The Koreas

Can South Korea Mend Ties With Japan?

Recent Features

The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Can South Korea Mend Ties With Japan?

The Yoon administration has expressed a strong willingness to improve bilateral ties with Japan, but Tokyo seems unwilling to budge on the central issues. 

Can South Korea Mend Ties With Japan?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Japan-South Korea relations have apparently deteriorated since then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017. Among many issues promoting disharmony, Tokyo’s denials on historical issues such as “comfort women” and forced laborers have critically aggravated bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan for decades.

With Washington pushing its allies to mend their deteriorated ties to cope with regional issues effectively, South Korea’s government, now under conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, has taken the initiative to end Seoul’s disagreement with Tokyo.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin met Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on Tuesday, conveying Yoon’s condolences over the death of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Kishida expressed appreciation for Yoon’s condolences.

During the meeting, Park delivered Seoul’s hopes to have a summit meeting between Yoon and Kishida to improve bilateral relations at a convenient time. Park also suggested inheriting the spirit of the joint declaration made between former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and former Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo in 1998.

The Kim-Obuchi Declaration was an emblematic agreement reached between the two countries for rebuilding ties toward the 21st century. In the declaration, 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.” (The Republic of Korea is the official name of South Korea.)

Obuchi did not specifically mention “comfort women” and forced laborers in his statement, but clearly he recognized the historical facts that Japan had committed crimes against innocent South Korean civilians during its colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. In order to develop relations with Japan, it is critically important for Seoul to see how Tokyo perceives the historical pain that South Koreans bear.

More importantly, Kim and Obuchi “shared the view that it was important that the peoples of both countries, the young generation in particular, deepen their understanding of history, and stressed the need to devote much attention and effort to that end.” This part of the statement is what South Koreans, including the surviving “comfort women,” hope to see implemented as an effort of the Japanese government to improve ties with South Korea. However, Tokyo has not followed through.

Since Abe was elected prime minister in 2012, Japan has reversed the 1998 joint declaration and distributed government-designed textbooks that covered factually inaccurate information on historical issues of deep concern to South Korea, including the sovereignty of Dokdo Island, comfort women, and forced laborers. Under the control of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Japanese government from the 2010s has explicitly shown a  hawkish stance with regard to historical disputes with South Korea. This has been the main obstacle for governments in South Korea – both progressive and conservative – to negotiate.

After the meeting with Park, Kishida acknowledged Yoon’s condolences over Abe’s passing without delivering any comments on how he would seek to mend ties with South Korea. This implies that his strategy will remain the same: holding Seoul responsible for the deteriorated relationship.

Kishida has emphasized the importance of following the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between South Korea and Japan. Simply, from Japan’s side, the historical disputes with South Korea have already been resolved since the Japanese government gave $500 million in compensation to the South Korean government in 1965.

Based on the fact that the South Korean government accepted that compensation from the Japanese government in 1965, Tokyo has insisted that Seoul is the one who has not followed the agreement and has been making unacceptable demands again and again over the “resolved” historical disputes.

However, none of the agreements addressed Japan’s legal responsibility for atrocities its imperial military committed against South Koreans. In contrast to Germany’s acceptance of its wartime abuses, the conservative Japanese government has been trying to block the voices of South Korean victims trying to speak about what the Japanese military did.

Tokyo’s position is that it has already extended its sincere apologies to the South Korean victims many times. However, it is important to see the context of these sincere apologies.

Including Abe, Japanese prime ministers and foreign ministers have publicly and privately delivered their apologies toward the South Korean comfort women. However, Tokyo has never admitted that the comfort women were “forcefully” harassed by the Japanese military, essentially dismissing the comfort women as “prostitutes.” This is the main point of Tokyo’s stance, so as to avoid the issue being treated as a war crime. Even after the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement was made, Abe clearly stated that the agreement was not an admission that Tokyo was involved in a war crime.

The Kono statement is the most specific statement on the comfort women issue, but it too was vague as to whether the Japanese military forcefully drafted the comfort women.

In this context, South Korea’s progressive Moon Jae-in government had de facto nullified the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, as it failed to garner support from the comfort women and the public.

Apparently, the Japanese government delivered apologies even though they were not united in accepting the history. Each of these statements compromised on the basis of the political interests and ideology of the prime ministers. Most importantly, from South Korea’s perspective, Tokyo has never taken any legal responsibility toward the comfort women and forced laborers, because it continues to deny the fact that they were coerced.

Still, about 11 comfort women survivors are urging Tokyo to make sincere apologies and accept all the published evidence demonstrating the fact that they were forcefully drafted to be sexual slaves for the Japanese military. The bereaved families of the forced laborers who worked for Japanese corporations such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nippon Steel and Toshiba Corporation have also been seeking compensation through the courts.

In the wake of the landmark rulings of South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 that ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate South Korean forced laborers, the two companies have refused to abide by the rulings and Tokyo has consistently urged Seoul to take appropriate actions as well. However, no party can reverse the decision made by the Supreme Court in South Korea.

In his visit to Tokyo, Park mentioned that the government will find ways to smoothly deal with the disputes over the forced laborers but time is running short. Pending another court decision, the seized assets of the two Japanese companies may be sold in the coming months. Meanwhile, it’s unclear what solution can be found as Tokyo is unlikely to yield on any of historical disputes that have to be settled through the negotiations with Seoul.