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.