Treaty that struggled to be born still confounds

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Treaty that struggled to be born still confounds


This is the first of a three-part series on the 1965 start of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan, which opened doors to economic, political and cultural cooperation while at the same time leaving major issues unresolved, such as Japan taking responsibility for a brutal colonial rule. The first part looks into the negotiating process leading up to the Korea-Japan Basic Relations Treaty signed on June 22, 1965 and the emotional climate of the times. The second part describes contrition and compensation issues that have arisen since 1965 - and which have gotten more intractable in the past few years. In part three, experts weigh in on the remaining tasks between Korea and Japan and how to resolve them.


President Park Chung Hee signs the treaty to normalize relations between Korea and Japan on Dec. 17, 1965, at the Blue House. Negotiations on the Treaty on the Basic Relations between Korea and Japan had been concluded earlier that year on June 22.[JoongAng Ilbo]

Fifty years ago, Korea and Japan signed a historic treaty to normalize relations after 14 years of grueling negotiations and distrust stemming from a painful history of colonization.

After seven rounds of talks under three Korean presidents, Seoul and Tokyo signed the Treaty on Basic Relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan on June 22, 1965, which normalized diplomatic and economic relations two decades after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule.

The treaty was signed in Tokyo by Korean Foreign Minister Lee Tong-won and his Japanese counterpart Foreign Minister Shiina Etsusaburo, under the governments of President Park Chung Hee and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.

It established diplomatic and consular relations and declared all treaties or agreements concluded between Korea and Japan on or before Aug. 22, 1910, to be “already null and void.”

Under the treaty signed on Aug. 22, 1910, Japan annexed Korea after making the country its protectorate in 1905, leading to decades of colonial rule through 1945.

Four additional agreements followed covering specific issues: fisheries; the status of Koreans residing in Japan; cultural matters; and property claims, economic cooperation and a mechanism for settlement of disputes.

The Korea-Japan Treaty took effect on Dec. 18, 1965, after the Korean National Assembly ratified the documents in August and the Japanese Diet earlier in December.

“Korea-Japan recovers normalized diplomatic relations: Treaty and other ratified documents exchanged today,” read the top headline of the Dec. 18, 1965 edition of the JoongAng Ilbo, then less than three months old.


Sub-headlines elaborated: “After 61 years, mutually beneficially equal relationship established,” and “14 years of negotiations concluded, now moving into a new era.”

Fifty years later, it is clear the two neighbors have made leaps and bounds in expanding economic ties, cultural and civilian exchanges and human understanding between the two countries, especially as each country pulled itself out of the rubble of war and became modern and prosperous. Yet, at the same time, enduring problems over history and territorial issues continue to plague Seoul and Tokyo diplomatically, even preventing any official meeting between the two leaders of the countries, Park Geun-hye and Shinzo Abe.

Some legal experts say there are aspects of the treaty that are flawed. But scholars point out that the opening of diplomatic relations with Japan was instrumental for Korea to industrialize and modernize, and cooperation between the two countries raised both of their profiles on the international stage. It does not clearly address the crucial question that continues to be raised in the 21st century: whether Japan’s government is legally responsible for its colonial rule of Korea.

During the negotiation process in the 1960s, Japan was strongly opposed to including language that apologized for colonial rule in the treaty.

The additional agreement called the “Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on the Economic Cooperation between the Republic of Korea and Japan,” does not clearly indicate any compensation for injuries and damages incurred to Korean individuals related to Japan’s colonial rule.


Instead, Article 1 of the agreement promises an economic cooperation fund to be given by Japan to the Korean government. Legal experts say that can be considered a political agreement based on the stipulations of the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 and an attempt to solve the financial and civil debt situation between the two countries.

Japan provided some $300 million in grants and $200 million in long-term and low-interest loans.

There does not appear to be any clear link from the amount specified in Article 1 to Article 2, in which Japan states that all “problems concerning property, rights, and interests” have been “settled completely and finally,” something that was left vague on purpose during negotiations. That leaves ambiguous whether Korean individuals have a right to file claims for damages incurred from colonial rule.

Some of the most tragic victims of colonial rule were discussed in the negotiations in the 1950s and 1960s, namely Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies, known as the conscripted laborers.


Thousands of university students demonstrate in downtown Seoul, protesting the secretive negotiations between Korea and Japan to normalize relations on June 3, 1964. [JoongAng Ilbo]

But other victims were not mentioned in the negotiations, including Koreans exposed to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ethnic Koreans forced to work in Sakhalin, Russia, and the so-called comfort women, Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The comfort women issue did not even become widely known until the early 1990s, when the victims finally came forward to detail their histories.

In the past, multiple Japanese officials have said claims of individuals are separate from that of a nation seeking restitution from another state for violating the rights of its citizens. But Japan’s position shifted in the 1990s as more individual claims came forward.

“While the agreement does stipulate that no claims shall be made ‘with respect to the measures relating to the property, rights, and interests,’ that limits the scope of the argument that all claims, including individual ones, have been settled,” said legal expert on Northeast Asia affairs Doh See-hwan, the director of planning at the International Law Association.

“There are remaining tasks because nowhere does the agreement describe that economic cooperation fund as the cost of Japan’s 35 years of colonial rule over Korea.”

Rocky negotiation process

The Chosun Ilbo published a headline on its front page on June 22, 1965, that read, “The eve of signing the Korea-Japan agreement: Opposition party prepares the greatest struggle, issues a warning statement to Japan.”

Up until the moment the treaty was signed, there were fierce and emotional protests among students, intellectuals and opposition lawmakers. Already disgruntled by Korea’s military regime, students protested the secretive Korea-Japan negotiations, opposition lawmakers went on hunger strikes and resigned from posts, and the public was warned that President Park was “selling away the country.”

Korea had been excluded from the group of 51 allies that gathered in September 1951 at the San Francisco Opera House to negotiate a peace treaty with Japan, which formally ended World War II. It was considered too insignificant and, being a former Japanese colony, was not an ally in World War II.

Being excluded from the signing of the treaty that came into force on April 28, 1952 - and in which Japan relinquished claims to Korea - Korea’s compensation had not been dealt with.

Consequently, Seoul had to negotiate a separate bilateral treaty with Japan to restore diplomatic relations.

At the height of the Korean War (1950-53), Yang Yu-chan, Korean ambassador to the United States, and Shunichi Matsumoto, former Japanese ambassador to the United Kingdom, held preliminary talks in Tokyo on Oct. 20, 1951, to kick off negotiations.

The first round of official Korea-Japan talks took place between February and April 1952, facilitated by William Sebald, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. But negotiations fizzled out under the Syngman Rhee administration.

Talks only regained momentum under the Park Chung Hee regime. Washington put pressure on Park, then chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, the military junta that oversaw the Korean government between 1961 and 1963.

In October 1961, Park ordered his right-hand man, Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) Director Kim Jong-pil, at that time 35 years old, to go to Tokyo on a covert mission to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda and resume dialogue to normalize relations, achieving an initial breakthrough.

On Nov. 12, 1961, Park Chung Hee, ahead of a summit with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Washington two days later, met with Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda in Tokyo to hold a successful summit.

The Chosun Ilbo headlines the next day read: “Last night, Park Chung Hee and the Japanese leader hold first talks - held in a two-hour dinner format, ripening of friendly relations. Mutual efforts and understanding crucial. Statement seeking mutual cooperation, expecting success through these talks.”

Page 2 gave more details: “Park Chung Hee declares after talks with the Japanese leader: If [Japan] shows sincerity on the claims issue, there can be flexibility on the Peace Line [for fishery]. Agreement on most issues, conclusion [of a bilateral treaty] next year depends on how negotiations go.”

Kim again went to Tokyo in October 1962 as Park’s chief negotiator to speed along the process as the two sides were gridlocked over the compensation issue. On Nov. 12, 1962, a secretive deal on the amount of a financial reparation package to Korea from Japan was worked out between Kim Jong-pil and Japanese Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira, referred to as the “Kim-Ohira Memo.”

During this period, Ohira asked that the Dokdo issue be taken to the International Court of Justice, but Dokdo was ultimately not included in the agreement. The Japanese claim sovereignty over the Dokdo islets and call them Takeshima.

Amid mounting concern over Kim’s furtive negotiations, students and opposition party lawmakers demanded details of the Ohira-Kim negotiations be revealed, to which the government complied in March 1964. It revealed part of the discussions to student representatives of 11 universities.

That resulted in strong public backlash at what appeared to be the Park regime’s settling for a paltry sum in reparations for Japan’s colonization of Korea.

Kim Jong-pil was sent abroad for eight months in the middle of negotiations to remove focus from the protests. But after Park was elected president in 1964, Kim was sent as presidential envoy to Tokyo in March 1964 to resume talks, which resulted in a draft treaty.

‘Selling out the country’

A March 21, 1964, article in the Dong-A Ilbo was headlined: “For or against the Korea-Japan negotiations, ruling and opposition parties locked in a violent clash.” The opposition accused the Park regime of “selling out the country” through the Korea-Japan deal.

University protests in Seoul began on March 24 and built up momentum over the next several months. The protests peaked in what later became known as the movement of June 3, 1964, as Seoul National University and Korea University students, among other intellectuals, protested the normalization of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan.

The Dong-A Ilbo printed a picture of the protesting students in its March 24 edition under the headline, “University students rally, protesting the humiliating settlement between Korea and Japan.” The sub-headline read: “5,000 students from Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei universities, 40 injured, 150 taken to the police.”

The following day, even larger headlines read: “Student demonstrations expand nationwide,” and the March 26 edition described, “4th day since students demonstrations started, uprisings in Gwangju, Daejeon and Iri [modern-day Iksan, North Jeolla]: nationwide tension surges, recurrences in Seoul and Busan also.”

The protesters, while not all opposed to negotiations with Tokyo, were adamant that a diplomatic arrangement could not be accepted without a sincere and unambiguous atonement and apology from the Japanese government for their past military aggressions.

They also disliked the idea of normalization talks being led by a military regime rather than by independence activists during the colonial rule.

The Chosun Ilbo’s June 3, 1964, front-page article was titled, “3,000 Korea University, Seoul National University students demonstrate. 632 current students, eight SNU student presidents break their fast - decide to hold a strike.” Another headline read: “Martial law anticipated to be introduced today in security meeting, government takes into serious consideration student demonstrations.”

That evening, President Park declared martial law over Seoul and dispatched troops to suppress protesters.

The Dong-A Ilbo put this on its front page that day: “Student demonstrations expand to downtown, 15,000 university students shout out for Park’s military government to step down.”

The next day’s Dong-A Ilbo top headline stated: “Emergency martial law declared in Seoul.” The rest of the front page was dedicated to the martial law declaration. Another page one article warned: “If provincial students cause disorder, martial law will be expanded.”

Martial law declared

The Chosun llbo’s June 4 front-page article was headlined, “Some 10,000 participated in student demonstrations yesterday in Seoul, police stations damaged.” Another front-page article read, “Pre-censorship of media and publications, demonstrations and assembly of people prohibited, curfew from 9 [p.m.] to 4 [a.m.].”

In the following two months under martial law, over 1,000 people were arrested and hundreds thrown in jail.

The public in the meantime continued to be suspicious of the furtive negotiations led by Kim with Japan. There was also alarm that Korea may trade its sovereignty over the Dokdo islets for economic aid from Tokyo and not see reparations.

The final stretch, or the seventh round of negotiations, occurred between Dec. 3, 1964, and June 22, 1965.

The hotly contested Dokdo sovereignty issue was shelved in order to move forward the negotiations, while fishing boundaries were given higher priority.

On June 22, 1965, Foreign Minister Lee Tong-won and his Japanese counterpart Shiina Etsusaburo signed the Basic Relations Treaty at the official residence of the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo.

Front-page headlines of major newspapers in the weeks leading up to the agreement were focused on the Korea-Japan negotiations, protest rallies and hunger strikes by students, ordinary citizens and opposition party leaders.

Signing finally takes place

Other headlines concerned the technicalities such as sovereignty over Dokdo and fishing boundaries.

The Chosun Ilbo on June 20, 1965, carried several articles on its front page addressing the Korea-Japan negotiations such as, “What does signing the Korea-Japan negations mean? Paralyzed national sentiment, another tragedy in our people’s modern history.”

Another article described, “Yun Po-sun, chair of the National Committee for Struggle against Humiliating Diplomacy toward Japan, tenders resignation.”

Yun, leader of the opposition Civil Rule Party, who served as second president of Korea from 1960 to 1962, was ousted in the military coup led by Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee in May 1961. He remained as a figurehead president until Park was elected as third president in 1963.

A former independence activist, Yun had been at the forefront of opposing the negotiations with Tokyo and headed a group called National Committee for Struggle Against Humiliating Diplomacy Toward Japan. On March 9, 1964, opposition party lawmakers joined with some 200 leaders of civil society to form this group, and they were at the forefront of opposing Korea-Japan negotiations.

The Dong-A Ilbo’s top headline on June 22, 1965, read: “Official signing of the Korea-Japan agreement: Amid fierce protests from the opposition party and students, on Sunday, June 22, 5 p.m., representatives of the two countries sign some 30 documents; turbulence expected in the National Assembly ratification in August.”

The Chosun Ilbo wrote: “The Korea-Japan agreement to be signed today as planned. Talks between the two countries’ foreign ministers, Foreign Minister Lee Tong-won clarifies policy on the Dokdo issue” - “Dokdo can’t be yielded: Japanese leader Sato states,” referring to Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who served between 1964 to 1972, and, “The prospects for the South Korea-U.S. and Japan trilateral relationship. When the unification problem is raised, the nation needs to have an independent economy.”

Chosun Ilbo’s June 23 front-page headline read, “The Korea-Japan agreement officially signed. Opposition demonstrations censured ... 14 years of negotiations knotted.”

As expected, the backlash continued the next day. The top front-page headline for the Chosun Ilbo on June 24 read, “Civil Rule Party lawmakers begin a 24-hour fast, declare invalidity of the Korea-Japan agreement” and “The National Committee for Struggle against Humiliating Diplomacy toward Japan begins nationwide campaign.”

‘Not our future’

Some protesters accused Park Chung Hee of “selling out the country again” and compared his actions to Korean Prime Minister Yi Wan-yong’s signing over of Korean sovereignty to Japan in 1910.

Despite the anguished headlines and demonstrations in the streets, the treaty was ratified in August in Korea, in the absence of opposition lawmakers, and in December in Japan. It was signed by President Park and Prime Minister Sato.

President Park on Dec. 18, 1965, issued a statement, in which he declared, “Today in Seoul, the ratified Korea-Japan treaty documents were officially exchanged between the leaders of Korea and Japan. It took 14 long years, and it was impossible not to feel pain in the process in which it happened, but this problem has finally been resolved.”

He continued, “If we look at our relationship with Japan over the past 36 years, it can definitely be called that of a foe. However, that is by all means in the past. It is not our present, and of course not our future.”

In addition to the $500 million in grants and low-interest loans, the Korean government received $300 million private commercials loans, bringing the fund up to $800 million.

“We cannot go back and judge the 1965 Japan-Korea Basic Treaty on what was done right, or if Korea made any mistakes during the negotiations process,” Doh said. “We have to remember, in 1965, just like we were in 1910, Korea was a powerless country.”

He continued, “However, what is clear is that nowhere in the 1965 treaty did Japan specify an apology or reparation for its colonization of Korea, leaving doors open to discussion today.”


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