Hopes that Pyongyang Will Better Seoul

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Hopes that Pyongyang Will Better Seoul

It took 14 years for South Korea and Japan to normalize relations, with the two sides beginning their preparatory talks in 1951 and concluding the Korea-Japan Basic Relations Treaty in 1965. On the other hand, the negotiations between North Korea and Japan first began in 1991, but broke off in the following year, and have now resumed after an eight-year suspension.

How thorny is the road that lies ahead for these negotiations? Together with North Korea's establishment of official ties with the United States and the normalization of relations between the North and Japan, these talks with Japan are an essential condition for completely resolving the Korean Peninsula issue.

There are both similarities and differences between the ROK-Japan negotiations of the 1950s and 60s, and the DPRK-Japan negotiations which are now underway.

One of the similarities is that the Kim Jong-il regime is counting on compensation from Japan as a key financial resource for rehabilitating the North Korean economy--just as the Park Chung-hee administration in South Korea did in the past. Accordingly, the key similarity lies in the fact that, however unconcerned and obstinate it may appear to be, the North is probably desperate for an early conclusion of the negotiations as it looks forward to the ensuing benefits. The Gross National Product (GNP) of South Korea in 1965 was 3 billion dollars. North Korea's GNP reached 12.6 billion dollars in 1998. Taking inflation into account, the economic conditions of South Korea back then and today's North Korea are similar, at least in statistical terms.

South Korea received about 300 million dollars in non-obligatory capital and services, and an additional 200 million dollars in an obligatory loan from Japan, based on the 1962 secret agreement between then director of South Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Jong-pil, and Japan's former minister of foreign affairs, Ohira Masayoshi. In terms of actual buying power, the sum is equivalent to 2.27 billion U.S. dollars in today’s currency. It was an outrageously petty sum as remuneration for 36 years of "slavery." Today, North Korea is demanding up to 10 billion dollars in compensation, but Japan is remaining resolutely silent on the issue.

The greatest difference between the ROK-Japan negotiations and the ongoing DPRK-Japan negotiations is that the former had been strongly influenced by interference and pressure from the United States, whereas there is none in the latter. A Japanese daily newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, recently reported on the contents of official U.S. government records that attest to the deep U.S. involvement in the ROK-Japan negotiations. According to the documents obtained by Asahi, the negotiations between South Korea and Japan were so affected by U.S. pressure that they were more like tripartite, rather than bilateral, negotiations.

At the time, Cold War tensions were at their highest and the United States was expanding its involvement in the Vietnam War. South Korea was dispatching its troops to Vietnam and Japan was serving as a rear base for U.S. Forces. The United States desperately needed both Korea and Japan, two of its most important allies in Asia, to resolve past conflicts and normalize relations. This was why the United States decided to actively exercise its influence.

As for compensation, which was the key point at issue in the negotiations between South Korea and Japan, the South demanded 800 million dollars, but Japan proposed a mere 50 million. It was the United States who arbitrated the deal. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman met with the Japanese prime minister, Ikeda Hayato, in Tokyo in 1962 and advised him to agree to, in the least, half the amount demanded by the South. During a meeting at the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk also pressed Minister Ohira to raise the non-obligatory grant to 300 million dollars. In return for this increase, President Park Chung-hee decided to accept the bilateral treaty to deal with "problems concerning property and claims and economic cooperation," rather than Korea's national claim rights, an expression which Japan strongly opposed.

It was also the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer, who talked Japan into changing its mind when it refused to apologize to Korea for past atrocities. In 1964, the ambassador met with the minister of foreign affairs of Japan, Shiina Setsusaburo, and persuaded him that Japan should display a degree of magnanimity by apologizing for the past. This ultimately led to Shiina's visit to Seoul in 1965 and his indication of "deep regrets" for Japan’s actions in the past. The development paved the way for the conclusion of the Korea-Japan Basic Relations Treaty and of four other accords.

Today, North Korea is conducting its negotiations with Japan without any external assistance, or interference. Watching this process, we in the South feel torn between two conflicting points. On one side, we hope for a speedy normalization of DPRK-Japan relations, which will be one of the important links in resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, we also hope that the North gleans a valuable lesson from South Korea's rash normalization of relations with Japan 35 years ago, so that the North may conclude the negotiations in such a manner that leaves nothing to be desired - in obtaining a full apology and appropriate compensation from Japan. It is in this vein that we are sparing no applause for Chairman Kim Jong-il's firm resolve to declare that the North, even though it may be suffering from its worst economic depression ever, will uphold the honor and pride of a sovereign state in negotiating with Japan.

by Kim Young-hei

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