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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Han

【Comfort Women】Let’ s state clearly that Korea will not force Japan to make compensation...

Let’ state clearly that Korea will not force Japan to make compensation for its historical activities in the past (by former Korean ambassador to Viet Nam Lee Hyuk)

After the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, the first leader to visit the United States for a summit meeting was Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and the second was South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This shows that Northeast Asia, where Korea, China and Japan are located, has become a core region in the composition of international political and security dynamics.

Japan is currently the United States' closest and friendliest ally, and as a member of the Quad (the consultative body consisted of the US, Japan, India, and Australia), it has a considerable influence on the formation of US strategy against China. The fact that the focus of the US strategy has shifted from the Asia-Pacific including China to the Indo-Pacific, which has the implication of excluding China, can be understood as a product of the US-Japan joint strategic concept being in conscious of China. In addition, the US is trying to be dominant in the competition with China through the cooperation among Korea, the US and Japan supported by the Korea-US and US-Japan alliances.

Currently, Korea-Japan relations are the weakest link in the Korea-US-Japan cooperation structure. The relations have completely deteriorated due to historical issues such as the wage of former requisitioned workers and comfort women. With no clear clue to a solution, the relationship remains aggravated.

Korea-Japan is the weakest link in the Korea-US-Japan cooperation

Because of the rapid emergence of China, it is a fact that Japan’s presence has lowered relatively in the world and the aspect of Korea’s national interest compared to the past. However, if we disregard our sincere and viable efforts to improve the current stagnant Korean-Japan relations, Korean national interests would be severely damaged. In the changed international order paradigm, Japan would rather stand out with new importance and we are asked to think in new ways for Korea-Japan relations.

On the economic front, Korea has caught up with or surpassed Japan not only in the field of manufacturing, such as smartphones, home appliances, shipbuilding, automobiles but also in many other areas, such as cultural industries. However, Korea is inferior to Japan and needs cooperation with Japan in the field of material, parts, equipment and basic science. In addition, considering the fact that the Biden administration is focusing not only on military power but also on science and technology and economics in competition with China, a recovery in Korea-Japan relations could expand the horizons of cooperation between the two countries in these areas.

Close Korea-Japan cooperation in politics and security will not only strengthen Korea-US-Japan cooperation but also lead Japan's positive contribution to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Considering that one of Japan's greatest postwar diplomatic challenges is the normalization of North Korea-Japan relations, we should never belittle the potential influence on the order of the Korean peninsula if contact by Japan with North Korea were to become full-fledged, even though it is currently deadlocked due to the North Korean nuclear issue.

Thus, maintaining a close and productive relationship with Japan will not only enhance Korean diplomatic power and strengthen the Korea-US alliance, but also will serve as leverage for the development of healthy Korea-China relations.

Leaders’ judgment will affect Korea-Japan relations

Then, what shall we do about the past issues that shackle Korea-Japan relations? In the process of diplomatic efforts to progress Korea-Japan relations, historical issues were challenges that must resolve without fail. In that process, “Korea-Japan Joint Declaration: A New Korea-Japan Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century” was announced between Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1998. This declaration showed to the world the determination and vision of the leaders of both countries, where Korea accepted an expression of Japan’s deep remorse and apology for Japanese history, and Korea and Japan would establish future-oriented partnerships towards the 21st century.

President Kim Dae-jung was the leader who took the painful experience of colonial rule by Japan as a valuable lesson instead of erupting in anger and created a foundation of new Korea-Japan relations in the growth period. He promoted reconciliation between Korea and Japan from the belief in which Korea should develop a national power that can face Japan by exchanging, competing, and cooperating with Japan in a normal relationship with Japan in order not to repeat painful history such as Japanese colonial rule.

Unfortunately, however, subsequent Korean Governments have failed to succeed the spirit of the Joint Declaration and could not develop Korea-Japan relations, and therefore it is undeniable that the relationship has generally gone downhill. Rather, relations between Korea and Japan have gradually regressed as leaders who have not experienced the pain of the colonial era have continued.

Historical controversy where victimizers were replaced with victims

The current Korean administration's response to the Korean judicial branch's rulings on damages for requisitioned workers and the comfort women agreement has not only provoked strong opposition from the Japanese Government but has also raised the voice of right-wing groups in Japan, which resulted in more apparent revisionist view of history between Korea and Japan.

Especially, after the ruling on requisitioned workers, Japan's decision to restrict the export of strategic products to Korea led to the Korean people's refusal to travel to Japan and their boycott of Japanese products. The anti-Korean sentiment among the Japanese people is also on the rise, and therefore Koreans living in Japan are suffering. The vicious cycle of anti-Japan and anti-Korea continues. In Japan, it is now difficult to find the consciousness of debt caused by the past with Korea. The Japanese Government criticized that the Korean Government breached the Korea-Japan comfort women “irreversible” agreement by dissolving the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation which was established based on the agreement. They also claim that the Korean judicial branch's ruling on compensation for requisitioned workers and the ruling on liability of the Japanese Government for comfort women violate international law. We are now in a situation where Japan, the victimizer in historical disputes, is claiming that they are the victim against Korea, which is the victimizer. In this situation, the Korean Government has been trying to find various solutions, but there is an impression that it has not been able to find the right answer.

Many consultations have been made between Korea and Japan but Japan has not shown any signs of concession, and they seem to be consistent in their position that Korea should come up with a solution that is acceptable to Japan. Nevertheless, the international community and the majority of "conscience groups" in Japan are not in a position to support Korea. It seems that Korea is not in a situation where it can use the victim premium as a weapon to gain concessions from Japan as Korea did in the past. Moreover, the Japanese Government has been even more blatant and aggressive in claiming, “Korea is forcibly occupying Dokdo (Takeshima), which is the Japanese territory,” and they deny the Japanese Government's direct involvement in the recruitment of comfort women.

History should not be used as political measures

In this situation where the issues are difficult to solve in the direction we want, the way Korea wins is to show its moral dignity and pride to Japan and the international community by indicating tolerance as the victims of history. For example, regarding the wage issues of requisitioned workers, we should go through a very complex and difficult process in Korea but we need to declare that we will solve this issue by ourselves without demanding any more compensation to Japan. Only by doing so, Korean moral authority will be enhanced and the Japanese Government, companies and citizens will painfully look back on the past which gave great pain to Koreans.

In the future, the Korean Government must get out of the temptation to use history as political measure. The Korean Government's recognition must also be erased that it is safer to respond in an unconditional anti-Japanese manner than to make rational decisions when problems occur between Korea and Japan. Looking back, when past governments fueled and pandered on public sentiment in association with the history between Korea and Japan, their approval ratings temporarily went up. However, in most case they were criticized because it did not help the administration in the end and only worsened the relationship between Korea and Japan.

Regarding the historical issues between Korea and Japan, the supreme leader must become an opinion leader, prioritize the national interest, and make an effort to lead public opinion. History is a volatile issue where public sentiment intervened, so the supreme leader needs to decide to prioritize the national interest even if there is a slight divergence from public sentiment. If the nature of the problem is explained to the people sincerely to ask for their understanding at the administration level, most of the people will accept it.

In particular, recent Korean district courts overturned the previous rulings on requisitioned workers by the Korean Supreme Court and it can be said that there underlie the “history fatigues” among many Korean people.” Given this, I believe it is now an opportunity for the Korean Government to face the Korea-Japan relationship in direction of thinking about the future of Korea.

The spirit of the Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi Joint Declaration should be revived

Korean President Kim Dae-jung brushed off the public concerns and made a courageous decision on opening doors to Japanese culture. In the end, opening of Japanese culture has become a great stimulant and Korean pop culture surpassing Japanese pop culture was born. In order to conquer and win against Japan, we must not only compete with Japan but also interact and cooperate with it. Even if Japan provokes Korea, we will not be able to defeat Japan only with the solution of an eruption of anti-Japanese sentiment.

The Government of Vietnam, where I was stationed as ambassador, has not demanded any apology or compensation from the Korean Government for its past participation in the Vietnam War. This is because to overcome its painful past and quickly develop its nation through the cooperation and support of Korea as a role model.

Now is the time to put an end to such Korea-Japan relations as the only negative legacy is accumulated every time the administration is taken over. The current administration’s term is left only less than one year, but we must strive to get a chance for improving Korea-Japan relations with a new idea at the moment when it is evaluated as the worst Korea-Japan relations. Korea-Japan is a relationship in which the spirit of Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi Joint Declaration must live on with the past in mind.


JoongAng Ilbo on 30 Jun

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