Are perennially rocky relations between South Korea and its former colonizer Japan in the midst of a thaw? That has been the suggestion in various media since the first official talks Monday between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Despite their countries’ close geographic and cultural proximity, the leaders hadn’t formally met one-on-one since taking power, a result of a tense standoff over historical and territorial disputes. At the talks, Park and Abe agreed to work toward a solution to the most contentious of these issues, that of the “comfort women,” the euphemistic term for Korean and other women coerced into prostitution by imperial Japan. South Korea has long demanded compensation and a sincere apology for the victims, while Japan has argued the matter was settled by a 1965 normalization treaty that included monetary restitution and an apology in the early 1990s.
But while the meeting represents progress, a true warming of ties will require a shift in public attitudes in the two nations, said Robert E. Kelly, an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University.
“Neither one of them are really dealing with the sort of structural issues below in their societies that sort of create the trouble between them,” Kelly told The Diplomat.
“That is why they’ve both got nationalistic textbooks; they’ve both got activated right-wing sectors that insist on keeping historical issues between the countries alive and well.”
Kelly said that shapers of public opinion in both countries have often indulged in or failed to counter extremist positions and rhetoric. As examples, he pointed to an oped in the Joongang Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers, which said the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan was “divine punishment,” and to Abe’s recurring visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors a number of convicted war criminals among other war dead.
“The Korean media can say that stuff, they can be as unhinged as they want to be. But if Korean elites want to have a relationship with Japan, they are going to have to call that stuff out, and right now there’s just no upside to encouraging moderation on Japan,” said Kelly.
He added that neither Park nor Abe have much incentive to counter narratives that paint their neighbor in a sinister light.
“(Nationalists) helped put Abe in office, and I think he sympathizes a lot with them actually about the empire — he won’t say it, but I think he does,” Kelly said. “And in Korea, Park is uniquely compromised in addressing the Japanese period because her father (dictator Park Chung-hee) was so obviously a collaborator.”
Nam Chang-hee, a professor of political science at Inha University, said repairing ties fundamentally will require Japan to grasp the comfort women issue, but also for South Korea to show it is capable of moving on.
“In order to move forward in the bilateral relations, President Park needs to assure that once the women’s human rights issue is resolved Seoul would not repeat similar conditional diplomacy,” he said, “and Prime Minister Abe should understand (that) facing the issue straightforwardly does not damage Japan’s reputation but, on the contrary, will enhance Japan’s international standing as Germany successfully did.”