Twenty years ago, Japan and South Korea seemed on the cusp of forging a new “future-oriented relationship” based on mutual interests, common values, and shared goals. The joint declaration issued by Japan’s Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung included an action plan to jumpstart an era of closer engagement. It was an upbeat, proactive declaration of intent that now seems excessively exuberant. What went wrong?
Reframing the relationship was never going to be easy because of the gaping wound of Japan’s colonial subjugation of the Korean peninsula 1910-1945. The 1998 joint declaration grasps that nettle, stating that “Prime Minister Obuchi regarded in a spirit of humility the fact of history that Japan caused, during a certain period in the past, tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule, and expressed his deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.” Kim expressed appreciation for this apology and called on both nations to “overcome their unfortunate history” and “build a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation.”
That goal has proved elusive. The two frenemies have not been able to thaw the permafrost of shared history; instead, they lurch from angry recriminations to open hostility with rare but brief intervals of chilly comradery. During the recent FIFA World Cup, for example, in bars and public venues young Koreans in Seoul lustily cheered Belgium’s come from behind victory over Japan and a television announcer even thanked the Belgians for winning.
Opinion polls offer some limited comfort. The 2018 NPO Genron Poll suggests significant improvement in South Korean views toward Japan. Just over half of South Koreans have a bad impression of Japan, down from 77 percent in 2013. Simultaneously, however, negative impressions among Japanese toward South Korea have risen from 37 percent in 2013 to 46 percent in 2018. With half still clinging to hostility in both nations, there is still a deep hole to climb out of.
Historical issues remain the most contentious issue, as 70 percent in both countries cite these as the main cause of disaffection. Japanese resent being raked over the coals of past misdeeds while South Koreans don’t think Japanese have taken the measure of what their nation perpetrated. There is little optimism in either country (25 percent in South Korea and 18 percent in Japan) about prospects for an improvement in relations as most expect the situation to remain the same while 14 percent in both nations anticipate things getting worse.
It is encouraging that both publics recognize the importance of bilateral relations (56 percent in Japan and 82 percent in South Korea), mostly because of being neighbors and sharing “deep historical and cultural ties.” Common values such as democracy are cited by only 9 percent in both nations while shared security concerns as U.S. allies are cited by just 23 percent of Japanese and 15 percent of South Koreans.
Japanese believe that the two issues key to improving relations are historical disputes in general (55 percent) and the comfort women issue (42 percent) in particular while the top issue for South Koreans is the Dokdo territorial dispute (81 percent) with historical disputes (78 percent) and the comfort women issue (74 percent) close behind.
What historical grievances need to be resolved? For South Koreans, two-thirds cite the comfort women issue and Japanese textbooks’ depictions of shared history. Japanese perceptions of colonial history (58 percent), reparations (44 percent), and lack of remorse (31 percent) also figure prominently. For Japanese the two main concerns are anti-Japanese education (64 percent) and aggressive anti-Japan acts over history (57 percent). So much for moving on.
Indeed, the backlash in Japan against South Korea has intensified as tabloids and weekly magazines regularly vilify Koreans and amp up the vitriol by invoking negative stereotypes. There is a pervasive sense that South Koreans play the history card to belittle Japan and to tarnish its international reputation, matched by South Koreans’ sense that Japan is shirking the perpetrator’s burden. Many Japanese complain that South Koreans continually move the goalposts on reconciliation while their counterparts believe that Japan has abandoned the pitch. Oddly, many Japanese harbor an acute sense of victimization that feeds on South Korean criticisms about Japan’s insufficient contrition about the colonial past and inadequate redress efforts.
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the August 4, 1993 Kono Statement that acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement in the coercive recruitment of comfort women on the Korean Peninsula.
This statement also promised to educate young Japanese about this sordid saga and to atone for the indignities inflicted. Atonement was manifest in the Asian Women’s Fund (1995-2007), a quasi-state nongovernment organization that provided payments to former comfort women and letters of apology by sitting prime ministers.
Very few agreed to take the money offered. There was a widespread perception in South Korea that Japan was evading legal responsibility by channeling redress through a non-state institution, a carefully calibrated measure that fell well short of the grand gesture required. Japanese diplomats were bitter that the proffered olive branch was shunned and felt betrayed when the South Korean government offered former comfort women the equivalent redress, but only if they turned down the AWF.
In terms of Kono’s promise on education, by the mid-1990s all of Japan’s mainstream secondary school textbooks covered the comfort women, but now none of them do, feeding South Korean perceptions that Japan suffers from perpetrator’s fatigue.
In 2015 then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried unsuccessfully to rekindle the spirit of the Obuchi-Kim moment. The agreement to solve the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly” was dead on arrival because it did not meet 21st century expectations and norms about a victim-centered process. The former comfort women were not consulted during secret negotiations and Abe never made a public apology, only calling it in to Park. This lack of empathy meant that Japan’s agreement to pay 1 billion yen ($9.8 million) to support the aging victims never gained traction, especially because Tokyo expected that in return South Korea would remove the comfort women statue across the street from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and adhere to a gag order on raising the issue internationally.
Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in launched an investigation of the 2015 agreement that found it comprehensively flawed, but even so agreed to abide by it. His request for Abe to issue a public apology was rebuffed, showing just how hard it is to recapture the spirit of 1998.
Sanctimonious nationalism has trumped the humility requisite to reconciliation. Obuchi understood this and Emperor Akihito has embraced this spirit as Japan’s chief emissary of reconciliation, crisscrossing the region to address the unfinished business of his father’s war. His abdication next year creates a vacuum in moral authority and leadership over the historical controversies, which revisionists like Abe have stoked by downplaying and denying wartime excesses while fabricating a vindicating and exonerating narrative. Moon is Kim’s heir, but Abe is far more ideological than Obuchi and with his re-election to a third three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party president in September virtually certain, substantive progress on a future-oriented relationship appears unlikely.
Tokyo says it is considering various measures to revive the spirit of 1998, but hitting the reset button requires Abe to emulate Obuchi by apologizing for wrongdoing precisely because revisionists repeatedly disavow any such apologies and thereby sow doubts about Japanese contrition. Ironically, Abe’s ongoing efforts to rehabilitate Japan’s shabby wartime past, remove comfort women statues, and buy silence have drawn the limelight to an egregious era and diverted attention away from the numerous positive stories about contemporary Japan that enhance Brand Japan.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. He is co-editor with James D.J. Brown of Japan’s Foreign Relations with Asia (Routledge 2018).