Getting serious about Japan relations
The author is a professor at the College of Liberal Arts, Sejong University.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration starts next week. I hoped Yoon repairs Korea-Japan relations, which really deteriorated during the five years of the Moon Jae-in administration. In the past, conservative governments focused on improving Korea-Japan relations while progressive administrations focused on inter-Korean relations. Actually, the two are connected, as former president Kim Dae-jung was well aware. South Korea’s relations with North Korea and Japan were the best during his presidency in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Only when you know your counterpart well can you build reciprocal and harmonious relations, not hostile and submissive ones. The failed management of Seoul-Tokyo relations by Korea’s liberal and conservative presidents resulted from a lack of knowledge of Japan and resulting misjudgments. The Moon administration’s belligerent approach toward Japan after Tokyo’s economic retaliation for Seoul’s decision to dismantle a comfort women foundation was initially triggered by progressive academics close to Moon. Some pundits even attributed Japan’s exports ban to Tokyo’s intention to shake the foundation of his administration. But local media and the government were also swept up in such misleading arguments.
Behind the exacerbation of Korea-Japan relations is the issue of compensation for wartime sexual slavery effectively orchestrated by the Imperial Japanese Army. After the first testimony by a sexual slavery survivor in 1991, the Park Geun-hye administration managed to set up a reconciliation and healing foundation following an earlier agreement between Seoul and Tokyo. But the Moon administration disbanded the fledgling institution and fueled Tokyo’s distrust of Seoul. A Supreme Court ruling for compensation for forced labor during World War II also helped deepen Japan’s distrust to the level of the private sector. Moon hurriedly tried to distance himself from the ruling, but it was too late.
Restoring relations and resolving the disputes calls for not only the will to address them but also an analysis of the fundamental structure and reasons for the status quo. I propose to establish a long-term mechanism to examine the conflict over history and to break out of the diplomatic deadlock instead of rushing to find an easy solution. In the past, the two countries attempted to find common denominators by setting up a joint research committee on their shared history. But it failed because the issue was mostly dealt with by academics behind closed doors.
A decade ago, the governments of Korea and Japan cooperated with one another, including a sharing of the list of forced laborers, and held events to commemorate their tragic deaths. If we follow in such footsteps and start a joint research, we can build mutual understandings about historical issues over the long term. Participation of the press in each country is essential.
The Korea-Japan agreement on the wartime sexual slavery issue was broken because the deal was concluded before each country’s understanding of the other deepened. The focus of the agreement was on an apology and compensation. The phase “irreversible resolution of the issue” was proposed by Korea. But the key part was abruptly eclipsed by a victims advocacy group’s criticism of the Korean government for trying to “help Japan remove a bronze statue of a young girl” representing comfort women victims near the Japanese embassy in central Seoul. Many of the surviving victims who wept after a Japanese prime minister made an apology in the late 1990s have passed away. Now, only 11 of them are left after 27 died during the Moon administration.
The so-called “legal responsibility” often mentioned by the advocacy group and the Moon administration came from the days when not enough research was conducted. Legal responsibility is not an absolute value. If a majority of the Japanese who felt a sense of guilt in the 1990s criticize the Korean government now, we also need to reflect on why the advocacy group’s crusade for comfort women failed. The apparent exploitation of the victims for money and a misled representation of them must not be repeated.
If a joint private-public system designed to deal with historical issues can be operated, the two governments don’t have to confront one another whenever a problem occurs. If we can draw up a five-year plan, for example, to achieve genuine reconciliation and check in every five years, we can move forward whether it takes 50 years or a century. What matters is an unflinching determination among the people of the two countries to conclude a sad chapter of their shared history.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.