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As Japan, ROK turn their backs to each other, reconciliation recedes into the distance

By Taketsugu Sato, senior staff writer


 “The government led by President Moon Jae-in focuses on North Korea. The public applauds the recent verdict handed down in the case of former victims of forced labor and welcomes the review of the Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue. Bureaucrats who seriously think about the nation’s ties with Japan are marginalized. The government panders to populists.” 


This was what a South Korean journalist told me at an event organized by the U.S. Embassy, which invited to Tokyo a group of journalists from the ROK. Over drinks, we talked about a range of issues from the flag flown by Self-Defense Force vessels to the disbandment of the comfort women foundation. In the conversations, I asked him why South Korea was bringing up the history issue again. The above was his reply.  


But the reporter who answered my question also posed a question: “The Japanese foreign minister took to the streets saying that ‘the South Korean government should be responsible for compensating former victims of forced labor.’ Why did he have to rub the South Korean government the wrong way? I guess Japan also has fewer people who can think seriously about the Japan-South Korea relationship.”


The way South Korea handles the comfort women agreement with Japan and other issues is problematic. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responded that “[Japan] has no intention of changing (the accord) even one millimeter.” On the forced labor issue, Foreign Minister Taro Kono called the recent verdict by the South Korean court an “outrage.” These emotional, sharp-tongued reactions will do nothing but aggravate bilateral ties between Tokyo and Seoul.


When Japan and South Korea clinched an accord on the comfort women issue three years ago, I was a correspondent working in Washington D.C. I was impressed that the two nations moved a step forward to “reconciliation over history issues.” The agreement was also hailed by the U.S. Obama administration, which acted as a mediator between the two sides. But today Japan and South Korea have turned their backs to each other and are moving farther apart.


President Obama insisted that Japan and South Korea achieve “ reconciliation over history issues.” He designated the Honouliuli Internment Camp, which housed over 4,000 Japanese-Americans as well as POWs, a national historic site. He noted: “Not to repeat the failure of the past, we must make a painful part of our history a historical monument.” I was impressed by the commitment he demonstrated to face up to the history of the internment.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “deep remorse over the war” in his speech delivered to the U.S. Congress. He was probably motivated by President Obama’s action as well as his moral approach. Later President Obama visited the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima, and Abe visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Through their reciprocal visits to each other’s country the two leaders pledged reconciliation. 


President Obama called on Japan and South Korea to reconcile, and this led to the comfort women agreement. But the mediator left the political scene, succeeded by President Donald Trump, who once criticized his predecessor over the Japanese leader’s visit to Pearl Harbor, saying, “Why didn’t you discuss Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor? Thousands of Americans lost their lives.” The “reconciliation” of Japan and South Korea seems to hold little interest for him.


The Japan-South Korea agreement, which was reached through steady negotiations, was scrapped.  Those who were involved in these negotiations must have been disappointed and upset. Meanwhile, it cannot be denied that China and South Korea are pleased to see the Japan-South Korea ties deteriorate and harbor plans to exploit this.  


In his campaign for Liberal Democratic Party’s presidency, Prime Minister Abe pledged to dedicate his remaining term to “settling all diplomatic issues related to the war.” He should address reconciliation over historical issues with South Korea, not only the Northern Territories issue.


Reproaching others only leads to creating a negative spiral. Japan must convey to the South Korean side “deep remorse,” which Abe expressed at the U.S. Congress, publicly as well as privately.” It should also discuss areas it feels are problematic with South Korea and the international community in a rational fashion. Japan and South Korea should work to improve their bilateral ties from such a grand perspective.

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