Japan and South Korea: Don’t let history dictate the future

Addressing a sensitive past will let these two key democratic powers secure a tense region – and US interests. President Obama's sit-down with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye may have been the start of a needed rapprochement.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the US ambassador's residence in The Hague, Netherlands, March 25.

For South Koreans, Ahn Jung-geun is a “national hero” – the independence activist who in 1909 assassinated the Japanese colonial governor of Korea. He struck at the embodiment of a hated imperial power and sacrificed his life for national independence.

To the Japanese, he is a criminal, the man who killed a seminal figure in their nation’s history, a leading light in the modernization of Japan, a four-time prime minister who ensured Japan’s survival in a hostile world.

Those views reflect the opposing historical perspectives that are deeply tied to Japan’s and South Korea’s national identities – and that stand in the way of a needed warming of ties. As two key democratic powers and US allies in an increasingly tense region, their rapprochement would shore up neighborhood stability and present a united front to an assertive China and unstable North Korea. A new kind of statesmanship is required to heal such entrenched divisions.

It is this spirit of reconciliation that President Obama tried to foster among the two nations’ leaders at a sit-down on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands this week. The meeting marked the first formal talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Mr. Obama must continue to encourage such bridge-building as he heads to Asia in April.

Conflicting interpretations of history

The causes of tension in Japan-South Korea relations are well known: territorial disputes, divergent interpretations of history, nationalist domestic politics. Perhaps even more important, but much less discussed, are Japanese and South Korean notions of national identity. Political solutions to the problems of Japan-South Korea relations will continue to fail as long as each country’s identity is framed against the other nation. 

Despite South Korea’s remarkable modernization and democratization over the past six decades, four decades of Japanese colonial rule remain central to Korea’s conception of itself. As a result, South Korean identity has long been framed in opposition to Japan.

Japan has its own victim complex, the product of defeat in World War II, the atomic bombing, and a sense of being discriminated against in the postwar accounting of misdeeds. This identification makes it difficult for Japan to perceive of itself as an aggressor. 

Paradoxically, the many similarities between the two countries also reinforce their differences and sharpen competition between them. 

Statesmanship that leads by example

The statesmanship that is vital to resolving tensions must include a commitment from both nations’ political leaders to resist the temptation to succumb to popular national identity tropes that protect their approval ratings but stoke historical division. (The visits of Japanese officials to controversial war memorials and the joint South Korean-Chinese memorial to Ahn have both exacerbated tensions.) Instead they must work to generate the political will among their respective publics to reframe the relationship. 

This will require leaders to address the past not simply as a legal issue between two governments, but in a way that addresses the lingering hurt of colonization at a personal level. 

Japan has already issued official expressions of remorse. And in an encouraging sign, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that Japan will not revise its prior apologies for the Army’s use of “comfort women” (sex slaves, many of them South Korean) during World War II as it had previously said. Ultimately, South Korea will have to determine precisely what it will accept from Japan as expressions of remorse that would then enable the countries to move relations forward. Japan will then need the courage to meet those requirements sufficiently.

Renewing ties and securing the neighborhood

A “joint declaration” is needed to establish the foundation for renewed ties. It would acknowledge and stop contesting historical hurts, affirm common democratic values, and pledge solidarity to maintain a peaceful neighborhood and respond jointly to new security threats. Such an understanding would help transform perceptions within each country and blunt the sharp edges of identity that drive them apart. 

First, it should contain a “no-war” statement that would assert that the two countries would never use force to settle a dispute. This would put a cap on tensions and deflate suspicions. Second, Japan should declare its support for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the Seoul government. This would show that Japan supports and does not fear a reunified Korea.

Third, it would delineate the shared values and interests that unite the two countries, including maritime security threats and bilateral trade issues. Fourth, South Korea would acknowledge Japan’s contributions to regional security and its future security role.

Fifth, it would establish a day for the two countries to jointly commemorate the history of the 20th century without being entrapped by it. The current Aug. 15 commemorations memorializing Japan’s defeat and South Korea’s liberation should be replaced with an event that allows both nations to recall history as equals. 

Addressing the issues of the past is one of the most vital steps these two countries can take toward securing the future of their common interests – and those of the United States. Obama must encourage an environment that will facilitate these steps during his visit.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS, an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are their own.

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