[OUTLOOK]‘Second-best’ deal with Japan

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[OUTLOOK]‘Second-best’ deal with Japan

The Korean government has made public all the classified diplomatic documents related to the controversial 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Korea and Japan. The disclosure is welcome because it has completed the basic conditions to give a more objective evaluation of the treaty that normalized bilateral ties between the two nations.
Having participated in the process of reviewing the 35,000 pages of documents for the disclosure as a civilian member of the assessment committee, I have come to think that I could not agree to condemn the Seoul-Tokyo treaty as a humiliating bargain or a treacherous one. Instead, I believe that the Park Chung Hee administration deserves credit for struggling and making strenuous efforts against the formidable Japanese government under unfavorable circumstances, and for having achieved the second best outcome, if not the best, as a result.
A balanced interpretation and fair evaluation of the normalization treaty needs to be premised on an accurate understanding of the historic circumstances of the time. First, the origin of the 1965 treaty was the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan in 1951. The arduous efforts of the Korean government to acquire the status of a victorious nation ultimately failed.
As a result, the initial plan to demand enormous compensation and indemnity from Japan had to be changed. As Korea was excluded from the nations eligible for reparations from Japan designated by Article 14 of the treaty, the post-war settlement between Korea and Japan had to be handled within the boundaries of the property claims defined by Article 4. This point restricted Seoul’s negotiating edge throughout the talks with Tokyo.
Second, we need to take into account the differences in national power between Korea and Japan at the time. Diplomacy is a relative game played against another party. In terms of economic strength, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the mid-1960s, with a per capita national income of less than $100. Japan had already become the second largest economy in the world.
Moreover, Korea was a newly formed republic established on the devastation of colonial rule and a war, while Japan was a powerful country with a solid bureaucratic system that had been organized and maintained since the Meiji Restoration. Under these circumstances, Tokyo used a strategy of completely blocking Seoul’s demands for compensation with arguments based on evidence and the law.
Under the given conditions, the Korean government had waged a diplomatic war against Japan for 14 years. The Park Chung Hee administration wished to pursue a settlement of the colonial past, acquisition of a development fund and a guarantee of national security through a bond among Korea, Japan and the United States in the negotiations with Tokyo.
Among the three targets, the Korean government had made a strategic choice of giving the utmost priority to economic and security interests. In order to get out of the poverty and security crisis, the Park Chung Hee administration judged that introducing development funds from Japan by establishing diplomatic ties with Japan and solidifying the security pledge with the United States were the most urgent tasks for the national interest.
In contrast to the Southeast Asian nations, which had received war reparations in the 1950s but failed to utilize them for economic development, the Park Chung Hee administration’s strategic choice acted as an engine for the rapid economic development of the country.
However, in the process of pursuing economic and security interests as priorities, the task of clarifying the historical issues was relatively neglected, and it can be pointed to as the biggest fault of the Korea-Japan treaty.
The unsettled issues from colonial rule, such as compensation for the victims who were forced into hard labor and comfort women, still are the biggest obstacles in the relations between the two nations. Considering the historical circumstances, it is desirable that the remedies for the victims of colonial rule be considered domestically.
I have to point out that the Japanese government is as much accountable as the Korean government, especially for the unsettled legacy of colonial rule. Therefore, the Japanese government should not adhere to the rhetoric of international laws or formalities, but cooperate in the effort to accomplish a historic reconciliation with Korea by making active efforts to resolve the unsettled issues of the past, such as compensation for the comfort women.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at Kookmin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Won-deog
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