The relationship between Japan and South Korea seems hardly mature 50 years after the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. Along with troubled governmental ties that have not seen a formal summit between the two countries’ top leaders in four years, opinion surveys indicate that mutual public distrust between the close neighbors have reached historic highs. The lack of any jointly organized event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty on Monday amply illustrates the chilly state of bilateral ties.
Over the years the two countries have had disagreements over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea as well as a bitter territorial dispute. But more troubling is the apparent lack of willingness on the part of both governments today to either resolve or set aside their differences and place priority on moving the relationship forward. Both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye should feel a sense of crisis over the state of bilateral relations and explore opportunities for holding top-level talks to break the ice.
Japan-South Korea ties turned sharply tense after Park’s predecessor President Lee Myun-bak visited Takeshima — a set of isles on the Sea of Japan that South Korea controls and calls Dokdo — in August 2012. Abe took office in late 2012 and Park the following year, but the two leaders have not held a formal one-on-one summit. Momentum for holding Abe-Park talks did not build even after U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2014 organized a trilateral meeting in the Hague out of concern over the troubled ties between the United States’ two key Asian allies.
Abe has reiterated that his administration keeps the door open for dialogue with Seoul, but it does not seem ready to make any overtures for improving the soured ties. Park, for her part, called for progress on the issue of “comfort women” — the mostly Asian women, including large numbers of Koreans, who were forced into frontline brothels for the Japanese military before and during World War II — as a condition for agreeing to hold a summit with Abe.
As the lack of communication between the two leaders continues, a rise in nationalist sentiments on each side is further eroding mutual trust. In a recent survey jointly taken by the Asahi Shimbun and Dong-A Ilbo, a majority of people in both countries said the image of the other side has worsened over the past five years. A joint Yomiuri Shimbun-Hankook Ilbo poll showed that 73 percent of the Japanese pollees and 85 percent of the South Korean pollees say they cannot trust the other side, with more than 80 percent of pollees in both countries viewing the state of the bilateral relationship as the worst ever. The breakdown of top-level dialogue is clearly unhealthy for the close neighbors, whose mutual visitors number more than 5 million a year today compared with roughly 10,000 when ties were normalized a half century ago.
There are signs of a thaw. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se agreed Sunday in Tokyo that the two governments would cooperate in putting both Japan’s Meiji Era industrial sites and South Korea’s historic sites from the ancient kingdom of Baekje on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Earlier, Seoul had campaigned against putting the Japanese industrial sites on the UNESCO list on the grounds that several of the candidate sites have a history of using wartime forced laborers from Korea.
During the first visit to Japan by South Korea’s top diplomat in four years, Yun also concurred with Kishida to strive to set the environment for an Abe-Park summit by the end of the year. In his talks with Yun on Monday, Abe said he hopes to work with Park to improve bilateral relations for the next 50 years. In the evening, Abe and Park each attended a commemorative ceremony organized by the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, respectively.
The differences between the two countries over the past persist 70 years after Japan’s colonial rule ended and half a century after they concluded the treaty to normalize their diplomatic ties. It would be too optimistic to hope that an Abe-Park summit would resolve all the history-related disputes — such differences cannot be settled merely by one party making concessions to the other. What matters is the willingness on both sides to endeavor to tackle the thorny issues in earnest and move bilateral ties forward.
There are disturbing views that Japan and South Korea may no longer need each other as much as they used to. Park has repeatedly appeared to take a joint stand with China — South Korea’s largest trading partner — on issues relating to Japan’s wartime aggression and colonial rule in Asia. Tokyo and Seoul should realize that they need to work more closely than ever — along with Washington — to respond to common challenges in East Asia’s rapidly changing economic and security landscape.
The top leaders in Japan and South Korea are urged to take steps to put “future-oriented” ties — a phrase frequently used by both governments — into action.