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South Korea and Japan's Frictions over History (Comments)

Junya Nishino Professor, Keio University

1. The Japan-Korea New Era Joint Research Project

In addition to the Japan-Korea Joint History Research Committee, the Japan-Korea New Era Joint Research Project was active from 2009 through 2013 under the initiative of the governments of the two countries. Professor Masao Okonogi served as chairman and this speaker as secretary. The South Korean side was represented by Professor Ha Young-sun of Seoul National University as chairman, and by Professor Lee Won-Deog of Kookmin University as secretary. The project members consisted mainly of international political scientists and international economists from the two countries. Learning a lot from experiences with the Japan-Korea Joint History Research Committee, the project aimed at exploring and proposing specific areas where Japan and South Korea could collaborate in a future-oriented manner on themes in international politics and economy --- instead of history issues. However, eventually, as the year 2010 fell on the 100th anniversary since Japan's annexation of Korea, the project report was obliged to touch on history issues.

In 2010, Prime Minister Naoto Kan delivered a speech of apology for Japan's colonial rule of Korea. It was a ground-breaking statement in the sense that the incumbent Japanese government admitted that Japan's annexation and colonial rule of Korea was forcibly effected. Today, however, Prime Minister Abe never refers to the statement.

The Korean side still regards the conclusion of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910 as "unfair and illegal" but the Japanese side maintains it was "unfair but valid." There will never be a complete agreement on the understanding of history between the two countries. Based on this premise, we have to build up the Japan-South Korea relationship for the future.

2. Changes in the political situation in and around South Korea

"The US-China G2" has gained currency in South Korea since the 2010s. Before that, South Korea's recognition of the international order was "the big four," meaning that South Korea is geopolitically surrounded by the four major powers --- the United States, Russia, China and Japan. As the "the big four" have been transformed into "the US-China G2," Japan and Russia are drifting without being given a clear position in South Korea's current diplomacy. Japan has slipped out of South Korea's perception of the international order. This is one of the reasons why South Korea cannot work in earnest on the Japan-South Korea relationship. Noteworthy in this connection is the recent restructuring of South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The "Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau" responsible for diplomacy related to Japan and China will be reorganized into a bureau which is to mainly deal with Chinese affairs, while a section in charge of Japanese affairs will be created in a newly to-be-established "Asia-Pacific affairs Bureau," which is to deal with Indian affairs and Australian affairs as well.

Looking at domestic changes in South Korea, with the democratization of Korea, the following are of note: (1) the progressives gained power, and (2) the confrontation between the conservatives and the progressives began to intensify in the early 2000s (3) generational change took place simultaneously. These three moves had a negative impact on the Japan-South Korea relationship. After the democratization, the so-called "three Kims era" (Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Jong-pil) ensued for a while, and the old politics before the democratization was partially carried over into the politics of the "three Kims era." Drastic changes that happened in the Roh Moo-hyun era starting in 2003 brought about a new politics and a new society in South Korea. The progressive administration continued for ten consecutive years, including the Kim Dae-jung administration, and the progressives made rapid progress in South Korea. The core generation of the progressives was called the "386 generation" --- now named "586" or "86 generation," because the people of the generation are in their 50s. The power elite of the current Moon Jae-in administration come from this generation group. The advent of the progressives has accelerated their political confrontation with the conservatives.

Japanese people regard the Korean progressive power group collectively as "anti-Japanese," but it should be noted that the reasons behind the actions of the Roh administration or the Moon administration are not "anti-Japanese." The progressives are advocating a controversy over history, targeting the "pro-Japanese" conservatives. As a result, the controversy appears to the Japanese people as an "anti-Japanese" action. However, the real purpose of their action is to fight the conservatives or the former authoritarian power.

During the Cold War era, the conservatives monopolized the right to interpret the contemporary history of Korea. As far as the Japan-South Korea relationship is concerned, the conservative interpretation emphasized a positive dimension in that South Korea achieved economic development by using compensation money (economic cooperation fund) provided by Japan as the result of the 1965 normalization of the bilateral diplomatic relations, as seed money. The progressives object to this interpretation. According to their interpretation, at the time of the normalization in 1965, the liquidation of the unfortunate past between the two countries was not achieved, and it is necessary to rectify this failure even today. With the coming to power of the progressives, these opinions are now becoming increasingly dominant in South Korea. They affect recent judicial judgements and decisions on pending issues between the two countries.

3. Pending issues between Japan and South Korea including the issue of claim rights

Under the current situation, the Scenario 1 explained by Professor Okonogi will have to continue for a while. It can be said that we are plunging headlong into the worst scenario. The Moon administration has made a "decision to make no decision" (Professor Okonogi's "leave-it-alone option"). In other words, they have decided to do nothing in particular for a while. After the Supreme Court of South Korea made a decision on October 30, last year, the South Korean government launched a task force to consider possible responses to work out a direction until the year end. The government, however, came to the conclusion that they were not in a position to show any clear position. As a result, they seem to be adopting a "leave-it-alone option." The chief reason for their decision to take no decision is that the Moon administration deems it imperative not to repeat the mistakes committed by President Park. However, the Park administration ventured a political intervention into the issues of comfort women and claim rights to achieve a definite solution. It invited public criticism and led to the downfall of the Park administration and the birth of the Moon administration. Therefore, the Moon administration has to respond taking into account the failures of the Park administration and also public opinion.

The problem is thought to be addressed by the Blue House national security room as a diplomatic issue between Japan and South Korea; but it is also a problem to be dealt with by the Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs or by the Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs as an issue of claim rights or a judicial decision. It would be ideal if the incumbent administration could maintain the balance between "diplomacy" (the relationship with Japan) and "justice" acceptable to the public. Since it is difficult, however, to strike a good balance, the Moon administration gives priority to "justice." Incidentally, the administration's political vision is "The country of the Korean people, the great country of justice --- the ROK."

The Moon administration argues that since the forced labor issue is a civil lawsuit, it should be settled between plaintiffs and defendants. The administration looks forward to positive responses from the relevant Japanese corporations. Most of the Korean plaintiffs seem to prefer a settlement through talks with the Japanese companies. Some of them, however, are losing their patience with the prolonged negotiations. The probability of cashing the seized assets of a Japanese steelmaker is increasing.

Meanwhile, the Moon administration seems to consider it inappropriate to intervene in the matter until the conclusion of the ongoing trial of Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae, who allegedly abused judiciary power to delay the court's final decision on the forced labor issue, in collusion with President Park Geun-hye.

Rather than lacking interest in it, the South Korean people either seem optimistic or do not think seriously about the forced labor issue. On the other hand, the conservative Korean media is showing increased anxiety about the worsening of the Japan-South Korea relationship. In the past, all South Korean media used to criticize Japan over issues with Japan. What is now worth paying attention to is that we come across many media comments critical of the South Korean government.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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