Japan and South Korea Relationships (Question & Answer)

[The Japanese government's current stance related to the forced labor issue is that personal claim rights still exist, whereas the right of diplomatic protection does not exist anymore. But the original stance was different. And yet, if my memory is correct, did the Japanese government turn over its original policy in the 2000s and begin asserting that the right of diplomatic protection had been waived?]

Okonogi: During a House of Councilors Budget Committee meeting on August 27, 1991, Shunji Yanai, Chief of the Treaty Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained, "(In accordance with the Japan-Korea Agreement on Right of Claims,) both Japan and Korea renounced the right of diplomatic protection they retained as states. Therefore, it does not mean that so-called individual rights themselves were extinguished in the sense of domestic law." Meanwhile, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled to the effect that although individual claims are not extinguished, "judicial rights" have been revoked; and responsible parties' voluntary actions are desirable.

Nishino: The Supreme Court's decision on the forced labor issue took place in 2007. Afterwards the plaintiffs (former forced laborers) filed the case they had lost in Japan in a Korean court. As a result, the plaintiffs won the case in South Korea, irrespective of the ruling of the Japanese Supreme Court.

[According to Professor Nishino, the progressives are essentially not anti-Japanese but anti-conservative. I think that during the Roh Moo-hyun administration era, the progressives consisted of the extreme left and the normal traditional left. The current administration is the extreme left --- at least in the case of the followers of President Moon. I think that many of the progressives who played a central role in the Roh administration were rather pro-Japanese. Doesn't the extreme leftist nature of the current administration contribute to making the problems difficult? ]

Okonogi: I don't think they are extreme left. They are rather extremely nationalistic. I think it is not the internationalism but rather Korean nationalism that turns to anti-Japanism. If they make a nationalist claim, it is bound to bear an anti-Japanese character. As Prof. Nishino has pointed out, it may be correct to recognize that they do not act from the outset to promote anti-Japanism. The reason why they are eager to cooperate with North Korea is not because they are leftists, but because they are nationalistic; theirs is a form of Irredentism. For them, "dividing forces" and "the military" are "evils." They are "pro-unification forces" and "democrats." It is true that they are naïve about North Korean communism. Their excessive nationalism may make them misunderstand the true character of the North Korean government.

Nishino: It is not easy to distinguish between "the extreme left" and "the left." The present history controversy between South Korea's conservatives and progressives is a dispute over where to find the origin of the establishment of the Republic of Korea. The current leftist or progressive administration argues that the March 11 independence movement in 1919 and the establishment of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea are the origin and starting point of the Republic of Korea. Regretting the ethnic division since 1945, they wish to trace the roots of the ROK to the establishment of a united-front for independence which organized an independence movement in 1919, under the rule of Japan, rallying the left wing and the right wing together, and founding the provisional government of the Republic of Korea.

Then, why do the progressives not accept the conservative outlook of history that finds the origin of the ROK in the establishment of the government of the Republic of Korea in 1948? The first President of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee is regarded by the progressives as responsible in some way or another for the North-South division, because he established a single independent government only in South Korea after liberation. Even more problematic for them is that Rhee formed his government by enlisting cooperation from the Japanese staff in the office of the former Governors-General of Korea, who remained on the Korean peninsula after liberation, as well as from the so-called "pro-Japanese" Koreans who worked for the Japanese rulers. Rhee was known for his authoritarian rule. In other words, the progressives question the fact that the conservatives failed to disconnect themselves from the remnants of the Japanese rule and to remove the "pro-Japanese." Former President Park Chung-hee is a target of the progressives' fierce attack, because he was once a Japanese military officer. It is based on such a historical controversy in South Korea that the Moon administration claims the liquidation of the "pro-Japanese."

An extremely small number of pro-DPRK Koreans still cherish a false idea that since Kim Il-sung purged completely the pro-Japanese people, North Korea has a greater ethnic legitimacy over the ROK, headed by Syngman Rhee who colluded with the pro-Japanese. While the conservative outlook of history is based on a state nationalism, that of the progressives is a nationalism that emphasizes the unification of all of the Korean people, Chosun and Han, North and South.

[Reportedly, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation is considering the establishment of a fund for compensation for former Chinese forced laborers. As for the earlier mentioned ruling of the Supreme Court, is there any negative prescription for the individual claim rights? ]

Okonogi: That point is ambiguous.

[Then, the Japanese government is dealing with China differently. It may be diplomatically allowable to make some differences in treatment among countries. But is it really right from the viewpoint of the proper role of the judiciary? This may be a fairly difficult question. Involved with numerous complex questions like the relationship between the Supreme Court and diplomacy, the globalization of courts, intellectual property rights, and the issue of human rights of foreign workers, we seem to be at a loss as to what to do. I would like to know experts' opinions regarding the differences in treatment between China and Korea.]

Okonogi: The Mitsubishi Materials corporation took care of Chinese forced laborers without consideration of the Korean victims. I talked with some MMC people. They seem to have been ignorant of the forced labor issue in South Korea. I think they were thinking only of the Chinese victims. In the case of Nishimatsu Construction Co., Ltd., the Japanese Supreme Court identified the company's involvement in forced labor in China and ruled that although the individual claims are not extinguished, "judicial rights" have been revoked. The court induced relief measures for the victims. MMC may have followed the ruling.

[Regarding Professor Okonogi's three scenarios, the combination of scenarios (2) and (3) seems unlikely happen. Considering public opinion, it will be difficult for the Japanese government to take actions specified by the scenarios unless they can be assured that history issues would be collectively resolved. We have many history questions to resolve such as the comfort women issue, other outstanding history issues, and the question of the legitimacy of Japan's colonial rule over Korea, on which a "lid" was only temporarily sealed in 1965. I cannot conceive of any possible route toward scenario (3). Needless to say, however, scenario (1) is a very frightening vision of the collapse of the Japan-ROK relationship. What is the prerequisite to scenario (3)? Statesmen of great stature? Some promises from the ROK? --- but not the kind of promise that will be easily overturned with the change of administration. Unless distrust of the Japanese side is overcome, scenario (3) will not become a reality. If this is the case, no foreign arbitrator will appear, and the situation with no progress may be established. What is the key for a breakthrough, if any?

Another question is about the issue of Korean A-bomb survivors who lived in Japan. I think that the issue will be taken up again in the future. What has become of the survivors after their visits to Japan for treatment were discontinued? They have been neglected for decades. This is another history issue. This issue may contribute to complicating the process to scenario (3).]

Okonogi: You are right. So I have no answer. After all, things will go round and round for the time being. Or scenario (2) or (3) may not evolve until the first scenario has come true. If I am asked whether or not the understanding that the change of administration would revert things to the way they were is right, I would like to reserve my answer, at least until we can size up the next administration. To tell the truth, it is difficult for me to imagine a more nationalist administration than the administrations under Roh Moo-hyun and Moon jae-in.

[Even if Japan gets involved in South Korea's two-track diplomacy and separates current governmental relations from historical issues, the scenario (1) may become true and things will revert to a state prior to 1965. I think their two-track diplomacy may fail somewhere in the future.]

Nishino: What the Moon administration has learnt from the experience of failure in the agreement on the Comfort women issue may be as follows: Since the government's efforts to solve history issues were not effective, it might be better, in the long run, for the government not to forcibly intervene, because an inappropriate intervention by the government in a history issue would only produce the same result as in the case of the comfort women issue, with a negative impact on the Japan-ROK relationship. Thus, the Moon administration is taking no action to improve the present situation following the ruling of the Korean Supreme Court and will leave the solution of history issues to time. The Japanese side, however, fears that if the Japanese government does not respond properly, the Japan-ROK relationship will continue to deteriorate. There is a big gap between Japan and the ROK's perception of the present situation.

I said earlier that South Koreans are optimistic rather than indifferent, which means that they seem to think in this way: "Although the current situation is very severe indeed, we have to find a way out. If it takes time, we have only to overcome the present difficulties for the time being. Then, the Japan-ROK relationship will at least stop getting worse". On the other hand, the Japanese tend to be a little emotional. Since the political relationship between Japan and South Korea has deteriorated we must build it up once again.

[Professor Nishino said it might be better not to intervene in history issues. Recently a WTO decision has been made in favor of a South Korean ban on imports of fishery products from Fukushima prefecture. Is it likely that such a development (less related to history - editor's note) will provide any chance for a Japan-ROK dialogue? Or will it only end in the joy of victory in South Korea?]

Nishino: In South Korea, the issue of importing radioactively contaminated seafood is linked to the misconception that Japan was completely contaminated with radiation, which spread to South Korea right after the 3.11 earthquake in 2011. Therefore, it is not a history issue, but a matter of awareness rather than a matter of fact. The South Korean government or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may therefore deem it necessary to take measures based on scientific data. This question, however, has now become a problem of public awareness and public opinion in another sense, quite difficult to handle.

[I had an opportunity to talk with Korean parliamentarians and military personnel. They seem to want to talk with the Japanese secretly out of fear of public criticism. It is hard to accept now for the Japanese and Korean public to have some dialogue take place between the two countries, while some Korean military personnel express anxiety about the present state. They share with us the recognition that changes in the international situation are having a serious impact on both countries. Apart from efforts to increase confidence or to solve history issues, both countries should continue efforts to maintain cooperation on practical issues. They recognize that it is necessary for both countries to join forces to address security issues by separating history issues from security issues. What do you think of the effectiveness of such an approach? ]

Okonogi: I think the Japan-ROK relationship is characterized by considerable asymmetry, especially when it comes to security issues. Since Japan is almost capable of addressing security issues on its own, she does not necessarily need the help of South Korea. On the contrary, Japan is unilaterally providing assistance to South Korea. However, if a significant change took place in the situation, --- for example, China and North Korea began to increase influence over South Korea, --- Japan would suddenly recognize the importance of South Korea. A rather serious problem would then arise. Some people argue that we have only to defend the Acheson Line; but that is an example of failure. Without the USFK headquarters in Pyeongtaek and the air force base in Osan, it would be impossible to maintain a military equilibrium with China and North Korea. These bases are to South Korea as Kadena and Sasebo bases are to Japan. So there is no doubt that there is interdependence or mutual complementarity between Japan and South Korea in the security domain. There is, however, a considerable time gap. To see the situation strategically in a long perspective and to work on about immediate measures may be largely different.

[I worked in South Korea in the 1990's as a correspondent. It was the era of the Kim Young-sam administration (the first civilian administration). In those days, the Korean people began to advocate the reconstruction of history. They demolished the Governor-General building and other buildings constructed in the colonial era, and Koreanized many Japanese style place names. At that time, however, both Japan and South Korea refrained from exchanging a fatal blow, avoiding a decisive conflict. But the recent Korean administrations seem to have given up self-restraint; and a review of history between Japan and South Korea has been in progress. I think a neo-Confucian political culture is at work. The unique Korean outlook of history demands to adjust realities to the "right" history. This idea is totally foreign to the Japanese having a "let bygones be bygones" mentality. The Koreans seem to believe that an absolute truth exists in the world; and they must respect it and rectify realities, if necessary, so as to make them comply with the truth. This attitude often frustrates their relationship with others. When I stayed in South Korea, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were sentenced to death. The prosecuting administration enacted an ex post facto law, unimaginable for a modern state, and punished retroactively the former presidents. I was scared to see that the Korean culture is capable of going back to the past and restructuring it all over again to produce a "just" history compatible with its outlook of history.

Now the Koreans are attempting to "restructure" the Comfort Women Agreement and the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and ROK. Nobody can tell where they will go. The Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. wanted to pay compensation money to settle their case. But the Prime Minister's Office stopped them, because if the company agrees to compensation, other Japanese companies will be pressured to do the same. On the other hand, Mitsubishi Materials Corp. could negotiate with China in conformity with international law. The Koreans, however, cannot be persuaded by international law. It is unpredictable what will happen if the administration changes. This political instability may be attributed to the fact that in South Korea the rule by the strong still prevails, instead of the rule of law. This historical culture will and can never change in the future.]

Okonogi: Certainly, the cultural gap between Japan and South Korea will not be bridged. Therefore, we had better not attempt to reconcile different opinions or fight to the last. What we can do is to study and understand each other's cultures well and to minimize disputes. Looking at the series of recent developments, one thing I notice is that the present situation is similar to that toward the last days of the Lee Myung-bak administration --- I feel a kind of deja vu. President Lee debated with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda over a ruling made by the Korean Supreme Court on the issue of comfort women. In respect to the ruling, President Lee made his utmost efforts to reach an agreement with the Japanese premier on the comfort women issue. Nonetheless, the summit meeting between them in Kyoto broke up after a dispute. It was followed by another Korean Supreme Court ruling on the forced labor issue, President Lee gave up on talks with Japan and landed on Takeshima and issued disrespectful remarks regarding the Japanese Emperor. This pattern of raising the comfort women issue, then moving to the forced labor issue, landing on Takeshima, and criticizing the Emperor is reproduced in exactly the same way. I find in this a kind of "vicious cycle."

This cycle, however, will not necessarily remain unchanged. The comfort women issue underwent a process of trials and errors; but now more than 70% of the former comfort women have already received compensation money and have stopped protesting. The remaining less than 30% of the former comfort women continue to protest. Their support groups are influential but cunning and very fundamentalist. They are solely concerned with the solution of this particular issue, indifferent to the implications. The 30% Halmonis are advanced in age. The South Korean government says that it will no longer renegotiate this issue with Japan. Although any administration, conservative or progressive, is of the same opinion on this point, it is the progressive administration that takes up this issue and develops it into a large political problem at home. So, if the progressive administration succeeds in solving the issue, the conservatives will not object. The comfort women issue has yet to be finally resolved, but I think that if the administration changes, the issue will not be taken up again at the intergovernmental level.

Since the forced labor issue is now unfolding between the parties concerned, it is unpredictable how it will evolve in the future. This is the greatest challenge. If we can address this issues properly, the situation will change considerably. We are now approaching the most important stage. While the Takeshima issue is always considered to be an extremely poignant and sensitive issue, because Koreans become furious when it comes to this problem, in fact this issue had been a dormant issue in the period from the Treaty on Basic Relations to the Kim Young-sam administration. Toward the end of the Kim administration, the Koreans started construction of a wharf on Takeshima, which exacerbated the dispute. The Shimane Prefecture could not stand by and see the island landed on by the Koreans. The local government instituted "the Takeshima Day" and as a consequence escalated the situation. Before that, it was not a very serious problem. It had been more of a fishery problem for Shimane Prefecture than a territorial issue. The Japanese had not been well aware that Takeshima is Japanese territory.

The then Japanese government tried to shelve or postpone the Takeshima issue. The Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Torao Ushiroku, who was in charge of the matter at the conclusion of the Treaty on Basic Relations, told me, "Sir, we have to let this problem sleep for a while; if the relationship between Japan and South Korea gets better in the future, a solution will be found." Yes, we cannot help going back to that point again. As for the forced labor issue, it is a huge problem no matter how we address it. I cannot tell how long it will take to solve the problem. We have to recognize that history issues are involving other issues willy-nilly. Therefore, we cannot escape from this problem --- the forced labor issue. Even now, many Japanese and Korean security experts are firmly convinced that it is important to maintain a solid bilateral relationship of trust no matter what may happen. The Japanese experts may believe that a sound Japan-South Korea relationship is prerequisite to the defense of the Japanese archipelago.

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

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