Will Japan and Korea reconcile?
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A few years ago, Washington was a battlefield between Korea and Japan. The two countries worked hard to bring the United States to their respective sides on the issue of “comfort women.” It was a war without gunfire over the nations’ prides. After a brief cease-fire, the second round is about to begin — with the nullification of the Park Geun-hye administration’s comfort women deal, rulings on forced labor during World War II, allegedly aiming a radar at a Japanese patrol airplane and the threatening low-altitude flight of the aircraft. After Tokyo appealed that Korea was being unfair, Seoul rebuked Japan. A U.S. official said he thought Korea-Japan relations had hit rock-bottom over the Dokdo and history textbook issues, but that the comfort women issue has hurt them even more.
The second round in Washington doesn’t seem advantageous for Korea. During the first round, though the comfort women issue was unresolved, Korea had the upper hand in morality. President Barack Obama was quietly on Korea’s side. But the second round is different. The justification and reasoning to persuade Washington are lacking. Korea called the ruling authorizing compensations for the forced labor as the “exclusive authority of the judiciary branch.” But Washington seems to disagree. The same goes for the sex slave issue. The United States respects agreement over loyalty, and universality over specificity. It cannot understand why the bilateral deal would not be recognized while it won’t be scrapped, renegotiated or taken to the mediation committee or the International Court of Justice. It is a structure that is hard to pressure the United States through. Yet it remains to be seen whether U.S. President Donald Trump will really side with Japan, as he lacks interest or knowledge on the issue. The two countries must address the issue directly.
First, an accurate diagnosis of the situation is necessary. Korea has accumulated an emotional grudge against Japan, while the latter accumulated distrust over the former. Until now, the emotional grudge has been playing a larger part in the conflict than the distrust factor. Based on the strategic judgment for the trilateral alliance of Korea, the United States and Japan, Seoul and Tokyo remained on the same side despite their mutual distrust. But the structure changed in the past year or two. Above all, Trump neglected the alliance and Japan grew more distrustful of Korea.
So far, Japan has claimed Korea always demands apologies and breaks promises. But in the Moon Jae-in administration, Japan has another reason for distrust, as it claims South Korea was on the side of China and North Korea, not the United States and Japan. It thinks South Korea does not care about the allies and is focused on improving relations with North Korea. The distrust has become deeper. So the accumulation of emotional grudges is now equal to the accumulated distrust. Neither side is willing to concede. Seoul considers Tokyo’s move an effort to boost Shinzo Abe’s approval rating and justify constitutional revision. In the past, the radar issue would have been quietly resolved between military authorities.
It may seem complicated, but the solution is simple. Korea should reassure Japan that it is an ally. Communication must be reinforced to reduce distrust. If the government can’t do it, the civilian sector must work on it. Japan should also stop the habit of resorting to international laws. Korea’s emotion needs to be comforted through some kind of sentimental diplomacy before it is too late. If they don’t like it and can’t do it, there is no answer: Both sides will lose. We all know the winners will be North Korea and China watching the situation.
Former University of Tokyo president Shigehiko Hasumi once told me true reconciliation between Korea and Japan will be attained 100 years after World War II. I didn’t believe him at the time. But now, it feels like not much will have changed by 2045.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 30, page 30