The German-French lesson

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The German-French lesson

Japan’s Foreign Ministry, despite its expressed desire to try to resolve Korea-Japan tenseness, recently posted a YouTube video restating its claim to Dokdo, a classic example of the Abe administration’s unwillingness to genuinely improve bilateral relations. Whenever Japan acts unreasonably, we wonder why Japan is not like Germany. Can German-French reconciliation be a model for better ties between the two countries?

France, a victorious nation after World War II — along with the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union — controlled a part of Germany. The key of France’s occupation policy was to make sure Germany would never rise again as a military superpower. Konrad Adenauer, who became West Germany’s chancellor in 1949, believed that without addressing the French fear of Germany, Germany would never be able to have a voice in the European community.

Adenauer made France’s policy the basis of West Germany’s diplomacy. He accepted the autonomy of the Saar region, a key area of coal and manufacturing industries, and the establishment of an international authority for the nearby Ruhr region. He declared he would not promote German reunification, which the French feared for some time, and that Germany would give up its ambition to control Central Europe. It was a remarkable shift from “Germany’s Europe” to “Europe’s Germany.”

France changed its view of Germany — at least toward West Germany — and the European Coal and Steel Community was launched in 1952 based on a blueprint by Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, and a proposal by French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. It was an epochal project led by France to build trust. From the negotiation process on, the European Coal and Steel Community recognized West Germany’s sovereignty and equality. Until the 1960s, West Germany offered lukewarm apologies for Nazi Germany’s crimes, while the conservatives — as in today’s Japan — denied Germany’s past and glorified it. Against such an inauspicious backdrop, it was notable that Adenauer promoted an audacious reconciliation policy with France.

Whenever political leaders of Germany apologized for Nazi Germany’s atrocities against its European neighbors and the Holocaust, strong reactions came from the conservatives and nationalists. In her book, “Sorry States,” American political scientist Jennifer Lind described a similar backlash toward apologies in the Korea-Japan relations. After Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and Emperor Akihito offered apologies to Korea in the 1990s, other prime ministers issued statements of repentance and apology. Every time, a backlash from the conservatives and the rightists was felt. While West Germany’s cycle of apology and backlash were one step forward, one step back, Japan’s cycle was more like one step forward, two steps back. That is the biggest difference between Germany and Japan. With the nationalistic Abe government in power, there is actually no stepping forward. It is only bringing Japan back into the past.

The foundation of any society goes through times of conflict and usually a basis for reconciliation is found. Without such conflicts and resolutions in the society itself, agreements and reconciliations between governments and their leaders fail be a sustainable phenomenon. The Murayama statement in 1995 and the Joint Declaration between President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1998 were the best diplomatic outcomes for their times. But such outstanding achievements invited yet stronger backlashes from the nationalists and right-wing groups in Japan, and with Korea’s responses, the Korea-Japan relationship went steadily downhill.

Toward Germany’s reconciliation policy, France showed two responses. One was promoting civil exchanges to build an infrastructure of reconciliation between the two countries. Another was keeping a check on Germany through multilateral organizations such as the European Coal and Steel Community, European Economic Community, NATO and eventually the European Union. A key element in the 1963 Elysee Treaty, established by Charles de Gaulle of France and Adenauer of Germany, was to build a wider basis for reconciliation through massive student exchanges, summer language camps and sister city programs.

Korea’s Japan policy should also change its focus from constantly demanding an apology to changing Japan’s civil society. Instead of responding to every ludicrous remark by a few knuckleheaded Japanese politicians, Korea should promote large-scale student exchanges, language camps around the two countries during summer vacations and create friendships between hundreds of sister cities to run diverse exchanges and cooperation programs by local governments. The changes that come from such interactions may be slow, but they will be deep and effective.

If we wait for diplomats and politicians to improve the Korea-Japan relationship we might as well be waiting for pigs to fly. The government’s job is to restore the basic functions of a bilateral relationship and create a security cooperation system such as military information exchanges. That is the geopolitical call of Northeast Asia. Within a multilateral framework, the best way forward would be free trade agreements between Korea, Japan and other partners. A Korea-Japan-China free trade accord in particular would be the most effective tool to promote the interdependence of the three nations in Northeast Asia. Adenauer was imprisoned twice for being against the Nazis, while de Gaulle led an anti-Nazi resistance group. Unless we have excellent leaders with such strong moral authority, Korea and Japan have no choice but to rely on the multilateral framework and changes in our social bases.
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