June 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-Republic of Korea Basic Relations Treaty that normalised the bilateral diplomatic ties. In light of the paths the two countries have taken during the half century, efforts should be redoubled to address the task of rebuilding the bilateral relationship that has stagnated over the past few years.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se visited Japan for the first time for talks with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida. Regarding the so-called comfort women, no specific accord was reached except for an agreement to continue consultations between Tokyo and Seoul.
Concerning Japan's bid to gain World Cultural Heritage status for Meiji-era (1868-1912) industrial revolution sites, over which South Korea has raised objections, Kishida and Yun concurred that the two countries should go hand in hand in moving forward with Japan supporting South Korea's efforts to have historic sites from the ancient kingdom of Baekje put on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Politicisation of World Heritage registration should have been avoided, and the matter placed in the hands of experts on the cultural values of the properties in question.
Park urged to end bigotry
In the 1965 Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation, Japan pledged to provide South Korea with economic assistance worth $500 million in grants and government loans. The accord also explicitly stated that all compensation issues were settled "completely and finally."
In addition to the funds available under the 1965 agreement, the subsequent investments and technological transfers from Japan to South Korea contributed greatly to South Korea's dramatic economic growth that has been referred to as the "miracle of Hangan."
The 1998 Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration by then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi marked the advent of a new era between the two nations. While Obuchi in the landmark declaration offered a forthright apology for "damage and suffering" inflicted on the Korean people because of Japan's colonial rule, Kim expressed a desire for developing "future-oriented relationship" between the two countries.
Following the Obuchi-Kim talks, the South Korean president allowed by stages the entry of Japanese popular culture into his country. Cultural exchanges between Japan and South Korea gained momentum, later leading to the emergence in Japan of a Korean pop culture boom.
South Korea now ranks seventh in the list of the world's biggest exporting countries and is a member of the Group of 20 major economies. Joint undertakings by Japanese and South Korean enterprises have been on the rise and a relationship of interdependence has deepened between the two countries.
A trip, however, in August 2012 by then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to the Takeshima islands, and his remarks calling for an apology by the Emperor soured bilateral ties. President Park Geun-hye, who took office in February 2013, has made the holding of a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe contingent on resolving the comfort women issue, and she has stubbornly refused to meet with the prime minister.
In reference to the speech Abe delivered in the US Congress in April this year, Park criticised the prime minister for "failing to take advantage of the opportunity to make a sincere apology ... and strengthen trust with neighbouring countries."
Resolve 'comfort women'
Fundamentally, the compensation problem involving the comfort women has been legally resolved under the 1965 agreement. The Asian Women's Fund that was established by the Japanese government, however, made payments of "atonement money" to 61 former South Korean comfort women, accompanied by letters of apology by the then Japanese prime minister.
As long as Park ignores these facts and does not change her stance of pressing the Abe administration for unilateral concessions, it will be difficult for the Japanese side to compromise.
Behind South Korea's tough stance on Japan are the country's growing anti-Japan nationalism, which could be said an adverse by-product of the country's democratisation, and the government's populist policy.
With regard to comfort women, a private organisation in support of former comfort women is in the forefront of public opinion.
A statue of a girl symbolising comfort women that this organisation erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul contravenes the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates that a host country must protect a diplomatic mission, such as an embassy. To repair diplomatic relations, the statue must first be removed.
Park's pressure on Japan to have a "correct perception of history," apparently going along with anti-Japan opinion in the country, intensifies anti-South Korean sentiment in Japan, leading to a vicious circle.
We think that even if there are differences in views on territorial issues or historic perception between Japan and South Korea, the primary task of diplomacy is to minimise the negative impact of such differences on the overall relationship between the two countries.
We also cannot overlook the fact that South Korea's judiciary authorities in recent years have shaken the foundation of the 1965 agreement on property claims.
The South Korean Constitutional Court has issued a ruling that called for the government to negotiate with the Japanese government over comfort women.
Meanwhile, South Korean courts have handed down one ruling after another ordering Japanese companies to pay damages to South Koreans who were forced to work in wartimes.
South Korea's unlawful occupation of the Takeshima islands is also an issue that must be dealt with under international law and therefore needs to be settled at the International Court of Justice.
After the war, Japan, as a pacifist nation, has contributed to the development of South Korea. Good examples of such development are the Pohang integrated steel mill, for which engineers, including those of Nippon Steel Corp., co-operated in the construction of the facilities in the city, and the development of a subway system in Seoul.
School textbooks and local mass media in South Korea seldom refer to such assistance. This is one of the factors behind anti-Japan sentiment among South Koreans.
Worries over China, N Korea
Deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea have also become a cause for worry for US President Barack Obama's administration in its Asian rebalancing policy. To pressure the North Korean regime, led by Kim Jong Un, to abandon its nuclear development, it is vital for Japan, the United States and South Korea to reinforce their co-operation.
It is also a cause for worry that Park, attaching importance to strengthening ties with China, has shown signs of forming a unified front with China against Japan over historical issues.
One goal is to press for restraint by China, which is aiming to change the regional status quo by force, as seen by its extensive maritime advance. Another goal that must be pursued is to realise the peace and prosperity of East Asia over the mid- and long term. This is the time for both Japan and South Korea to share such strategic goals.
Following the conclusion of the treaty normalising relations with Japan, then South Korean President Park Chung Hee said in the National Assembly that his country must not take the wrong path in the present and the future by adhering too much and solely to the past.
This is a sentiment that we hope his daughter, the current president, will take to heart.