During the last two decades, relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea starkly improved in the economic and cultural dimensions while political cooperation still shows a Cold War scheme. For a real normalization process to start, the two countries should follow the example set by two former foes turned friends: Germany and Poland.
Look at the dynamics of bilateral trade and normalization that Tokyo and Seoul seem to have achieved. In 2010 total volume of trade was more than $92 billion ― it was $220 million in 1965. Japan and the ROK are both the third-largest trade partners of the other.
Cultural relations are steadily increasing: Student exchanges are booming, Korean dramas count on millions of Japanese followers and Korean consumers are ever more fascinated by Japanese brands. Starting next year, Seoul National University will offer its first Japanese studies courses.
Now, compare political cooperation with economic and cultural relations and you can comfortably argue that normalization is still far away ― indeed, very few steps ahead have been taken since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1965. Whenever there is a bilateral meeting, diplomatic issues which should be discussed and talked about are instead put aside ― the recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Seoul made no exception. The topics that should be at the top of the political agenda are the territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima islets, the controversy regarding the depiction of Japan’s Korea occupation in history textbooks and the “comfort women” issue ― South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese occupier forces during World War II.
It is in the political realm that efforts should be made for a real normalization to take place. In this regard, it can be useful to look at the recent evolution of Germany-Poland relations. Parallels with the Japan-Korea relations can be drawn. Firstly, both Poland and South Korea underwent war occupation regimes ― Germany occupied Poland during World War II, Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. Second, both occupying forces committed horrible crimes against the local populations.
Since the 1970s, a Germany then integrated within the Western European political architecture started to undertake a gradual yet consistent rapprochement towards its Eastern neighbor. The first step Berlin took was showing its good faith by reckoning the common border (the Oder-Neisse line) and therefore giving up any territorial claim. This came with the signing of the Warsaw Treaty in 1970. Relations between states are shaped as much by words as by gestures and what the then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt did was worthy of a thousand words: while in Warsaw for the signing of the treaty, he dropped to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto (Brandt then won the Nobel peace prize in 1971).
The Cold War froze any further chance of improvements. After unification, the Bundesrepublik led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl sped up dialogue with Poland. On the one hand, Germany was aiming to settle all open controversies, on the other Poland’s priority became the joining with the Western European camp. The result being the Treaty on Good Neighborhood and Friendly Cooperation, of which the two parties have celebrated the 20th anniversary on June 2011. The Polish rime minister commemorated the occasion by saying: “These relations have had a destiny marked by tragic events which cast a shadow upon them. It is incredible being able to say, with the most sympathy and open-mindedness, that this destiny is today completely different and that Germany-Poland relations can be a model for the whole of Europe.” In 2011 the normalization process moved further, with the German parliament (the Bundestag) having formally recognized the discrimination suffered by the Polish minority under Nazism and with experts from both countries having developed a history textbook meant to teach high school students common history ― the textbook will eventually be adopted in classrooms of both countries beginning in the 2013-14 school year.
The strengthening of political cooperation between Japan and South Korea not only is an imperative for future regional stability, it is indeed feasible. The example provided by Germany and Poland shows just that.
By Emanuele Schibotto
The author is Ph.D. candidate in geopolitics at the Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome. He also is coordinator of Equilibri.net, an Italian think tank on geopolitics and international relations. ― Ed.