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South Korea and Japan Relations Have a Chance at a New Beginning

The issues are difficult, but President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea shows courage in floating a new proposal to end the acrimony with Japan, says Mr Miyamoto.

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) at Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 13, 2022. (© The Cabinet Public Relations Office)

The primary focus of a nation's foreign policy should be its national interest. Unfortunately, the relationship between South Korea and Japan has been rife with problems, with Korean policy driven by negative anti-Japan sentiments due to the annexation by Japan during the first half of the 20th century. They have been two nations so close to each other in many respects and yet so far apart. 

From the Japanese viewpoint, the annexation of the Korean Peninsula was considered a necessity for security reasons. The possibility of the domination of Korea by China or Russia was not an acceptable option.  

In return, the Korean Royal Family was treated as royalty by the Japanese people. Many Koreans who joined the Imperial Japanese Army were promoted equally with their Japanese counterparts. During WWII, there were a dozen or so Koreans who were general officers, with many Koreans serving as officers in lower ranks.  

It should be noted that there is no history of a European nation promoting a citizen of a colony to the rank of general and commanding troops of the ruling nation. Japan did not treat Korea as a colony, it was an annexed part of Japan. 

However, there is no question that discrimination against Koreans did exist. Racial discrimination cannot be eliminated by fiat. Only time can do that.  

South Korea
Protesters were holding an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, South Korea, August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Outside Observations

An explanation of conditions in Korea at the time of annexation is briefly described in the book, Freedom Betrayed by George H Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2011), about former US President Herbert Hoover. Hoover visited Korea just prior to the annexation and again just after the end of WWII. The voluminous book devotes two pages to describe conditions as Hoover saw them during those visits. 

While Hoover may have been an objective observer, his views may not be acceptable to upper class Koreans. As he saw, the privileged, dominant class in Korea lost their special status with the elimination of the caste system by Japan. 

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Since its establishment after WWII, the Republic of Korea (South Korean) government has used an alternative version of history to serve its political objectives. About this, a favorite saying comes to mind: "Any nation that falsifies its history is doomed." 

While I do not feel South Korea is doomed, the distortion of history has alienated Koreans against Japan, a nation that had extended its hand in friendship since the inception of South Korea. While most Koreans are familiar with the history of Japanese bases being used by United States and United Nations Forces during the Korean War, most have no knowledge of the Japanese minesweepers and the Japanese crewmen that participated in the Korean War. The use of Japanese bases, ports and logistical support made success possible in that war.  

South Korea
A protest calling for an end to the comfort women fraud was held in Berlin in June 2022. In the background is a comfort woman statue covered by a blue sheet.

Taking a New Look at Old History

Instead of appreciation, over the years Japan has been flooded with demands for apologies by Koreans for past atrocities, some of dubious nature. An example is the accusation that the Japanese military abducted a couple of hundred thousand Korean women to serve as sex slaves. That is not only untrue, but the allegation is also an outrageous insult since it portrays Korean men as spineless cowards who did not resist. 

Abduction of one or two women is possible. However, the abduction of a couple of hundred thousand Korean women without any resistance by Korean men is impossible. There is not a single testimony nor documentation of any Korean opposition. If the abductions did occur, Korean men are the most cowardly people on earth. That very thought is preposterous. 

Were Koreans helpless with no means to resist? During the annexation period, many Koreans were policemen and there were a couple of hundred thousand Korean men in the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces. Had the allegations of comfort women abductions been true, there surely would have been a civil war. 

Recently, a group of Korean women traveled to Germany to explain that Japan's abduction of Korean women to serve as sex slaves was not true. They asked that the Korean comfort woman statue erected on public property in Berlin be removed. This is a new development. 

Americans who have erected a comfort women statue in their community should take heed. These statues are intended to generate hate against the Japanese people. They have no place in America where anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise. 

South Korean plaintiffs and supporters demonstrate, arguing they deserve more money from Japanese corporations for wartime labor in Japan. (©Sankei)

Finding the Path to Settlement and Better Relations

Recently, a Japanese girl stated in a public forum that her love and admiration of America is starting to wane. She made no mention of the city of Philadelphia and its recent decision to erect a comfort women statue. However, most Japanese know about the comfort women statues in Los Angeles County and San Francisco. Indeed, San Francisco's sister city in Japan, Osaka, terminated their relationship because of San Francisco's anti-Japan action.  

In addition to the comfort women issue, another matter between South Korea and Japan is creating negative perceptions. It is the alleged non-payment of compensation to Korean wartime laborers who worked in Japan during WWII. Unfortunately, some records are not clear on this matter due to mass confusion at war's end. 

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Japan's view is that the matter was settled with the 1965 treaty and settlement of claims between the two countries. South Korea's court system, however, decided not to recognize the treaty. Instead, it chose to take on the matter itself. Japanese companies who thought the matter was settled suddenly found the South Korean courts were trying to take their assets. 

South Korea
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a ceremony to celebrate Korean Liberation Day from Japanese colonial rule. August 15, 2022. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS

Basis for a New Beginning?

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration recently announced a proposal to settle the matter by having the South Korean government pay the workers. The details have yet to be worked out to accommodate all the nuances of international law and the risk of a new government taking a different view. However, from an American perspective, this seems like it could be framed in a way that is consistent with views in Japan. That is, the way to resolve the matter is by a process that complies with the 1965 agreements between the two nations. 

Nevertheless, in South Korea, where anti-Japan sentiment is high, this is a momentous, precedent-making move by the South Korean government. Japan must not overlook the risk the South Korean government is taking and respond positively to this gesture. 

Hopefully, the actions of the South Korean government to improve relations with Japan will gain the support of the Korean people. It required great courage and determination for Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to take this action. Japan should respond with sincerity and enthusiasm. 

While recognizing there are still difficult issues, those of us who love both nations sincerely hope this is the start of a new beginning in the South Korea-Japan relationship.

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Author: Archie Miyamoto

The author is an American with a long history and unique fondness for both South Korea and Japan. Find other articles by him, including those related to the relationship and history between Japan and South Korea on JAPAN Forward.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. WisdomNippon

    February 28, 2023 at 1:57 am

    Thank you for writing the article Mr. Archie Miyamoto,
    I understand your point of view, I understand your coming from a place of trying to improve relations, but.... South Korea is not sincere or honest about it's promises made or agreements signed! They have proven this already!
    Mr. Miyamoto, I want better relations with South Korea as well, but, Doing nothing is better then another apology, another agreement signed! More money paid!
    Each time we do this play with South Korea, we make the fire worse! The demands worse!
    South Korea wants everything mr. Miyamoto.
    Apologies and compensation whenever they ask for. Not just for the 3rd time and apology again for the 50th time.
    They want Takeshima Island to be recognized as Korean.
    Japan Sea to East Sea.
    Joint development on Japanese water, extracting Japanese resources, Korea wants a renewal in 5 years.
    They want to write Japanese text books, each page feel shame, humiliated, while Korea gives itself a big pass on Korean crimes in Vietnam and other places.
    Korea has it's own anti-Japan agenda because it's allowed too! Because Japan allows it too, gives in to Korean demands at every corner!
    Why doesn't South Korea hate China,Russia??
    Russia divided Korea in half.
    China helped North Korea to win back land.
    Why doesn't South Korea hate this countries too??
    China won't allow it! Russia won't allow it!
    Only weak, apologetic, grass eating LDP keeps giving apology, after apology, compensation in the Trillions today. Only Japan does that sir. That weakness!
    Please, if you care about Japan-South Korea relations, Stop Giving Any More Apologies and Compensation! Stop giving in to Korean demands! Will only make relations worse!
    South Korea has no reason to end this issues with Japan,WHY? They keep benefitting too much! Winning too much!

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