Can’t we get along?A quarter of a century has passed since the Iron Curtain was lifted and the Cold War came to an end, ushering in a new phase of history. Many expected a new direction in the course of history, or to use a phrase from 25 years ago, a “new world order.” Events unfolding in Northeast Asia suggest that history may be repeating itself.
The history of Northeast Asia was put on hold, or paused, during the Cold War. The play button was pushed after the tensions of the Cold War dissipated. South Korea and Japan struck up a new partnership and leaders of South Korea, China and Japan met regularly, raising hopes of a common chord among three countries interlinked and dogged by historical tragedy, animosity and rivalry.
But the chapter titled “Reciprocity and Amity” suddenly came to an end due to the rapid rise of China and Japan’s decisive shift to the right.
Korea-Japan relations are swept up in a new historical current. Japan is moving toward reinterpreting its pacifist Constitution and policies about self-defense. There were confrontations during the Cold War, but they were shoved aside by the more urgent need for a joint security alliance. Japan also demonstrated a modicum of decency to make amends for its past wrongdoings and establish a more sincere peace with its neighbors. Japan tried to atone for its military aggression and colonization and prove its maturity as a country that prides itself as a regional frontrunner in modernization, according to an account by a Japanese scholar. For a while, at least.
That sensibility, however, is hard to discern in the attitude and actions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his generation. Memories of war have faded, and Japan can no longer claim any kind of superiority over South Korea or China in terms of modernization. Nationalists sarcastically say that their country is suffering from the envious bashing of the West when it was riding high, and ridicule over its “lost decade” of economic success following the bursting of its ridiculous asset bubble. Now it’s being shoved off the global stage due to the ascent of China. Abe and his gang wants to do some shoving back.
Washington recently signaled the go-head for Tokyo’s plan to lift a self-imposed ban on exercising “collective self-defense,” formally recognizing Japan as a more aggressive partner in security issues. The United States, which plays the middleman between its two allies South Korea and Japan, has lost its balance. Washington was offering a kind of immunity to Japan’s Abe government, despite it being less remorseful and repentant toward its past military aggressions than previous administrations. Repercussions on the security front have been huge. South Korea has been forced to choose sides between the new U.S.-Japan front and China. Korea is sandwiched between the big powers in both security and economic realms.
In our eyes, Japan is acting desperate. The Japanese leadership has shown the extraordinary trait of swinging from one extreme (militarism) to another (pacifism). Renowned social anthropologist Chie Nakane called Japan a vertical society without purpose or moral mission and advised against its ascent to the global stage. U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger struck a rapport with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in his secret visit to China in 1972 due to a shared distrust of Japan. “China by tradition has a universal outlook, but Japan has had a tribal outlook,” Kissinger told the Chinese leader.
An innate characteristic of Japan - total insensitivity toward others - is waxing. One Japanese scholar explained the reason behind Japan’s deep-seated inferiority complex vis a vis Americans. It is not because the Japanese are envious of U.S. economic or military might, but because of America’s amazing sense of balance and recovery amidst the extremities of liberalism and its former slavery system. Japan lacks such a dynamic ability to right itself.
President Park Geun-hye said a better perspective toward historical issues by Japan is essential to solving the so-called Asian Paradox, in which Asian nations are tied together by economic needs and pulled apart by historical animosities. Japanese politicians say a country is free to maintain its own view on history. Repeated disagreements and recycled conflicts have cemented frustration between South Koreans and the Japanese.
It has reached the point that the leadership on either side no longer cares about the gravity of the worsening bilateral ties. No one cares to break the ice. There are reports that Seoul and Tokyo will restart lower-level talks. But no substantial progress is possible at low levels. Only the leaders of the countries can solve the essential problem.
The leaders of Korea and Japan should start talking reason. Hastily patched-up ties for security reasons won’t do considering the geopolitical shift with China’s rise. Timing is crucial. The two leaders are still new in their jobs and enjoying high approval ratings. If they don’t step up soon, they may lose control over the snowballing nationalistic wave in both countries.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor emeritus of political science at Seoul National University.
By Chang Dal-joong