written by Park Cheol-Hee
South Korea-Japan relations deteriorated after then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo last August, but signs of a change in the relationship first appeared at a summit in Kyoto in December 2011.
At that time, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda simply repeated that the “comfort women” issue was fully resolved by the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea, and that Japan bears no further legal responsibility for the issue. Noda did not even mention Japan's past efforts, including the Murayama statement of 1995 and the Kono statement of 1993 issued by past Japanese administrations.
The summit showed that territorial and historical issues are the greatest obstacles hobbling bilateral relations between the two countries.
Self-restraint and open-mindedness
However, many people praise the first four years of former President Lee's term as the best period of relations between South Korea and Japan since the end of World War II. Why is this?
The reason is surprisingly simple. Lee, seeking to improve bilateral relations, did not make critical remarks about Japan as his predecessors had done. Instead, he adopted an attitude of self-restraint and open-mindedness.
He also did not speak ill of Japan on March 1, the anniversary of the anti-Japanese independence movement under colonial rule, or Liberation Day on Aug. 15, the anniversary celebrating liberation from Japan.
Rather than taking assertive action, Lee was able to advance South Korea-Japan relations through nonaction by refraining from provocative words and deeds.
In addition, some people close to the president advised him of the importance of the relationship with the United States as well as advancing ties with Japan. He had close aides who understood the importance of bilateral ties and made efforts to promote them.
However, once this sort of environment disappeared, South Korea-Japan relations took a quick turn for the worse.
After the lifting of all restrictions on cultural exchanges and travel between the two countries, Japanese and South Koreans have visited each other's country frequently and fully enjoyed each other's cultures.
Ordinary citizens did not send South Korea-Japan relations into troubled waters. The conflicts stemmed from the actions and words of politicians and nationalists.
Politicians tend to behave as if they are followers of public sentiments rather than exercise leadership for cooperation.
If politicians kept to the spirit of considering the other side's point of view and showed self-restraint and tolerance, they would have no reason to provoke each other.
The Japanese right-wingers and South Koreans with extreme anti-Japanese views live off of their hostile coexistence and certainly never have and never will represent the mainstream of their countries.
China's rise and North Korea
The time has come once again to answer the very straightforward question of why the two countries should cooperate.
During the Cold War, South Korea and Japan were members of the free world, operating within the framework of "South Korea-U.S.-Japan" trilateral security cooperation against the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. However, the Cold War ended, and this modus operandi no longer holds.
We are in an era of globalization, in which the walls between states have been lowered. It is also the Asian age, when South Korea, China and Japan shall stand at the center of the global market. The world's attention is focused on whether South Korea and Japan can overcome the burden of their unfortunate history and cooperate.
If they fail to accomplish this, the leaders of our two nations will run counter to the trend of the times. China has been increasing its military might in parallel with its growing economy, and it is adopting a more aggressive maritime strategy.
The dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands is a reflection of China's aggressive external strategy. North Korea, which has launched a long-range rocket and conducted a third underground nuclear test, is adopting a provocative attitude and threatening neighboring countries. The country is flouting the demands of the international community to reform and open up.
Considering the situation in Northeast Asia, bilateral cooperation between South Korea and Japan is so serious an issue that we cannot sidestep it.
Shared values and systems
Furthermore, there are many things about both South Korea and Japan that, when viewed from an international point of view, make them seem like fraternal twins. There is an endless list of issues that both countries have to deal with together: international economic strategy, including energy supply and demand and trade; international contributions, such as foreign aid, refugee protection and international peacekeeping operations; protecting the Earth's environment and playing a leading role in the area of "green growth"; and seeking capabilities for new growth amid a declining birthrate and aging population.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argues that countries that share values such as democracy, market economics, rule of law and respect for human rights must cooperate. South Korea is just about the only country in East Asia that meets all these criteria.
It is a country that shares the same values and system as Japan.
However, both countries' excessive fixation on divisive historical and territorial issues poses a roadblock to cooperation.
In Abe's eyes, South Korea is "near, yet far." In South Korea's eyes, Abe's political philosophy tends to lean too far to the right.
Japan will deprive itself of too much flexibility if it pushes for ideological diplomacy instead of strategic thinking covering the entire region.
Abe emphasizes the importance of strengthening Japan's relations with the United States and holding the rise of China in check. To achieve this policy goal, cooperation with South Korea, another important U.S. ally, is indispensable for Japan.
South Korea can also play a balanced, bridge-building role in preventing tensions with China from rising too high while helping the three countries promote a stable trilateral relationship.
There is not much difference between Japan and South Korea in the way they view international affairs in general.
Thus, the key is whether both South Korea and Japan can control or ease the current tensions and progress to a higher level.
If the two countries remain mired in historical and territorial disputes without promoting regional strategy and making necessary decisions from a broad perspective, then 2015, the 50th anniversary of normalized South Korea-Japan diplomatic relations, may be the year that starts a reversal of progress in the relationship, rather than setting the basis for a constructive leap forward.
The key to preventing a further downturn in South Korea-Japan relations is if the two countries can adopt a global point of view while dealing with their diplomatic issues. We must recognize that South Korea and Japan are key partners for cooperation in building a stable order in the region.
In addition, Japan should not look suspiciously at South Korea because it sits between China and Japan. Instead, Japan should recognize that it and South Korea are in the same boat because they stand between the United States and China.
Although East Asian countries have territorial disputes with each other, the circumstances they are facing are very different. South Korea has effective control over Dokdo, while Japan has effective control over the Senkakus. China sees the Japanese government's purchase of the remaining privately owned Senkaku Islands as a change in the status quo, and is acting more aggressively. However, questions linger over whether China's resolve and the steps it is taking are also an attempt to change the status quo.
Japan faces the same difficulties in changing the status quo on Dokdo. Thus, the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan need to agree on three points: to refrain from provoking each other over territorial issues; to avoid attempts to change the status quo; and when a crisis occurs, to not interpret the situation too broadly or overreact.
Comfort women are a human rights issue
An appropriate approach to the comfort women issue would be to keep universal human rights in mind.
In a narrow or broad sense, the heart of the matter is not whether the women were rounded up and forced to serve the Japanese military.
If they were recruited against their will, if they were forced to do things they didn’t want to do, and if they could not leave the brothels of their own accord, then they were coerced.
The Kono statement must be respected, not revised. The clear fact of the matter is that when viewed in terms of standards for international human rights, it is impossible for Japan to vigorously defend itself over the comfort women issue.
Japan’s defense of the issue weakens the country’s soft power and creates diplomatic problems. Whether the comfort women issue requires more apologies and compensation is another matter. It is a problem that the two countries can resolve through negotiations if Japan demonstrates heartfelt sincerity.
What is needed is for Japan to muster up the courage to squarely confront the issue rather than disregard or refute it. From this perspective, an opportunity to erase elements of discord would provide hope for a leap forward in South Korea-Japan relations beyond normalized ties.
South Korea's new political leaders should also do their fair share. First, they need to refrain from statements that provoke Japan and acts that please only Japan's right-wingers. All it takes is a decision on their part.
In addition, there is no need for South Korean leaders to rush efforts to repair the damaged South Korea-Japan relationship. They must concentrate on persistent efforts to build trust through gradual rapprochement and candid mutual understanding with Japan's leadership to avoid dashing the excessive expectations at the start of their administration.
The international community pays more attention to South Korea and Japan when their leaders act logically and raise the voice of conscience based on internationally accepted notions and common sense than when they vacillate due to shifting public opinion.
note about the author:
Park Cheol-Hee is a professor at the Graduate school of International Studies (GSIS) at Seoul National University. He is director at the Institute for Japanese Studies at the university. He got a Ph.D. at Columbia University. He earned his B.A. in political science from Seoul National University and his Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. His areas of expertise are international relations in East Asia, Japanese politics and diplomacy, and Japan-South Korea relations. His prior posts include assistant professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and, from 2002 to 2004, assistant professor at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. In 2005, Park received the Yasuhiro Nakasone Award for, among other accomplishments, his efforts to build mutual understanding between Japan and South Korea.
Source: Asahi Shimbun
Interesting read. If only this will happen in real life :3