In his recent remarks commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Ⅱ, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to Japanese war crimes: He mentioned “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology,” but without actually issuing a direct apology himself. Despite this semantic trickery, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has emphasized that close cooperation with Japan is essential for the peace and prosperity of both countries and for the rest of East Asia.
Following Abe’s speech, South Korea’s Joongang Daily reported on a survey of U.S. scholars and historians about the current stalemate in relations between Japan and South Korea: 90 percent blame the Japanese government and 10 percent the South Korean one, though 60 percent thought South Korea was most responsible for blocking a face-to-face meeting between Abe and Park. U.S. commentators have accused the South Korean government of “moving the goalposts” by insisting on a direct apology for Japanese war crimes, and some talk of “apology fatigue,” in which South Korea uses every August 15 as an excuse to berate Japan for its history. Unfortunately, however, this U.S. perspective ignores the realities of local opinion, with the Japanese typically believing that previous apologies are perfectly adequate and South Koreans perceiving an arrogant failure to confront past transgressions, facilitating egregious historical revisionism.
Despite the urgent need for Japan and South Korea to cooperate – in managing the assertive rise of China, but most conspicuously in containing the North Korean threat – this is inevitably complicated by a lingering mistrust with deep historical roots. There are several underlying themes to this problem.
First, there is the issue of who is a victim and who is responsible for creating those victims. The true victims are clearly Chinese and South Korean and American, and the true perpetrators are clearly Japanese, yet following in the footsteps of earlier administrations Abe’s has done all it can to portray Japan as the victim. Moreover the U.S., for understandable reasons, has done nothing to correct this blatantly hypocritical narrative, and would obviously prefer the surviving South Korean women exploited as sex slaves by the Japanese Empire, the euphemistically termed “comfort women,” to just keep quiet. It suits both Japan, as the imperialist aggressor, and the U.S., which waged nuclear war, to draw a line under the past and talk about focusing on the future, but the South Korean perspective is quite different.
Second, why is it important to build up trust between Japan and South Korea? In response to the rise of China, which is pursing its strategic ambitions and building up its power in the region, the U.S. is currently pursuing a rather vaguely defined political pivot and military rebalancing toward Asia. For this policy to succeed it is essential that all the East Asian partners of the U.S. have sufficient trust in one another to work harmoniously together to synchronize their supporting efforts. And South Korea will never really attain the required level of trust with Japan unless there is a comprehensive accounting of Japan’s historical misdeeds: Until Japan really comes clean, as Germany has already done, true cooperation will remain out of reach. Not just the stability of the Korean Peninsula but the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia are at stake.
Third, some commentators have argued that both the Japanese and South Korean governments make use of nationalist sentiments to bolster support for conservative administrations. In fact this misrepresents the relative significance of such movements. Although South Korea has seen some campaigns urging the boycott of Japanese products and occasional threats made against Japanese tourists and businesspeople, in fact Japanese cars are quite popular and South Korean tourists are keen visitors to Japanese historical sites. In contrast, Japanese nationalism is far more mainstream, with frequent anti-Korean demonstrations at which Japanese Imperial Army uniforms are worn and militaristic slogans are shouted.
Fourth, who has taken the lead in trying to bridge the gap? Indisputably, this has always been South Korea. Excepting Syngman Rhee’s administration, South Korean governments have been remarkably conciliatory towards Japan, in recognition of the need to deal with North Korean military adventurism. Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were especially brave in setting aside the past to articulate the prospects for a normal relationship with Japan. South Korea has consistently sought bilateral military-to-military cooperation with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), holding intelligence-sharing meetings between the Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense and the Japanese Defense Agency (later “Ministry”). For example, in 1999 the South Korean Navy initiated navy-to-navy staff talks with the maritime JSDF, discussing North Korean military provocations and Chinese naval activities in the Yellow Sea. In fact, given its unusual constitutional constraints, Japan relies upon the South Korean military (as well as that of the US) to defend Japan from North Korean threats. It is fair to say that the tri-national intelligence sharing accord between Japan and South Korea signed last year, with the U.S. as an intermediary, indicates that political differences can be overcome when the need for strategic cooperation is paramount. For South Korea, this makes it all the more galling that Japanese revisionists like Abe are so reluctant to own up to Japan’s dark past by making an unequivocal apology to those countries which are now its neighbors and partners.
Lastly and most importantly, the U.S. has been too timid in its approach to renewing the strategic trilateral military cooperation with Japan and South Korea. Washington is keen to talk up the benefits of a more active security cooperation, but on historical issues it always seeks to split the difference between the positions of Japan and South Korea. This is clearly perverse, trying to balance the demands of the aggressor with those of the victim, and the U.S. stance also ignores the fact that Korea was not included among the signatories to the San Francisco Peace Treaty and so the grievances of the South Korean people against Japanese colonialism have never been fully addressed. The U.S. will be unable to make a useful contribution to thawing relations between Seoul and Tokyo until it acknowledges this glaring disparity.
Abe’s statement was at best a diluted apology, carefully calibrated to say nothing more than that which is utterly undeniable. Even so, Park refrained from making any serious criticism, and reiterated the desirability of closer relations with Japan. Doubtless she will say more on this issue during her upcoming visit to Beijing: It is her sixth summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but she has not had a face-to-face meeting with Abe since taking office more than two years ago. The view from the U.S. recognizes no sensible impediment to reconciling the rift between Seoul and Tokyo, and there is a clear U.S. imperative – to keep a resurgent China in check – which encourages the U.S. to keep trying to push Park and Abe to just “get over it.” Alas, the view from East Asia is not so simple.
Sukjoon Yoon is a retired navy captain and a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. He is also a visiting professor at the Department of Defense System Engineering, Sejong University, Seoul, Korea.