Rethinking the Korea-Japan impasse

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Rethinking the Korea-Japan impasse

Park Hong-kyu

The author is a professor of political science at Korea University.

The time has come to resolve the tangle of Korea-Japan historical disputes and improve relations between the two countries. President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol recently had a phone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and the two leaders agreed to cooperate on improving relations. Although they exchanged hopeful remarks for the future, the real issue is how and where to start efforts to solve the complicated problems.

Kishida maintains Tokyo’s existing position that Seoul must present a preemptive solution to improve relations, which deteriorated after the Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japan must compensate wartime forced-labor victims. For cooperation to be realized, the Yoon administration needs to take an approach different from the Moon Jae-in administration’s.

I hope the Yoon administration comes up with a bold scheme commensurate with Korea’s position globally to create a breakthrough in the stalled relations and takes the initiative to cut the Gordian knot. “Embracive reconciliation” is the philosophical foundation on which to build solution.

Until now, all attempts to address Korea-Japan historical issues were made based on “reconciliation after admission of accountability.” The concept is based on the offender offering an apology and the victim’s forgiveness, and it has played a critical role in facilitating reconciliation among European countries after World War II. As the method was effective in Europe — and coupled with the birth of the European Union — the nations on the continent have been free of disputes between them for decades.

After the shocking testimony in 1991 by comfort woman victim Kim Hak-soon, wartime historical issues surfaced in East Asia. Given the considerable delay in historical reconciliation in the region, the paradigm of responsible reconciliation was applied to effectively explain and address the historical issues. Korea and Japan actively sought reconciliation through Japan’s apology and Korea’s forgiveness, which led to the Kono Statement in 1993 and the Murayama Statement two years later. In 1998, President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi hammered out the Korea-Japan Joint Declaration.

But Kim’s efforts faced various obstacles, such as Japan’s distortion of history in text books, territorial claims, visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine and comfort women issues. Rather than achieving progress through reconciliation, historical issues remained unresolved and Korea-Japan relations deteriorated to a recent low following the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, which ordered compensation for wartime forced labor. The paradigm of reconciliation based on accepting responsibility no longer looks valid.

Such reconciliation is closely related to religious reconciliation in the Western Christian tradition primarily based on the relations between God and human beings — starting with a sinner realizing his or her sin, confessing and repenting, being forgiven, and then making efforts to correct the sin. Reconciliation was possible in Europe as it was applied at the state level so that Germany offered apologies and compensation to the victimized countries.
Japan’s cultural basis — starting from the Edo period and developing through Meiji era and the imperial period — is far from Christianity in Europe. As a result, it was hard to expect a convincing response from the Japanese when Korea demanded a “true” apology based on reconciliation and accountability. Though the idea has its justification in terms of morality, we need to find a new reconciliation path if the old one fails to achieve substantial outcomes in reality. I propose “embracive reconciliation” to help improve Korea-Japan relations and reconciliation.
Today, Korea is the world’s 10th largest economy and is a military power. Its cultural power ranks even higher. Korea’s prestige is dramatically different from what it was in 1965, when the Claims Settlement Agreement was signed between Seoul and Tokyo. We must feel proud of ourselves and think and act to meet the elevated stature in the international community. Instead of persistently demanding the offender’s infinite responsibility from the perspective of a victim, we need to shift our thinking to a more embracive view by listening to the offender’s argument, trying to understand them and healing wounds together.
The argument is not that we just need to forgive them because they will never apologize. Inclusiveness is a way of seeking reconciliation beyond the frame of apology and forgiveness.
To change our identity from holding the offender accountable for its responsibility to embracing the offender, we must seriously look into ourselves. In other words, we need to see ourselves more objectively. To this end, we must study the logical structure of reconciling after holding an offender accountable for excesses.
The concepts of an offender and a victim are very ambiguous. The concept of victim includes the actual victims, support groups for the victims, victimized people and entire countries. Moreover, if the damages are totaled when the time between the offense and the reconciliation is too far apart, it further complicates the issue. To help accurately grasp the essence of Korea-Japan historical issues, let me expand the definition of victim to include various groups.
During the reconciliation process since the 1990s, the offender’s efforts offered an opportunity to resolve the rage of the actual victims — and some of the rage was actually addressed. But during the course of reconciliation, the rage of the victim increased. They believed the offender’s efforts were not enough. Such suspicions from the victim prompted anti-Korea sentiment on the offender’s side, and that fueled more rage on the victim’s side. During the vicious cycle of anti-Japan and anti-Korea sentiment with escalating rage, secondary rage overwhelmed the primary rage of the actual victims.
Nationalism, public sentiment and labeling some Koreans as “Japanese collaborators” amplified the secondary anger. Secondary anger snowballed due to misunderstanding, bias, ignorance, headstrongness, cowardice and silence on the part of vulgar politicians and dogmatic groups that seek gains by holding Japan responsible, not to mention irresponsible media and intellectuals.
I believe the historical issues at this time are not a matter of primary anger but of secondary anger. Korea and Japan have resolved much in terms of primary issues. But secondary issues are hindering the efforts, and the damages are too big and too painful. 
Can we blame the offender exclusively for all the secondary problems? Can the offender’s side really resolve the secondary rage of the victim’s side with apologies and compensation to the actual victims? I don’t think this type of reconciliation can solve it. We must shift to embracive reconciliation. We should stop pressuring Japan to take responsibility, and we should redefine our identity to meet our elevated stature by engaging Japan. We should arm ourselves with a new philosophy of embracive reconciliation and suspend our secondary anger temporarily.
We must understand Japan’s stance that Korea should present a resolution. In December 2016, then National Assembly speaker Moon Hee-sang and 13 other ruling and opposition lawmakers sponsored a bill to resolve the issue, but it was discarded without a vote at the end of the session. It could be a good start to revive the bill.
The incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration is facing difficult problems at home and abroad. Unity and cooperative politics are demanded by the people. But the people are skeptical and uncertain if this can be accomplished given the national division and the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party.
The Korea-Japan Parliamentarian Union includes 154 incumbent Korean lawmakers. Since it is a bipartisan body, it can put aside the ideology and interests of each party and judge and act for the sake of national interest. I hope the bill will be revised and passed by the ruling and opposition lawmakers. It will be a touchstone that will access the unity and cooperative politics in the conservative Yoon administration.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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