Celebrating 50 years of antipathy, recriminations


Special To The Japan Times

On March 1, South Korean President Park Geun-hye renewed her call for Japan to come clean on its colonial and wartime atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of women. Her speech was delivered on the anniversary of the anti-Japanese uprising by Koreans in 1919 and in a year when South Koreans will celebrate the 70th anniversary of their liberation from colonial rule and quietly mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

It was not until two decades after the end of Japan’s colonial rule that the U.S. brokered normalization between South Korea and Japan in 1965. Given Seoul’s precarious position facing a hostile North Korea and its dependence on the U.S. for military support, it was not in a position to resist Washington’s pressures to strike a deal. The Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea required Tokyo to provide grants and soft loans worth $800 million as quasi-reparations, with Seoul agreeing to make no further claims for compensation. Problematically, while the joint communique noted the “regrets” (ikan) and “deep remorse” (fukaku hansei) expressed by the Japanese side, it was not accompanied by any specific mea culpa by the Japanese, and no reconciliation initiatives. It is not surprising that this unpromising start has not led to a warming of relations.

Normalization planted a time bomb that exploded in 2005 when the South Korean government released 1,200 pages of documents related to the negotiations. It emerged that Japan offered to directly compensate the 1.03 million Koreans conscripted for labor and military service during the colonial era, but Seoul demanded that it be paid the redress and took responsibility for distributing the compensation. The reports infuriated South Koreans because their government distributed very little money to the victims or their surviving families, diverting it mostly to infrastructure and heavy industrial projects. This led to demands that the South Korean government provide compensation as stipulated in the agreement. Ironically, Seoul echoed Tokyo’s position on redress, one usually castigated by South Koreans: that all issues of compensation have been resolved. It is in this context that the South Korean government’s angry denunciations of Japanese textbooks in 2005 seemed like a diversionary tactic.

Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman ruffled feathers with her remarks at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Of course, nationalist feelings can still be exploited,” Sherman said, “and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress. To move ahead, we have to see beyond what was to envision what might be. And in thinking about the possibilities, we don’t have to look far for a cautionary tale of a country that has allowed itself to be trapped by its own history.”

There has been speculation that her remarks were aimed at Seoul and that they played a role in the recent attack on Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, infuriating the attacker because she seemed to be leaning toward Tokyo in the history wars. Sherman’s remarks are accurate, as South Korean leaders have a track record of eliciting cheap applause by vilifying Japan, especially when their popularity is sagging as it usually does. There is, of course, much to vilify and Japan has not really taken the measure of the indignities and suffering it inflicted. When Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a powerful apology in 2010 about the traumas of colonial oppression, the media sought Shinzo Abe’s opinion and he dismissed Kan’s remarks as “stupid.” This is the usual pattern with Japanese apologies — scarcely uttered before they are swiftly undermined.

And so relations between these “frenemies” remain fraught, exasperating Washington wonks that fervently wish the whole history problem would vanish so these valued allies could enhance security cooperation.

Park understands that domestic business leaders and officials are concerned that she has been overplaying her hand on history in ways that are harming U.S. relations. There are also anxieties about China’s growing influence over South Korea, but even if there are good strategic reasons for Park to take a less confrontational stance on history, it’s hard to imagine the two countries as “Seoul-mates” because neither side can concede enough on the shared past to placate the other.

The impasse over history is thus not just a symptom of the underlying problem in bilateral relations, as Dartmouth’s Jennifer Lind recently argued in Foreign Affairs, but rather remains the crucial reason why the two nations remain at loggerheads. Colonial intervention and subjugation for four decades gives South Korea the unassailable moral high ground and the narrative of victimization is both powerfully appealing and intrinsic to a national identity based on anti-Japanese nationalism. History has become ever more politicized in South Korean democracy and cutting the Gordian knot will take much more than courageous leadership. Paradoxically, as the tragedies that divide recede further into the past, they have actually become more embedded in national consciousness and identity and less negotiable due to electoral politics.

The 1965 normalization was possible under a South Korean authoritarian government that could ignore or quell public opinion, but democracy has heated up the history wars. Even Osaka-born President Lee Myung-bak, arguably the most pro-Japanese South Korean leader since Park Chung-hee, resorted to playing the history card and staged a provocative landing on the disputed islets that South Korea calls Dokdo and Japan insists are Takeshima.

Recently, the Foreign Ministry changed its description of South Korea by deleting text affirming the two nations shared values of democracy, respect for human rights and a market economy, apparently out of pique over the trial of a Japanese journalist who is blocked from leaving the country. The website retains its description of South Korea as Japan’s “most important neighboring country,” a backhanded compliment given the competition in Pyongyang.

One sign of perpetrator’s fatigue in Japan is the Foreign Ministry’s website entry blaming the 2011 decision by the South Korean Constitutional Court for reigniting the “comfort women” controversy. The court ruled that Seoul was violating the constitutional rights of these women by not helping press their claims against Tokyo. University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden notes that the context of the comfort women controversy is missing and the Foreign Ministry’s selective narrative relies on the “entire absence of any other piece of the picture such as the Kono statement or the Asian Women’s Fund … it is the logic of blame the victim for the crime pure and simple.” Certainly Tokyo is weary of being relentlessly hammered on the anvil of history, but Abe and other revisionists aren’t helping matters.

Clearly, the shackles of the past hang heavily on both nations. Thus there is little to celebrate in this half-centennial of normalization because the “persistent normal” remains prickly rancor and bitter recriminations.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Professor Kingston’s analysis is stressing facts that do not completely conform with the realities on the ground.

    The normalization of relations occurred because of the confluence of interests among Korea, Japan, and the United States. In Korea, Park Chung-hee needed to further legitimize his rule through an ambitious industrial blueprint which the Americans, in typical fashion, thought wildly ambitious and would not support. Park also thought the most useful model was the Meiji Restoration (the Yushin constitution that Park would adopt as he turned further towards dictatorship is exactly the same word as “restoration” in Japanese).

    In Japan, Kishi Nobosuke (although kicked out of office, he was a major power behind the office still) was quite taken with Park’s admiration of Japan. Moreover, the situation on the Peninsula was not the same as it is today, and the possibility of all Korea turning “red” was on the minds of Japanese leaders — red flag over Pusan was their fear. So the Japanese also wanted to deal to buttress Korea.

    The Americans for their part wanted to show that their young president was up to the task of dealing with communism, even as their attention was being diverted to Southeast Asia. (Kingston’s thesis that American pressure was the main driver is mostly inaccurate, although people still believe that the Americans are key — tell that tale today in the Middle East.)

    As for the normalization terms themselves. Park wanted capital for his initiatives. The Japanese were all too ready to couch their money in terms of “development assistance” instead of “reparations” because then — and now, too — lots of Japanese did not want an explicit acknowledgement of responsibility for the annexation of Joseon. This was a brilliant diplomatic solution, but the legacy of that vagueness of what was settled and unsettled remains to this day. Lots was settled, but Japan, for example still flirts with the notion of having its own relationship with the North rather than coming out explicitly against the Kim regime. Of course, the Koreans do not necessarily want the Japanese as explicit allies either.

    Professor Kingston’s analysis also misses the point that there have been long periods of time in which the relationship has been fine and dandy, and that this particular period now coincides with Korea in a stage in which national consciousness is increasing as it rises (and challenged by stagnation) in the geopolitical world (China is not the only rising power, and the China factor is huge although separate from the Korean view of history — something that Japanese rightists do not want to get) and with a Japanese leadership that is explicitly drawn to revisionism to “restore Japan’s honor.”

    Even in this time frame, Park Geun-hye has toned down her rhetoric from her first March 1 speech, this time calling Japan a close neighbor with shared values, ironically echoing the same language that Japan stripped from its MOFA website to describe Korea — talking past each other. Moreover, it has been Korea that has taken the lead to get trilateral initiatives back into play, with an explicit attempt to use that as a bridge to having a bilateral with Abe Shinzo.

    Abe Shinzo for his part is attempting to do his part to cement his relationship with the Americans but he understands that revisionism can undermine that too regardless of how much he wants to buttress America’s military presence in Asia. For that he needs to do the needful to repair relations with Seoul.

    Actually, judging from the trilateral Foreign Ministers meeting that just took place, things are not as gloomy as one would think. The trilateral leaders meeting in Seoul (and the bilateral Park-Abe summit) will take place “at the earliest convenient time” which is diplomatese for “after the Chinese and the Koreans have a chance to see what the Abe Statement says.” Moreover, the three ministers agreed to pursue cooperation, inter alia, in a spirit of facing history squarely — an explicit demand by Park and Xi that the Japanese are now committed to doing and a hint that Abe is going to moderate his revisionism. This is not a perfect path, but much better than Professor Kingston is portraying in his piece.

    • Richard Solomon

      Per this analysis, much, if not all, will depend on Abe ‘moderating his revisionism.’ How likely is that?!? As the expression goes, ‘the chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none. Slim left town.’. I hope Abe can/do what is needed. But I remain skeptical.

  • Richard Solomon

    I did not know that Japan offered to pay victims directly in 1965. Interesting and very important that S Korea refused and used the funds to finance other projects.