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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Han

ROK-Japan Relation: Time to get out of a sense of victimization to gain confidence

It is disappointing to evaluate South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s five-year diplomacy toward Japan on the occasion of the last Independence Movement Day in his term. His diplomacy and security policy, in general have shown their limitations due to his immature responses to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, the ROK-US joint military exercises, and the THAAD deployment. In this context, his diplomacy toward Japan cannot avoid getting a failing grade.

The Japanese government’s recent move toward registration of “Sado Gold Mine” on the World Cultural Heritage List is the Moon administration’s diplomatic tragedy. Amid numerous negative factors such as abandonment of the Comfort Women Agreement, the Korean court’s rulings on requisition, and trading retaliation, little prospect for improvement of the ROK-Japan relation can be seen.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is urging the Korean side to resolve these issues, saying, “The ball is now in the court of South Korea which abandoned the agreement.” It is shocking that Prime Minister Kishida, who had led the ROK-Japan Comfort Women Agreement as a foreign minister in 2015, claimed Japan’s moral advantage. The Moon administration which reversed offensive and defensive stances has faced hardship.

Former President Park Chung-hee dramatically developed the ROK-Japan relation through diplomatic normalization in 1965, and so did former President Kim Dae-jung by the “ROK-Japan Joint Declaration” in 1998. In December 2015, former President Park Geun-hye realized the Comfort Women Agreement which was positively evaluated at that time.

However, President Moon withdrew the agreement after taking office and has been criticized for his exploiting it politically throughout his term. He is likely to be recorded as a president who set back the ROK-Japan relation, along with former President Kim Yeong-sam who said, “We will fix Japan’s bad manners.”

Conflicts between South Korea and Japan arise from their different ways of thinking about each other. South Korea regards Japan’s postwar settlements as insufficient. They insist that Japan’s apology lacks sincerity and Japanese politicians do not regret what Japan did. Meanwhile, Japan considers that the historical issues have been settled through the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), the ROK-Japan Basic Treaty and the Claims Agreement (1965). They also believe the comfort women issues have been already solved through the Asian Women’s Fund (1995), the Comfort Women Agreement and the “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation.” Thus, they reacted against the Moon administration’s move to abandon the agreement and the Korean court’s rulings on requisition.

Since Japan repeatedly expressed “feelings of deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” over WWII, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a statement in August 2015, saying that Japan must not let its future generations without wartime experience be destined to continue apologizing. In December 2015, Japan expressed its awareness of responsibility for the comfort women issues and apologized. Japan claimed that responsibilities for its past invasion and colonial rule had been thus fulfilled. The postwar generations comprising 90% of the Japanese population have no interest in historical issues. Therefore, Japan would not care about South Korea’s repeated demands for an apology any longer.

Under such circumstances, Korea’s demand for an apology would not resonate with the Japanese people. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the start of Wednesday rallies in front of the Comfort Woman Statue. Meanwhile, Lawmaker Yoon Mee-hyang’s alleged misappropriation of donations for comfort women has aroused controversy. Some people point out this scandal has caused a significant decline in public support and sympathy.

We must get out of a sense of victimization and observe Japan as it is in fairways. The per capita GDP of South Korea is 78% of that of Japan under the 2020 standard but has already exceeded it under the 2017 standard of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). The former economic bureaucrat and Hitotsubashi University Professor Emeritus, Yukio Noguchi, presented a perspective that Japan’s per capita GDP would be over twice of South Korea in 20 years.

In fact, South Korea’s competitiveness in the digital age has surpassed that of Japan. Its comparative advantages in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry and the cultural and artistic fields have been also proved globally. With the changing times, the ROK-Japan relation must be also changed.

Japan’s faults should be steadfastly pointed out but resolutely dealt with. This year is the 77th anniversary of the Korean Independence. To cling to a sense of victimization and nationalism is anachronistic. It is time to get free of “local Japanese” and “Song of Bamboo Spear” and need the wisdom of leaders who pursue a reasonable ROK-Japan relationship.

Lee Chang-wee, Professor at the University of Seoul Law School.


The JoongAng Ilbo (Dated March 1, 2022)

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