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Japan must show ‘sincere, consistent contrition’ toward Koreans: US scholar

An op-ed piece on the trade row between Korea and Japan, published Aug. 11 by the Washington Post, has grabbed the spotlight in both nations.

Written by Gregg A. Brazinsky, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University in the US, the piece blamed the bilateral spat on Japan’s lack of apology for past wrongdoings. 

Gregg A. Brazinsky.
Gregg A. Brazinsky.

Specializing in East Asian history and diplomacy, the scholar is an expert on Korea’s international relations and has written two books about the country’s modernization and democratization.

In an email interview with on Aug. 16, he said Japan imposed trade sanctions on Korea because Tokyo was unhappy with the Korean Supreme Court ruling on a lawsuit filed by former Korean forced laborers.

“If Japan had made efforts to atone for its past wartime atrocities and offer condolences to the victims more similar to the ones that Germany made years ago, we would likely not need to have these kinds of court cases in the first place,” he said.

To achieve a breakthrough in the conflict, the professor urged both governments to lift trade sanctions and engage in dialogue, adding, “President Moon (Jae-in) did the right thing in his (National Liberation Day) speech by taking a more conciliatory tone and offering to have talks.”

Brazinsky also said Japan must demonstrate contrition “with sincerity and consistency” in order for Koreans to forgive Japan and that the two countries should seek deeper reconciliation.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q: In your latest op-ed piece published by the Washington Post, you said Japan’s failure to reckon with its past atrocities and historical issues led to its trade conflict with Korea. Can you elaborate on this? 

A: While Tokyo cited security concerns as the reason that it initially imposed new export restrictions, it provided no evidence that the export of these materials to South Korea impacted its security in anyway. Most experts in the US believe that (Japan) started taking economic measures against Seoul because it was unhappy with a recent court ruling mandating that Japanese firms pay compensation to their former victims.

If Japan had made efforts to atone for its past wartime atrocities and offer condolences to the victims more similar to the ones that Germany made years ago, we would likely not need to have these kinds of court cases in the first place.

I think that much of the anger directed against Japan in South Korea is not only about money; it comes from a deeper sense of disappointment with how Japanese leaders deal with the past. And this anger is in turn worsening the economic crisis and making reprisals more likely.

Q: Japan has shown reluctance and unwillingness to resolve its historical issues with Korea. What explains Tokyo’s passive attitude, especially given how Germany sought to make amends for its past?

A: Some of this is the result of American policy during the early Cold War. For the US, anti-communism was a more important priority than promoting reconciliation between Japan and Korea or getting Japan to come to fully atone for the atrocities it committed during the war.

Despite the fact that Koreans had suffered greatly under Japanese colonialism and during World War II, there was not a single Korean judge or prosecutor on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Moreover, the US later established close ties with some former war criminals such as Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), who became prime minister of Japan during the 1950s. This served to create a perception among Japanese that Japan had been no worse than any other combatant in World War II and that its atrocities were an inevitable result of being at war.

But this discrepancy cannot be completely blamed on American foreign policies. German leaders also deserve credit for taking the kinds of actions that the Japanese have not.

For instance, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (1913-1992) earned international admiration for the “Warsaw genuflection” in 1970. When he visited a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Poland, Brandt spontaneously knelt down in silence to show his sincere sympathy for the victims.

Japanese political leaders have never made this kind of dramatic gesture to express their sorrow for what the Japanese military did in China or Korea.

Q: Japan is promoting its stance that all compensation matters with Korea were definitively resolved through the 1965 Korea-Japan Claims Settlement Agreement, but Seoul keeps demanding Tokyo’s apology. Thus Japan has created the false impression through global media that Korea keeps pestering it for an apology. Seoul, on the other hand, argues that Tokyo has never properly apologized for what it did on the Korean Peninsula. In your view, what stance should Korea show to the world vis-a-vis its disputes over history with Japan?

A: I think that South Korea should show the world that it is willing to engage in an honest and open dialogue with Japan about historical issues. Such a dialogue would need to examine the evidence carefully and make it public to the peoples of both countries.

Hopefully such a dialogue would serve to better educate the world about the horrors of World War II and help to assure that they are never repeated.

Q: In the latest trade conflict between Korea and Japan, many media outlets call Tokyo’s trade sanctions on Seoul de facto trade retaliation because of a Korean Supreme Court ruling finding in favor of Korean victims of forced labor during World War II. The Japanese government, however, officially claims the sanctions are purely a trade matter with no connection to the verdict. What is your objective analysis of this situation? 

A: I find it pretty difficult to believe that this had no connection to the verdict. If Japan has evidence that Seoul is giving North Korea access to sensitive technologies, then it should make the evidence public. The fact that it has not done so most likely suggests that it has another motive.

Q: What is your recommendation to resolve this bilateral conflict?

A: I would recommend that Japan and South Korea agree first to reverse the export curbs and economic sanctions. If they do not, it can have serious repercussions for the global economy. Indeed, with another trade war brewing between the US and China, there is a real danger of undermining the system of free trade and cooperation that has contributed much to the prosperity of East Asia in the last few decades.

I think President Moon did the right thing in his speech August 15 (National Liberation Day) by taking a more conciliatory tone and offering to have talks (with Japan).

But I think it is important that in the long term, the two nations find a way to achieve deeper reconciliation. Japan will need to demonstrate contrition more sincerely and more consistently and this will hopefully make it easier for South Koreans to forgive Japan.

There are many ways that Japan and South Korea can benefit from mutual cooperation. Stronger ties between the two countries would likely make both more prosperous and more secure.