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Healing Japan and South Korea’s Cold War wounds

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South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (R) chats with her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono (L) prior to the summit meeting by President Moon Jae-in and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan 9 May 2018. (Photo: Reuters, Kazuhiro Noci/Pool)

In Brief

Relations between Japan and South Korea are in a crevasse. The rise of negative emotions projected by ordinary citizens of both countries makes the current deterioration especially problematic.


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As bilateral relations have become more publicised, politicised and prone to social undercurrents, a new track one agreement must address social animosities if it is to be more than a short-term patch. This is especially the case in the post-Cold War period — transformations experienced by both countries have enabled the public to play a more significant role in guiding political and social order.

The biggest problem is that neither society understands the nature and significance of one another’s post-Cold War experience and its connection to foreign policy. Both Japan and South Korea also take for granted the historical significance of what their own society experienced and achieved. This double-standard is the cause of the mutual misunderstanding and bilateral deadlock.

In both countries, political and ideological camps that were not considered mainstream during the Cold War have risen as legitimate voices in domestic politics.

In South Korea, achieving ‘social justice’ and democratisation rose in significance. South Korea experienced a long period of undemocratic politics during the Cold War, so the question of re-establishing moral justice weighed heavily on domestic politics. The current narrative emphasises policies for the welfare of ordinary citizens, along with re-investigating and punishing the deeds of former power holders. Although still socially contentious, these practices have been supported by the public, especially by those belonging to the ‘progressive’ camp.

In Japan, the post-Cold War era became a time in which the public strove to come to terms with the legacy of World War II. This experience centred on finding a pragmatic and realistic solution to the gap that existed between the ‘dogma of pacifism’ — symbolised by the Peace Constitution — and the increasing international pressure to proactively contribute to global peace. Younger generations have been less influenced by the kind of tiresome legal debates about the definition of pacifism which dominated domestic politics throughout the Cold War, and the resulting shifts in Japan’s external stance have been welcomed by the international community at large.

In both countries, the historical significance of these experiences is often the source of a collective sense of achievement and has come to be reflected in foreign policy posturing.

For example, many in South Korea assume that their preoccupation with moral justice in domestic politics is universal and would be readily understood internationally. This collective belief also constitutes a strong undercurrent in the South Korean public’s preferred mode of interaction with Japan. As the historical victim, many South Koreans assume that their country always has the upper hand when it comes to setting the agenda in bilateral disputes with Japan.

Such beliefs have also led the current South Korean government to question the contents and the process by which certain past bilateral agreements linked to historical disputes with Japan were signed. These include the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, and the 2015 ‘comfort women agreement’. As they were signed by either the former military government or by the previous Park Geun-hye administration, which many South Koreans judge to have moral deficits, many in the government and the supporting public are convinced of their right to question the previous agreements whenever they feel that Japan fails to show ‘genuine remorse’.

Familiarity with this domestic context makes it easy to understand the strong sense of negativity in South Korea regarding previous agreements, and Japanese stubbornness in only addressing the legal aspects of those agreements already signed. This context also explains why South Koreans see Japan as trying to escape its ‘moral responsibility’.

The current narrative in Japan on South Korea is dominated by a view of South Korea’s volatile domestic culture, a culture that is all too often unfairly mobilised to rally the public’s historical animosity toward Japan. There seems to be a shared understanding in Japan that South Korea stubbornly rejects any appreciation of Japan’s positive transformations in the post-war period. South Korea is also seen as unpredictable as agreements have been prone to domestic political reinterpretation.

This frustration in Japan is at the centre of the growing belief that South Korea might not be one of the ‘likeminded countries’ that Japan can and should relate to.

Under the current conditions, whatever happens bilaterally will continue to be interpreted by both societies through a lens of negativity and pessimism. The only path to re-establishing a solid social basis for better relations in the long-run requires an increase in collective awareness among citizens of both countries, particularly with respect to the nature and significance of post-Cold War transformation.

Dr Seung Hyok Lee is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, the University of Toronto, and an Associate at the Centre for the Study of Global Japan, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the University of Toronto.

This piece is an abridged version of two longer pieces that originally appeared in East Asia Foundation and Suntory Foundation.

2 responses to “Healing Japan and South Korea’s Cold War wounds”

  1. Thanks for an insightful analysis. This is one of the few which noted and discussed these contentious issues from both sides of the debate.

    The concept of empathy was not articulated by the author but I think it was implied. Ie, from its leaders all the way through to its citizens each country lacks an understanding of how the other views the situation. And, as the author noted, how these views have shifted in recent years. An ‘increase in collective awareness’ in the citizens of both countries would create more empathy and gradually allow for reconciliation to take place.

    This would take time and, most importantly, ongoing dialogue. It would best start at the top: leaders from both countries would have to publicly commit to having such a dialogue. Or, at least, to establish a committee of trusted aides designated to engage in such a dialogue aimed at enhancing mutual understanding (building empathy) out of which genuine and lasting solutions would arise.

    South Africa accomplished a great deal by its use of a truth and reconciliation committee in which Black and White citizens met and found solutions together. Germany did this with the Jewish people and Israel over the Holocaust via ongoing payment of reparations, annual memorial services, etc. It took a generation for the Germans and the Israelis to achieve some significant reconciliation.

    Can the leaders of Japan and S Korea invest that kind of energy, time, etc into a process like this? At this point there does not seem to be anyone in either country who grasps this concept. If/when they did, there would be a great deal of turmoil, if not open opposition, to doing it in both countries. Do Moon and Abe have the courage and wisdom to deal with this admittedly very complex and emotionally laden issue when both are dealing with N Korea, China, and other complicated circumstances?

  2. Seems to me the wounds have been occurring ever since the Japanese rule of Korea came to an end in 1945. You have many Korean and Taiwanese who serve in the Japanese Army during World War II and later when the war came to an ended, they were denied any kind of war pension because they were no longer consider Japanese citizens due to Japan lost Korea and Taiwan after the war.

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