Features | Politics | East Asia

What Japan and South Korea Could Learn from Europe

Important symbolic gestures by Germany (and its neighbors) helped repair relations, and are an example for East Asia.

By Stefan Soesanto for
What Japan and South Korea Could Learn from Europe

It was a great photo-op earlier this month, when Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se held their first direct talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei. But any goodwill arising from that meeting is overwhelmed by the rapid deterioration in bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul in recent months. Issues officially considered resolved, such as the forced prostitution of thousands of sex slaves across East Asia or the visits by Japanese government officials at the Yasukuni shrine, have reopened wounds all over again.

Deep rooted nationalistic sentiment in both countries threatens to undermine decades of political efforts to normalize ties. So how can these two proud nations overcome their historical differences when all efforts to date appear to have failed?

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul began to sour two months after South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office. In late April, 168 Japanese Diet members and several government officials decided to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, prompting Seoul to abruptly cancel ministerial meetings with Japan. Matters deteriorated when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe questioned the definition of aggression in the Murayama Statement of 1995, and reaffirmed one week later his goal to revise the Japanese Constitution. Comments by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto in early May, defending Japan’s use of comfort women during World War II, and Abe’s appearance in a jet fighter with the notorious number 731 put even greater pressure on the bilateral relationship.

South Korean media outlets responded with aggressive anti-Japanese rhetoric, grieving the missed opportunity to prosecute Emperor Hirohito for crimes against humanity, ridiculing Abe’s drive to abolish the Peace Constitution, and arguing that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were divine punishment. Meanwhile, Park’s remark in Washington that Japan needs to have a correct perception on history fundamentally failed to understand the deep rift.

For many South Koreans, the re-election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister of Japan signaled a move to the political right and carried with it the implicit notion of re-militarization and the rise of Japanese nationalism. Yet Abe worked to strengthen ties during his first term in office, despite his stance on the Yasukuni shrine, the comfort women issue, and the sovereignty of Dokdo/Takeshima.

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The election of Park Geun-hye has meanwhile caused mixed feelings abroad and at home. While praised as the first female president, with the potential to bring change to South Korea’s male dominated society, the memory of her father General Park Chung-hee persists in raising doubts about her interpretation of democracy and ability to lead the country.

It is indeed ironic that history is as much at odds with Park as it is with Abe. A Q&A in Washington on February 22 brought this overlap into sharp relief, when Abe mentioned that Park Chung-hee had been a close friend of Abe’s grandfather, former Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobosuke. Instead of seeing this reference as a friendly gesture to his South Korean counterpart, Abe’s comment revived painful memories in Korea of Park Chung-hee serving in the Japanese Imperial Army. It also underscored the notion that Abe was the grandson of a convicted war criminal.

In light of these antagonizing events it is difficult to recall that Abe and Park campaigned primarily on economic issues. Park called for “economic democratization” in South Korea, while Abe laid out his plan to revive the struggling Japanese economy. Yet time and again, nationalistic sentiment in both countries has undermined progress on the economy and instead sparked yet another debate on history.

Perhaps the German experience could offer a glimpse of what is needed for Tokyo and Seoul to mend fences. Germany is a prime example of a country that has achieved national unification and historic reconciliation with its neighbors East and West. Yet neither Tokyo nor Seoul has ever bothered to learn from that example.

When, in early December 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt was laying a wreath in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, diplomatic protocol dictated a silent minute. It had been observed many times before, but 25 years after the war and no step closer to true reconciliation with its eastern neighbor, Brandt took it upon himself to be bold and spontaneous. Falling to his knees, he expressed what mere words could not. Today, Germans everywhere remember the image with pride: courageous man who bore no personal responsibility for the crimes committed, yet still knelt there, not for his own sake, but for the sake of Germany.

While Brandt’s symbolic gesture has entered history as the defining moment of Germany’s reconciliation with the East, contemporary public opinion was very much divided. A poll conducted by Der Spiegel magazine one week after the event suggested that 48% of Germans thought the knee fall was excessive; only 41% described it as appropriate.

Germany’s reconciliation with the West has also employed its fair share of symbolism. The most emotional occurred in September 1984 on the killing fields of Verdun. This time it was not German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who took the initiative, but French Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand.

For both, the visit to Verdun was a very special and personal one. Kohl’s grandfather fell not far from Verdun during the First World War, and his older brother died fighting during the Second. Mitterrand had meanwhile served in the French resistance after escaping from a German POW camp in December 1941.

At this place, where 700,000 German and French soldiers were slaughtered during the Great War, these two men stood hand-in-hand commemorating the friendship of two proud nations.

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These German leaders have entered history because they transformed places of hate and suffering into symbols of friendship and peace – not with words, but with acts of courage and benevolence. The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and the killing fields of Verdun still resonate throughout Europe as the most powerful symbols of German sovereignty and of the nation’s reconciliation with East and West.

It is, of course, very hard to conceive of the present leaders of Japan or South Korea following in the footsteps of their European counterparts. Still, the parallels are compelling. Much like Kohl and Mitterrand, Abe and Park are personally entrenched in their own nations’ histories. And as with Brandt, only a gesture that goes beyond a mere apology can normalize relations.

Stefan Soesanto is an MA graduate from Yonsei GSIS University (Seoul, South Korea), and former full-time intern at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in the Center for Security Policy and the American Center for Politics and Policy.