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The Japan-South Korea Relationship in a Cul-de-Sac --- Where is an Exit ?

Masao Okonogi
Professor Emeritus, Keio University

Recently, such questions are often pelted at me: "Why is the Japan-South Korea relationship mired in inveterate mutual distrust?" "Is the bilateral confrontation not becoming much fiercer than ever?" The historical friction has consistently been the largest issue between the two neighbors. It seems, however, that the recent situation may afford the impression that the bilateral friction has increased in complexity and seriousness in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War or the democratization of South Korea. For me, it is a long-standing question.

So, while attempting to answer the essential question of "What is the historical friction between Japan and South Korea?" I would like to discuss the profound impact of the division of Korean nationalism or the regeneration of the "liberal nationalism" on the recent Japan-South Korea relations. This topic is related to the theme of my book "The Origin of the Division of Korea" (Keio University Press) published in October the year before last.

To the question of "What is the historical friction between Japan and South Korea?" my answer is that it is a "clash of identities." Needless to say, identity is a self-definition by oneself. As long as people around approve it, it will gain stability; otherwise, it might constitute the cause of some trouble. In the case of Japan and South Korea, they deny each other's identity through controversy over historical issues --- controversy over Prime Minister Abe's speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the issues of the former Korean comfort women and wartime laborers, to name just a few recent examples.

The Japanese identity, or the self-portrait of modern Japan, is a unique process of modernization in which the nation went through the tumultuous days of civil war and revolution from the late Tokugawa to the early Meiji period. Backed by a monolithic nationalism, the nation won the successive wars with China and Russia, and finally became a major power. Likewise, the Korean people confronted the invasion of Western powers, but they failed in the integration of nationalisms, because halfway in the process of modernization, Korea was annexed by Japan. For Koreans, Japan's victory in the wars with China and Russia had a completely different meaning.

Japan's annexation of Korea meant a denial of Korean identity and nationalism. Therefore, in those days and still now, Koreans must emphasize how bravely they resisted the invasion of Japan. The cruelty of the Japanese rule is overemphasized concerning the resistance-related events: the March 1st Movement; the Korean Provisional Government established in Shanghai and then moved to Chongqing to continue resistance; Korean armed struggles that evolved in Manchukuo; and Rhee Syngman's diplomatic activity in the United States. Koreans do not have other means to confirm their identity than endless condemnation against Japan.

Objectively speaking, the annexation of Korea in 1910 was undertaken by Japan as part of its territorial expansion or as its incipient policy of assimilating other ethnic groups. Some experts argue that the annexation was crueler than European colonial policy. I do not agree. The ultimate goal of Japan was to make the Korean peninsula an inalienable part of Japanese territory and to make Koreans Japanese subjects. It is unlikely that Japan implemented policies contradictory to those goals. The annexation policy was rather accompanied by development and modernization. The so-called comfort women and wartime laborers should rather be considered as wartime mobilization in the period toward the end of World War II.

Nonetheless, Japan's annexation policy was a denial of Korean nationalism. In this respect, it is distinctly different from the colonial policies of the United States and European nations. Logically at least, European and American colonies were assumed to go through a preparatory stage for self-government and eventually to achieve independence. Americans are even proud of the Philippines' independence. They mean that they educated Filipinos for self-government and helped them achieve independence. Britain and France did not agree to give up their colonies but did not annex India or Vietnam. They suppressed the development of indigenous nationalism but did not completely negate it.

Therefore, what was most important for the liberated Koreans was to restore their identity, because it constituted the foundation of Korean nationalism. While counting on the United States, President Rhee Syngman took an anti-Japanese stand and attempted to thoroughly eliminate traces of Japanese culture and Japanese domination. President Park Chung-hee and President Chun Doo-hwan attached importance to the Japan-US-ROK security cooperation and tried to utilize Japan for its economic progress. This is Korean conservative nationalism. On the other hand, President Roh Moo-hyun and President Moon Jae-in did and does engage in controversy with Japan over historical issues and call for "Pro-Japan liquidation."

Either way, given that the essence of the historical friction between Japan and South Korea is the "clash of identities," a meticulous exploration of historical facts would be irrelevant to the solution of historical issues. We should not confuse a political debate with an academic debate. Academic controversy should be conducted between scholars of both countries.

Here, as an aside, I would like to discuss the factors that are essentially relevant to and at the same time conducive to the historical friction.

The first is the limitations of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea concluded in 1965.

The Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea and Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation --- both of them were concluded in 1965 between the governments of the two countries. As far as South Korea is concerned, the military government signed them under the declaration of martial law, because almost half of Koreans strongly opposed them. On that occasion, the validity of old treaties such as the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty became the bone of contention. The Japanese and Korean governments compromised by pronouncing that they were no longer valid. Strange as it looks from the Japanese viewpoint, the South Korean government persisted in debating whether those old treaties were legal or illegal, or whether they were legitimate or unfair --- as if for Koreans these "whethers" were of the utmost importance.

It must also be noted that the conclusion of the treaty and agreements at that time had something to do with the priority of security interests in the Cold War era, the need for the economic development of South Korea, and the success of the 1961 coup. Moreover, Japan and South Korea could not resist the strong demand of the United States then meddling with the Vietnam War. Conversely, the treaty and agreements would not have come into existence without these backgrounds that no longer exist.

As the second factor conducive to the historical friction, I would like to stress the incompatibility of the political cultures of the two countries.

South Korea still retains a strong influence of Confucian political culture. The tendency is particularly prominent for the progressive or leftist governments. President Moon Jae-in's speech at the last year's anniversary of the March 1st Movement was fraught with the word "justice." Perhaps it may be the most important value in the neo-Confucian political culture. Meanwhile, Japanese samurai politics was based on realism, and only occasionally emphasized "justice." In the social stratification in feudal Japan or the shi-no-ko-sho (warrior-farmer-artisan-tradesman) system, the "shi" meant samurai or warrior, while the Korean equivalent of "shi" was a civil servant who passed civil service examinations. The politics of the Joseon dynasty was traditionally a civilian-dominated bureaucracy. There is undeniably a huge gap in the political cultures between Japan and South Korea.

In this connection, the so-called "goalposts" controversy may be a good example. The Japanese government holds a strong distrust for South Korea that an agreement reached with its incumbent government after painstaking negotiations may be ignored by a succeeding administration, which will unabashedly claim renegotiations from scratch. For example, the diplomatic agreement between the Abe administration and the Park Geun-Hye administration on the former Korean comfort women was easily overturned by the Moon Jae-in administration. This was described as "moving the goalposts."

In the tradition of Japanese samurai politics, it was significant to keep one's promise once made no matter what it was about. The content of the agreement is secondary. The Laws for the Military Houses during the middle and modern ages contained a principle of "both parties are to blame in a quarrel," which people in Confucian culture may not understand at all. That peculiar principle ignores the most important question on which side justice resides.

In the Neo-Confucian culture, on the other hand, it is of utmost importance to see if the terms of the agreement comply with justice or to set the goalposts in the right place. If the position of the goalposts is wrong, it is the role of "justice" that moves them to the correct position. This well illustrates the incompatibility of the political cultures of the two countries.

So far I have discussed around the 1965 Japan-South Korea Treaty on Basic Relations. More than fifty years have elapsed since then, and the international systems supportive of the treaty have drastically altered. Of particular importance was the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. In a succeeding period, international cooperation and historical reconciliation progressed worldwide. In Europe, German reunification and European integration were realized. In East Asia, China accepted the market economy, while South Korea succeeded in democratization. The 1988 Seoul Olympics symbolized South Korea's economic progress.

Under such international trends, Japan and South Korea made progress towards post-war reconciliation, which reinforced the Japan-South Korea treaty system. The Murayama discourse and the Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration of 1998 between Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung made political revisions to the Japanese assertion on the legality and legitimacy of, among others, the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. Especially, the Joint Declaration subtitled "A new Japan-Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century" was important. The incumbent South Korean President accepted words of apology and remorse of the Japanese Prime Minister and declared that both leaders would pursue future-oriented Japan-South Korea relations. Thus, Japan and South Korea were heading for post-war reconciliation.

The period of 1998-2004 was the best time for Japan-South Korea relations. During this time, the 2002 FIFA World Cup was held jointly in Japan and South Korea, and a Korean cultural boom dubbed the Korean Wave swept Japan, while Japanese pop culture gradually found its way into Korean society. As a result of the economic progress of South Korea, the division of economic activity between the two countries expanded more horizontally over time.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration inaugurated in February 2003 kept on good terms with the Koizumi administration. Earlier than this, Prime Minister Koizumi visited North Korea in September 2002. But Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, coupled with discussions started at the Shimane Prefectural Assembly on the "Takeshima Day" ordinance in February 2005, helped rekindle the historical friction between the two countries. In his speech at the year's anniversary of the March 1st Movement, President Roh Moo-hyun demanded squarely that Japan should "resolve historical issues" and resumed controversy over historical issues.

Looking back, there existed a sizable gap between the Kim Dae-jung administration and the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The former, a centrist conservative coalition under the dual leadership of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil (Prime Minister), contributed to fostering more conciliatory relations between the two countries. However, the Roh Moo-hyun administration was the first progressive government on its own in Korean history. The youth of the post-war generation who had been oppressed by the military government supported the Roh administration. They claimed a reinterpretation of the Japanese rule of Korea. The current Moon Jae-in administration is following the same path.

The second major change in the international systems was the emergence of China as an economic superpower in the 2010s. China's expanding GDP finally overtook that of Japan. Meanwhile, the South Korean economy became global under President Lee Myung-bak who was formerly a business magnate. On the other hand, the Japanese economy stagnated after the burst of the bubble, and its relative position declined. Against the background of such changes in the international changes, controversy over history issues between the two countries, which had abated in the first half of the Lee administration's term, reignited, and after February 2013, a fierce controversy raged under the Park Geun-hye administration.

A feature of the controversy over historical issues during this period was the South Korean judiciary's intervention in it. It made the historical friction complicated and serious and difficult to resolve. In August 2011, regarding the former comfort women issue, the Constitutional Court of Korea judged the "inaction" (breach of the duty of protection) of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as unconstitutional. In May 2012, the Supreme Court of Korea recognized the right to claim personal compensation for the former wartime laborers. President Lee Myung-bak, "fettered" by the Korean judiciary, had no alternative but to make strong demands to Japan. In a summit talk with Prime Minister Noda in Kyoto in December 2011, President Lee had a heated discussion about historical issues. He went so far as to land Takeshima in Shimane Prefecture the ensuing summer.

After taking office as president in February 2013, Park Geun-hye who had witnessed the above began to criticize Japan's interpretation of history while checking the Supreme Court from issuing its final ruling. She seems to have sought a diplomatic breakthrough for the worsening Japan-South Korea relationship. She vehemently criticized Japan during her visit to the United States in May of the year and China in June. She stood on Tiananmen Gate on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in September 2015 --- never forgetting to criticize Japan then. The result of her efforts, however, was an unsatisfactory agreement with Japan on the former comfort women at the end of the same year. A foundation was established with Japanese funding to help the victims.

The Moon Jae-in administration, which was inaugurated in May 2017 in the aftermath of the impeachment of President Park, condemned the previous administration's interference with the Korean judiciary and clarified its attitude of respecting judicial decisions in the light of the separation of three powers. The Supreme Court of Korea resumed deliberations on the former wartime laborers and, in and from October 2018, ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation (Nippon Steel Corporation) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. to compensate for wartime labor. The 1965 Japan-South Korea Claims Agreement began to become a dead letter.

Why did these developments happen?

As for the Korean judiciary's interference in politics, it stems probably from the long-delayed democratization of the Korean judiciary. The Korean judiciary had long been subordinate to the authoritarian government and derided as a "servant to power." After the amendment of the Korean constitution following the 1987 democratization, the judiciary became more independent, especially under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and finally restored its independence during the period of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Between 2011 and 2012, the Constitutional Court of Korea and the Supreme Court of Korea issued rulings on the issues of the former comfort women and wartime laborers, respectively.

What is more controversial is the liberal nationalism of the Moon Jae-in administration, which allowed the 1965 regime to become moribund under the pretext of the separation of three powers. As pointed out earlier, the liberal nationalism was an inheritance of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Those who endorsed it were not the conservative military power led by Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, nor the centrist conservative coalition under Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, but the activists who experienced and resisted oppression (e.g. the Gwangju Uprising) of the military junta in their school days.

Noteworthy in this context is President Moon Jae-in's speech at the last year's anniversary of the March 1st Movement. The speech drew attention by its calling for the "pro-Japanese liquidation." More importantly, President Moon positioned his administration as a government born of the "Candlelight Revolution," and as a successor to the April 19 Revolution, the May 18 Democratic Uprising (the Gwangju Uprising), and the June Struggle. All of these movements are regarded to have taken over the "spirit of the March 1st Movement." This is the "regeneration of the liberal nationalism."

Towards the end of the Joseon dynasty, there were three kinds of nationalism in the pre-annexation Korea. The first of them was the movement of 衛正斥邪 (defend orthodoxy and reject heterodoxy) based on the neo-Confucian doctrine. This was represented by the Daewongun's anti-foreign isolationist policy. The second was the Westernization movement or a reform movement to embrace Western civilization, advocated by, among others, Kim Ok-gyun, who was headquartered in Japan. One of the movement's leaders based in the United States was Rhee Syngman. These two movements may be easily understood by the Japanese, due to their similarity to the confrontation between the antiforeignists and Westernizationists in the latest Tokugawa era.

In addition to the above-mentioned movements, towards the end of the Joseon era, there emerged an exclusive peasant movement indoctrinated by an indigenous religion "Donghak." The Donghak peasant uprising constituted an underlying cause of the Sino-Japanese War. In due course, the Donghak religious movement evolved into a new religion known as Cheondoism, and its leaders made up the leadership of the March 1st Movement. Shortly after the Movement, the Korean Provisional Government was established in Shanghai against the backdrop of a large, nationwide anti-Japanese uprising and moved to Chongqing when the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. The most prominent leader was Kim Koo. Interestingly, the ideologues of the Roh Moo-hyun administration and the Moon Jae-in administration recognized therein the origin of their current movement.

Consequently, the current Moon administration endorsing the liberal nationalism can neither make an easy compromise with the Japanese government nor reject the demands of various social movement groups at home. Such a step is tantamount to denying their cause or raison d'être. In October 2018, therefore, the Moon administration accepted the Supreme Court's ruling on the issue of the former wartime laborers and left matters worse. As a result, the Japan-South Korea Treaty on Basic Relations and the Japan-South Korea Claims Agreement are increasingly a dead letter. The Korean judiciary played a major role in the developments. To prevent such a move on the part of South Korea, the Japanese government (the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) announced in July 2019 a stricter control on exports to South Korea.

The Japanese government attempted a kind of "shock therapy" aiming at correcting the course of Korean policy. It was a measure of "tit for tat" or "benign neglect." Regarding the new export control measures, Prime Minister Abe explained, "We abandoned each other's claims by the 1965 Claims Agreement. If the ROK cannot keep its promise, we will not be able to provide the ROK with preferential trade treatment as before."

It was unusual for Japan to specifically counterattack over historical issues. The South Korean government fell in a panic and made an excessive reaction --- the abandonment of the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) announced on August 22. Japan's counterattack rallied Korean citizens to boycott Japanese goods and urged neutralist intellectuals to support the Supreme Court rulings. A dispute over history spilled over to trade and security issues. A "chain of bad moves" occurred and the Japan-South Korea relationship reached a cul-de-sac.

Answering a strong request of the United States that places great emphasis on the Japan-US-ROK security cooperation, South Korea suspended the termination of the GSOMIA on November 22. Both leaders attended a summit meeting in Chengdu, China on December 28. President Moon argued: "A debate on the essentials would only make the problem more difficult; the important thing is to find a solution." But Prime Minister Abe stated simply: "It is the Korean side that should come up with some solution."

The worst has been avoided. But the issue of the former wartime laborers and the export control issue remain interlocked --- either of them alone would not be resolved. Prime Minister Abe hopes that South Korea should come up with an appropriate solution, but as described above, it would be quite difficult for the Moon administration to find any solution whatever. President Moon exposes the limitations of the liberal administration. In particular, President Moon cannot be supposed to take any proactive action before the South Korean general elections scheduled for April 15. If the parties concerned failed to find an exit no later than the Tokyo Olympics, the current stalemate might continue to the end of both administrations.

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

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