, of course Park has to use Korean nationalism against Japan. She has too much baggage from her collaborationist father to do otherwise, especially since anti-Japanese nationalism is so deep and widespread in early 21st century South Korea. If someone else than Abe was in power, she could probably tone it down but Abe is to right-wing & obsessed with revising history, and horribly tone deaf. On top of that the South Koreans look more favorably on China than they do on Japan, South Korean corporations have more extensive ties to China than Japan (they are one of the top investors in China), the history of relations between China & Korea is far less traumatic than Korea’s history with Japan (in fact Chinese aided Koreans against Japanese – x3 in last 500 years), & Park has personal relationship with Xi.

  • Mark Garrett

    What an insensitive and inappropriate headline as a country sits on pins and needles while an ACTUAL hostage situation plays out. Does JT have editors??

  • boonteetan

    Somehow there are leaders and journalists in Japan who either choose to pretend they have been weak in history or simply twist historical facts, thus making false allegations on China and South Korea all along. To ignore history is to deny history, as such, one’s assertion would not hold water, nothing but pure speculation nearing nonsense.

  • 단군 – 하나의 한국! [1]

    Lend Me Your Ear, Creation; 단군!
    Tale of Three Kingdoms; Samguk Yusa
    Silla, Paekche, Koguryo
    History speaks Truth.
    하나의 한국!

    Nine-Hundred Invasions,
    Wars, endured, barbarians at the door.
    Admiral Yi and Turtle Ships
    symbols adored.
    하나의 한국!

    Oh Moderns, do you not know?
    Russian histories Truth do tell
    What you call Manchuria
    Koreans settled, Korea Old
    하나의 한국!

    King Sejong, learning, thought, culture;
    Queen Min murdered, from Japan they came
    colonialism’s atrocities, history’s assassins, Shinzo Abe tries to hide
    Truth by quill of 264 never to be killed
    하나의 한국!

    FDR, Stalin, Truman and Mao
    Moral Authority Korea for spoils?
    Progressive Globalist policy to divide
    philosophy ne’er let Koreans decide.
    하나의 한국!

    Powers come and go
    Korea bold and strong she grows
    The Secret of The Land
    Her People have never told
    하나의 한국!

    Her great beauty, riches
    does not lay in gold
    invaders can never hold
    watch them go home old and cold
    하나의 한국!

    Moderns of The West Infect
    against this evil stand, protect
    Society they will dissect
    hear The Spirit plea
    하나의 한국!

    모더니즘의 엄청난 거짓말 : 남북한.

    역사의 위대한 진리 : 하나의 한국!



    ©Knights O’ Quill 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to ©Knights O’ Quill 2014-2015 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

  • wangkon936

    “That memorial has been likened by some to building a statute in Dallas to John F. Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.”

    Terrible, terrible analogy. Lee Harvey Oswald just wanted attention whereas Ahn wrote a cogent document indicating that he thought Ito was giving the Japanese emperor bad advice about pan Asian diplomacy and cooperation. His assassination was an attempt to get out a larger political message, not an assassination for purely personal ego gains.

  • wangkon936

    “Japan and South Korea can learn how France and Germany have put their past behind them to forge peace and reconciliation.”

    The problem here is that Asia doesn’t have a country like France to help counterbalance Germany within the context of larger European continent-wide politics. Also, Japan has not been anywhere near Germany when it comes do denouncing its past, making amends or creating a diplomatic gateway for reconciliation. For example, Japan hasn’t had anything like “Ostpolitik,” the diplomatic vehicle that Germany has worked for decades to get closer to Eastern Europe, paving the way to its peaceful reunification later in the 20th century and normalizing relations with nations it share borders with to the east.

    People who say that China and Korea should get along with Japan like the Europeans get along with the Germans generally know nothing of the history of post WWII Europe and the decades of proactive efforts that (West) Germany went through to make amends with its neighbors.

  • NoBodyToBlame

    Japan is the progressive and civilized country which banned child pornography possession way back in… 2014. Hard to imagine that the people who invented kamikaze 70 years before AlQaida would have mistreated women in its colonies or captured prisoners of war. Comfort women and Nanking never happened! Lol.