History now hostage to politics
The author is the international, diplomatic, and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea-Japan ties had stayed stalemated over the five-year presidency of Moon Jae-in. The government nullified an inter-government agreement reached during the Park Geun-hye administration to conclude the compensation issue over wartime forced sexual slavery and supported the Supreme Court’s ruling ordering Japanese companies to individually compensate Koreans for wartime labor. Relations further soured after Tokyo filed for the Sado gold mine to be listed as Unesco World Heritage site just months ahead of the end of Moon’s term. Both governments have formed taskforce teams to push or stop the recognition.
The Japanese government has been shrewd in nominating the problematic site. Tokyo has sought international recognition for the mine’s service as the world’s largest gold mine during the Edo period (1603-1868) while leaving out its role during the Meiji (1868-1912) period when hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to work in the mines to make up for labor shortage during wartime.
The dispute over the Sado mine underscores the state of the relationship between Korea and Japan. If relations were normal with continued exchange and cooperation, the two governments would have sought to narrow differences through dialogue. But the two governments instead chose to battle on the international stage by stimulating nationalism in respective countries.
Since the rightist revisionist turn under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo has been condoning a worsening in the relationship with Seoul. Nationalist sentiment from a hostile relationship can strengthen voting base for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Japanese sentiment towards Koreans has worsened through nationalistic fervor of ultra-rightist politicians. Abe, who still command the LDP’s largest faction, said a fight with Korea is inevitable as it has kept up the battle over historical issues with the dispute over Sado.
The Moon administration is partly responsible for fanning the rightist movement in Japan. The government invalidated an inter-government agreement by claiming to speak on behalf of the victims without offering practical support for the survivors. It was suspected of leveraging on anti-Japanese sentiment through ideological approach to past issues.
Such historical perspectives must have an opponent. The future can become uncertain if the past commands the present. Korea cannot prosper and gain international rank matching its economic power without the support and cooperation of its closest neighbor. The two nations share common values and interests from free democracy and market economy. Seoul needs Tokyo’s support to address the North Korean nuclear issue and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Past and terrestrial issues pose stumbling blocks to relations. Leadership with vision can find a win-win path for the two countries.
A new Korean government will start in May. The new president must resist the temptation to use past issues for political gain. Historic interpretation on ideological reasoning can burden the people. The incoming government must seek dialogue and a cooperative breakthrough by suspending the liquidation of remaining assets in Korea of Japanese companies to pay out compensation for wartime labor.