In recent months, major U.S. newspapers, like the New York Times and Washington Post, have carried articles decrying the apparent eagerness of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revise some aspects of his country’s history, particularly the use of Koreans as “comfort women” up to and during World War II. With Abe now entrenched as Japan’s most powerful leader in years, having comfortably secured another term through last weekend’s snap election, Japan’s diplomatic spats over its past misdeeds, especially when it involves South Korea, may well get worse before it gets any better. And if relations do deteriorate further, we are likely to see more American commentators urging Japan to show greater remorse for wartime actions vis-à-vis its neighbor.
Despite the best of intentions, Americans commenting on the troubled history of Northeast Asia is a messy business fraught with danger for all sides involved. Doing so also ignores the reality that wartime history is being selectively and even cynically deployed as a political tool by Seoul. Encouraging such sentiments by demanding further shows of Japanese remorse, rather than discouraging such nationalist rhetoric, is contributing to the problem, rather than helping to find a solution to a still troubled region.
Tension between these two countries is nothing new. Having been colonized by Japan from 1910-1945, modern Korean nationalism was founded on opposition to Japanese rule. Previous leaders in Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Mung-bak both experienced tense moments with Tokyo over the issue of history. But current President Park Geun-hye has chosen to escalate these issues to an unprecedented level. Her insistence from the start of her term in early 2013 that progress in bilateral relations across any and all issues will depend on further demonstrations by the Abe government of sincere remorse over the past – without actually specifying what would fulfill such a demand – goes well beyond the demands of her predecessors.
This is not to argue that the pain in Korean society about Japanese wartime actions is contrived – it is real. But, one should contrast Seoul’s decision to use history as a weapon against contemporary Japan with the rest of the region – with the notable exceptions of China and North Korea. Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and the U.S. have all suffered from the yoke of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the previous century. Wounds in these societies from those events, too, are still open and raw.
Even so, these countries have joined with others, such as India, in welcoming a more “can do” and “will do” strategic and diplomatic Japanese player, and are explicitly supporting Abe’s desire that Asia’s largest and most advanced economy (and America’s most important ally in the region to boot) play a more pro-active role in the region in particular. Significantly, a July 2013 Pew Survey suggested that around 80% of the populations in these countries viewed Abe’s Japan favorably. Importantly, although governments in these countries do not attempt to suppress or deny memories of Japanese actions during the Second World War, they have shown no interest in inciting anti-Japanese sentiment in their respective societies. Reassured by a post-war Japan that has been a model international citizen for almost seven decades through its immense contributions to offering aid, capital, technology and its vast markets to the region, all these former adversaries see a confident and proactive Japan as an essential pillar of a stable and prosperous Asia in this century – and a check against an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
In contrast, Seoul has encouraged and flattered domestic anti-Japanese sentiment, often leading to farcical outcomes. One recent illustration was in December 2013, when South Korean peacekeeping forces in Sudan faced an imminent threat from insurgents and issued a desperate call for more ammunition. Because Japan’s military was the only other force on the ground with the same calibre ammunition, Tokyo promptly authorized more than 10,000 bullets to be sent to the Koreans. But the gesture caused such a public uproar within South Korea that Seoul refused to accept the ammunition, subsequently accusing Japan of publicizing its largesse at South Korea’s expense. This was denied by Tokyo. But whatever the truth, the episode suggests that South Korean antipathy toward Japan trumps even the need to protect its own troops.
Finally, opening up the Pandora ’s Box of recent history between the two countries will be embarrassing for not just Japan but also South Korea, whose closet is not without its own skeletons. One of them was revealed in official documents released in 2005 covering negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo in the lead-up to the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations, which established normal diplomacy between the two countries. The documents had been kept secret for forty years. During these negotiations, South Korea demanded $364 million in compensation for more than one million Koreans conscripted into the workforce and the military during the period of Japanese colonization from 1910-45. Japan proposed that it compensate victims directly. When the money arrived in the form of grants and soft loans from Tokyo, authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee (father of the current president) instead spent it on national economic development. Understandably, Seoul is not eager for this snippet of history to be revisited.
Seoul’s decision to deploy wartime history as a weapon against its neighbor and an obstacle against Japan playing a more extensive role in the region is more a political decision that is self-defeating and less a noble act of justice. Americans ought to encourage Seoul to follow the example of the vast majority of Asian capitals in not forgetting the past, but refusing to allow it to be used to prevent a better future.