South Korea-Japan relations: Three sources of misunderstanding

Oh Cheon-do, a South Korean anti-Japan protester, shouts slogans to lodge a complaint against Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visiting the Yasukuni war shrine to mark the first anniversary of his taking office, in front of Japanese embassador's residence in Seoul on December 27, 2013

THE end of the Cold War has brought back diverse spectres of the old times in the past two decades. Seoul and Tokyo, in particular, have become the victims of traditional sources of inter-state conflict. These include territorial disputes, historical controversies, quarrels over national identity, and distrust among neighbours. Despite flourishing economic ties, the clash between the two nations, both well known for their nationalistic sentiments, was perhaps predestined.

From a South Korean perspective, there appear to be three key issues that non-Korean observers tend to misunderstand, often in a rather ill-intended way. First, many scholars and analysts from the West and the United States, in particular, argue that history is just history and that the present is more important. Japan and South Korea must therefore learn to cooperate.

As far as the mainstream South Korean viewpoint is concerned, however, the past is never past. South Koreans are constantly reminded by Japanese politicians and scholars that the present is only an extension of the past and therefore, it cannot be ignored. In fact, in this regard, even the US is no innocent bystander since many of the geostrategic troubles East Asia is currently facing originated in large part from the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco.

Another common source of misunderstanding concerns the so-called "China factor". Some allege that the rise of China is driving a wedge between South Korea and Japan. These observers argue that Seoul is closer than ever to becoming a part of the Chinese orbit at the expense of much-needed security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo.

Such a view has some kernel of truth. But it must also be noted that South Korea's strategic calculus cannot be the same as that of Japan, which has longstanding rivalry with China. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that Seoul has no concern or fear about a possibly aggressive China that is fast rising on its border.

But brushing off the current state of South Korea-Japan relations as simply part of the fallout of China's rise misses the whole point. Instead, it seems to make more sense to view America's rebalance towards Asia and the resulting change in the geopolitical situation empowering Japan militarily as a reason for the current impasse between Seoul and Tokyo.

Third, many pundits around the world also suggest that South Korea and Japan should make equal effort at improving their strained bilateral relations and work together for a better future. East Asia would certainly be better off with one less conflict.

However, I cannot agree with the recommendation in its entirety. The problem is with the word "equal".

Let us not forget, under any circumstances, that Japan was unequivocally the aggressor and Korea the victim during the colonial period and World War II. How fair and neutral is it to ask the victim to make the same effort as the aggressor?

Working together for a better future is, nevertheless, important. Who would dare to disagree with that?

Nearly half of the South Korean public, according to a recent poll by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, support a South Korea-Japan summit soon. But when salt is continually put on old wounds, even diplomatic efforts can hardly succeed in patching up differences, not to speak of total healing.

There have, of course, been the provision of bandages on two occasions. They were the famous Kono and Murayama statements of 1993 and 1995 respectively, that acknowledged and apologised in earnest for Japan's wartime atrocities, including that of sex slaves.

Many people tend to characterise what they hear from Japanese politicians as either mishaps or gestures geared only to their domestic political audience. Is this really the case?

Or is there a steady, systematic and discernible trend where Japan has been moving in an undesirable direction from the perspective of its neighbours? If the latter is really true, working together for a better future will, no doubt, be very difficult, if not impossible.

An important statistic from a 2012 report of the North-east Asian History Foundation points to the daunting difficulty that may face South Korea-Japan relations in the future. In 2000, the share of Japanese middle and high schools that adopted "rightist" textbooks (which choose to deny facts such as the Nanjing Massacre and wartime sex slaves) was a mere 0.04 per cent.


But by 2012, the comparable ratio skyrocketed to 4 per cent, marking a hundredfold rise in just 12 years.

One cannot but wonder what the figure will be like 10 years from now. In the meantime, many young Japanese students are going to learn a wrong and distorted history of their nation and East Asia. What kind of Japan will this produce when those students take up important decision-making positions, say in 2040? This is precisely why the past is not past - at least not yet.

Tokyo's neighbours, including South Korea, have no quarrels about Japan becoming a normal country. The crux of the matter concerns what kind of normal country Japan will become, given the track record of its politicians, both in words and deeds.

Politicians talk a lot about reconciliation, mutual trust and cooperation. But none of them is easier done than said, particularly when it comes to inter-state relations with painful histories.

Statesmanship is badly needed in this era of troubled times. Genuine statesmanship, however, is rare and comes only at a premium.

Can responsible citizens, conscientious intellectuals and non-governmental organisations do something good and important for the strained relationship between Seoul and Tokyo? With the politicians squabbling among themselves, perhaps this is the only way forward.

The writer is professor of international relations and director of the programme on US-China relations at Seoul National University, and a visiting senior fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore.

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