[Viewpoint] Four lessons of history

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[Viewpoint] Four lessons of history

Anyone in the United States who studies Asia has been watching with great interest the escalating historical dispute between Korea and Japan. Some pass off this friction over Dokdo or comfort women as emotional issues and do not consider them very carefully beyond that. On the contrary, these are very serious issues. My first major research project, a book, was about relations between Korea and Japan. This is what I have learned over 20 years of studying the bilateral relationship.

First, historical animosity between Korea and Japan will never die. Historical issues are inherently irresolvable. Some would retort that Germany successfully resolved its historical issues, and this is somewhat true, but ask any European how they really feel about Germany. There is still a deep reservoir of distrust there. In the case of Korea and Japan, there have been temporary solutions sought through treaties (like the 1965 normalization treaty) or other agreements, but the anger and resentment never go away. As analysts and as policy makers, we have to accept the reality that historical enmity constitutes the baseline of Seoul-Tokyo relations.

Second, the true metric of the Korea-Japan relationship is therefore not the level of animosity, but the degree to which this animosity can actually hinder pragmatic cooperation. Bring a group of people together, and they can behave emotionally and angrily like a mob. But bring a government together, and it will behave rationally and in its national interest rather than succumb to the same mob mentality. Thus, pragmatic policy cooperation cannot render history irrelevant, but it can demonstrate that decision-makers are able to work together in spite of it.

The third and most important lesson of history is this: because history is irresolvable, the worst thing that could be done politically is for either party to try to change the status quo when it comes to specific historical disputes.

In other words, both sides can complain incessantly about historical issues, but when one side tries to “win” by creating new precedents, this creates a downward spiral in relations that has no positive outcome whatsoever.

These three points give us some context in analyzing the recent events. History is clearly still very much alive between Koreans and Japanese. And there certainly has been a great deal of negative histrionics with Prime Minister Noda referring to President Lee’s visit to Dokdo as an “illegal landing,” and the Korean foreign ministry rejecting a letter of protest from Japan.

But to me, what is worse are the attempts by both sides recently to change the status quo. There is a sort of equilibrium in Korea-Japan relations that cycles through every year. There are Japan’s defense white papers, the education ministry’s textbook guidelines and occasional insensitive statements by politicians that create anger and protests from the Korean side. These protests grab the headlines for a week or two, but generally, the equilibrium is restored after that, and until the next spat.

But the recent events have disrupted the equilibrium in a more permanent way. On the Korean side, President Lee’s visit to Dokdo constitutes an attempt to change the historical status quo. The visit may seem completely reasonable from a Korean perspective, but it also set a new bar for every future Korean leader. Because from this day forward, it obligates the next Korean president, and ones to follow, to ratchet up tensions by making a similar trip. Choosing not to make such a trip is certainly an option, but it would open the leader up to criticisms from the political opposition or others or as “unpatriotic.”

On the Japanese side, the Diet resolution harshly criticizing President Lee’s trip also sets a new precedent. There has not been a joint resolution of this kind against Korea in nearly 60 years. Again, this may seem completely reasonable from Japanese perspectives, but it is terribly unhealthy for political relations between Seoul and Tokyo, because future legislatures will now be expected to take similar extensive measures in response to any future spat. Similarly, the recent efforts by Japanese government officials to lobby local American politicians to block the erection of comfort women monuments in U.S. localities also sets an entirely new precedent that is bad for Seoul-Tokyo as well as Tokyo-Washington relations.

The next metric to watch in terms of how much worse relations could get is Japan’s decision on whether it will renew a currency swap agreement due to expire at the end of October. There is also a pending Japanese decision about whether it will continue with a scheduled purchase of Korean government bonds.

Why is this happening now? Clearly, domestic political cycles have something to do with it. In Japan’s case, a terribly unpopular Prime Minister Noda has an eye to possible elections in September. And in Korea, an unpopular lame duck president loses nothing by being tough on Japan. But the current dispute has deeper drivers than politics. In some sense it is a reflection of changing geopolitical trends. Japan, a power in danger of falling into second-tier status in the world, clings even more tightly to these nationalist symbols as a way to assert itself. Korea, a country that is now playing on a global stage more so than Japan, has no patience for Japanese anachronisms.

Unfortunately, there is no solution in sight. The fourth lesson of history I learned from my research is that historical animosity can only be addressed when it is considered politically legitimate in both countries to do so. Political leaders must internalize historical reconciliation as a positive metric of domestic legitimacy. That was the case in Germany. But it is not the case here. There is no domestic legitimacy accorded to any Japanese politician who wants to repent for the past. And there is no domestic legitimacy accorded to any Korean politician who wants to accept such an apology if it were to be given.

* The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser and Korea chair at CSIS in Washington.

by Victor Cha
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