[Column] Breaking the deadlock with Japan

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[Column] Breaking the deadlock with Japan



Kim Dong-ho

The author is the editor ofeconomic news for the JoongAng Ilbo.

I recently had an opportunity to discuss cooperation between media organizations of South Korea and Japan with Japanese journalists. Reporters of the two countries are well aware of the issues keeping the neighbors at a distance. Politics at home have come to cause friction across the border to make diplomatic reconciliation difficult. South Korea cannot forget the past, while Japan wishes to run from it. As a result, the two countries are operating in parallel.

The post-war generation in Japan is oblivious to the pain suffered by Koreans during the Japanese colonial rule as Tokyo has glamorized the past in history textbooks. Although the Japanese invasion that started in 1592 is not an ancient history, few Japanese know of it except that Japan had sent troops to Joseon. Under such circumstances, discussions on the past can hardly make progress.

Contemporary Japanese think South Koreans are overreacting and quarrelsome. Seoul in fact did trigger the conflict. The Moon Jae-in government in 2018 unilaterally disbanded a foundation co-established by the previous governments of South Korean and Japan in 2015 to seek healing and reconciliation on the thorny military sexual slavery issues. The action upset Tokyo, which declared the agreement to be final and irreversible. Later in 2018, the Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of the surviving victims of wartime forced labor under Japanese companies when they sought individual-level compensation.

South Korea received $500 million in war reparations from Japan after their normalization of diplomatic ties in 1965. Tokyo had proposed individual compensation, but then-president Park Chung Hee asked for a packaged restitution to develop a country still suffering from the Korean War. The money went to building the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan and Pohang Iron and Steel, the predecessor of Posco.

Japan claims that all wartime remunerations were completed in 1965. But Korea raised the military sexual slavery issue in 1991, and lawsuits were filed on wartime forced labor from the 1990s.

Diplomacy was in deadlock. During the terms of president Moon Jae-in and prime minister Shinzo Abe, both governments capitalized on the past issues for political gains at home. Moon’s senior presidential secretary even urged a public uprising to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans. Tokyo responded with punitive export restrictions.

Japan has lately warmed up towards Korea. Most Japanese enjoy the Korean wave and young Japanese envy dynamic styles of Koreans. But on political levels, the Japanese remain defensive. They believe Koreans still demand war compensation although they have become richer than the Japanese in some ways. They have become weary about the repeated demand for sincere atonement.

During his visit to Korea in 2015, former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama visited the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and knelt to apologize for all the sufferings of Koreans during colonization. In the 1998 joint statement by two leaders — Kim Dae-Jung and Keizo Obuchi — the Japanese prime minister officially acknowledged and apologized for the brutalities during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

The joint declaration 24 year ago said, “Prime Minister Obuchi regarded in a spirit of humility the fact of history that Japan caused, during a certain period in the past, tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule, and expressed his deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.” But contrary to the milestone agreement, far-right politicians in Japan continued with provocative comments of denial and paid their respects to the shrine of war criminals.

But their action does not change Tokyo’s official stance in the 1998 declaration. My discussion with Japanese journalists over the past delivered nothing new. Political will and action must follow. Leaders of the two nations must make the move. They must join forces for the stability of Northeast Asia after North Korean nuclear threat has posed a common threat to national security of both countries.

China has not taken any punitive action or put pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. Yet it demands cooperation from South Korea in its competition with the United States, particularly on the economic front. Chinese reporters I have spoken with all emphasize the value of free trade. China under various technology restraints from the U.S., including on semiconductors, values South Korea’s advanced economic status. South Korea is no longer a small country in Northeast Asia or around the world. For their own reasons, both Japan and China want to stay friendly with South Korea. Korea’s international rank could go higher if politics become matured. I felt it from my recent talks with journalists from Japan and China.
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