Korea-Japan relations are adrift without any signs of a turnaround as Tokyo’s nationalistic moves and failure to atone for its past militarism continue to exacerbate their historical antagonism.
Attention is now focused on what steps President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take, particularly on Thursday when Seoul celebrates its 1945 liberation from Japan’s colonial rule and Tokyo marks the end of the Pacific War.
Park is to deliver a congratulatory speech on the day, which is expected to include a message to the Japanese leadership.
Abe has decided not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead including 14 A-class war criminals, amid criticism from Korea and China, the two major victims of its past imperialism.
But he reportedly decided to offer a tributary payment to the shrine through his deputy under the name of “Liberal Democratic Party Chairman Shinzo Abe” so as not to provoke Seoul and Beijing.
As such a payment is viewed as an indirect way of honoring the war dead, another wave of angry reactions from the neighboring states is expected. Along with the visit to the shrine, a number of thorny issues have kept the bilateral relationship from moving forward in a practical, future-oriented fashion.
The issues include Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement, forced mobilization of laborers, claim to the Dokdo islets and pursuit of a “normal” state with full-fledged armed forces, which Seoul and Beijing argue is reminiscent of its past brutal militarism.
Amid deteriorating ties, President Park, inaugurated in February, has yet to move to arrange a summit with her Japanese counterpart, although Abe has expressed his desire for the summit several times. In an apparent show of friction with Japan, Park visited China for a summit meeting in June before Japan.
Noting that for the time being, setting the mood for enhanced ties would not be easy, Chin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the think tank Sejong Institute, said Seoul and Tokyo are in an intense tug-of-war while blaming each other for frayed relations.
“From Seoul’s standpoint, the Abe government’s right-wing shift along with his incendiary remarks is causing the friction while Tokyo thinks former President Lee provoked Japan first with his surprise visit to Dokdo last year,” he said.
“To add insult to injury, Japan is pushing to institute the right of collective self-defense, which would further worsen public sentiment here. That would make it tougher for either side to actively push for better relations.”
The Abe government seeks to exercise the right to collective self-defense ― the use of force to respond to an attack on an ally, namely the U.S. ― by altering Tokyo’s interpretation of the war-renouncing constitution.
According to Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, Tokyo is considering stating a contingency on the Korean Peninsula as a case where it could exercise its collective self-defense right to support U.S. military operations.
Washington has long encouraged Japan to rearm against the backdrop of China’s growing assertiveness. Experts also point out that Japan’s right to collective self-defense could be helpful in a peninsular contingency given that rear-area strategic U.N. Command bases are located in Japan.
But public opposition to Japan’s military buildup remains strong as their resentment about the archipelago state’s brutal colonization from 1910-45 still runs deep amid Tokyo’s high-profile politicians’ unapologetic remarks and behavior.
Noting that the two neighbors are in a state of “mutual abandonment,” Bong Yongshik, a senior researcher at the think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Seoul needs to explore ways to build trust and mend fences with Japan through a summit meeting.
Bong particularly stressed that Seoul’s policy toward Tokyo should be crafted and implemented from a broader, long-term diplomatic perspective, in a way that could help bolster Korea’s diplomatic status.
“I think the Park government needs to more actively consider a summit proposed by Tokyo,” he said. “Holding a summit does not mean forgiving Japan for its behavior or anything. Seoul can clearly reiterate its position and forge a momentum to build more trust with Japan.”
Bong added that more active diplomacy with Japan will also be in line with Park’s Seoul process, a trust-building mechanism for peace and stability in Northeast Asia. The process, as she puts it, seeks to build trust in nonpolitical areas first and then move on to areas of “high politics” such as security.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com