Ever since people inhabited the the Korean peninsula and the Japanese islands three millennia ago, Koreans and the people of Japan have had relations. The first 1,500 years were generally cordial, with trade allowing the sharing of religious ideas, philosophy and farming techniques, as well as pottery and metallurgy skills. On the Korean Peninsula, three kingdoms existed, with Japan aligned with Paekje in the southwest. This meant that relations between Paekje’s rival Shilla (Goguryeo was the third kingdom) and Japan were tenuous at best. When Shilla conquered Paekje, the unification of Korea was discomfiting for Japanese society and politics.
The point is that the links between Japan and Korea go back a long way, and political change in the Koreans’ form of government and their alignment with the Chinese has always affected Japan. There have been so many different stages in their relations – periods of peace and war, victories and defeats. The two peoples have lived in peaceful coexistence for so very long, yet at times like today – when the two countries are embroiled in a bitter and spiraling trade dispute – they can still seem hardly to know how to get along.
It was unfortunate for Korea that in the 19th century the ruling Joseon dynasty decided to close the country’s borders to the outside world, a move aimed mainly at protecting the status of the Korean aristocrats then in power. The rulers ignored the inevitable changes that were occurring around them and got caught up in a regional power struggle which resulted in Korea becoming a colony of Japan in 1910. Colonial rule lasted nearly 35 years. Tokyo’s brutality left scars that far exceeded any of the benefits that a modern Japan brought to Korea.
Under Japan’s control, many Koreans sought refuge abroad, taking with them hopes of a new and independent Korea. Some went to the United States but most of the resistance activity, especially direct military action against Japan, was coordinated in China. By 1919, a provisional Korean government was established in Shanghai and efforts were underway to liberate Korea.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the war in the Pacific progressed, the United States’ Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – put together plans to liberate the Korean peninsula, preparing exiled Koreans for the mission. When the US dropped the two atom bombs and Japan surrendered, these US-trained Koreans wept because they realized that they had lost the opportunity to march into homeland to free their people.
Korea gained independence from Japan on August 15, 1945, a bitter-sweet day that saw the peninsula divided into North and South. To the credit of the Korean people, mass acts of revenge did not occur against the Japanese and for the most part Japanese were allowed to return to their homeland without harm. Korea then fell into turmoil. Politically divided and in the midst of the Korean War, the South Koreans launched negotiations to normalize relations with Japan.
In 1965, after 14 years of talks, the Republic of Korea and Japan agreed to establish diplomatic relations. Yet three issues remained unresolved: the “comfort women” – Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese occupiers; Korean victims of the atomic bombs on Japan; and Korean forced laborers sent to Sakhalin, Russia, to work for the Japanese war effort.
It is the forced laborer issue that is responsible for the latest flare-up in relations that has become a trade war between the world’s third-largest economy, Japan, and the 11th biggest, South Korea. The dispute stems from a South Korean court ruling last year that allowed individuals to seek compensation for wartime servitude from Japanese companies. Tokyo insists that all such claims were covered by a 1965 treaty. The argument got heated. In August, Japan removed South Korea from its export control “white list” of preferred trading partners, a move that meant that exporters have to obtain licenses when they ship to South Korea a wide range of chemicals and electronic goods, including materials vital for Korea’s massive semiconductor manufacturing sector.
Roller coaster relations
Two annual events commemorate Japan’s rule over Korea. The first day of March has been a holiday in South Korea since 1949. It marks the March 1st Movement of 1919, when after nearly 20 years of brutal rule by the Japanese, and encouraged by US President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, Koreans revolted en masse. The Japanese used military force and imprisoned thousands and killed hundreds. The day is meant to remember the resolve of the Korean people but it naturally also a reminder of the cruelty of the Japanese government. The other holiday is Independence Day, August 15, when Koreans celebrate their freedom and liberty but also recall how Korea was divided against its will and how Japanese imperialism and colonial rule led to Korea’s suffering.
Among some people in both Korea and Japan, extreme nationalist views can fuse onto patriotism and easily become unbridled hatred. Politicians have tapped into this toxic chauvinism to gain votes. To be sure, the list of issues that divide the two neighbors is numerous. From the naming of geographic locations to the symbolism of flags, the two nations have differences that might never be resolved. Yet South Korea and Japan have been able to put aside many of these disputes at least for periods. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were times when the two countries managed to build a working relationship based on mutual respect. The goodwill and cooperative spirit yielded significant economic benefits for their people.
To think that Korea and Japan can decouple is unrealistic. They need to live with each other for the benefit of their people, the region and the world.
Relations between North Korea and Japan have been even more sensitive and contentious. In the years following the Korean War, North Korea invested in the Korean community in Japan, promoting the teaching of North Korean values and ideology in Korean-Japanese schools. The abductions of dozens of Japanese citizens by North Korean infiltrators between 1977 and 1983 have been the biggest source of the deep-seated hostility between the two countries. Japanese loathing for North Korean leaders from Kim Il-sung to his grandson, the current ruler Kim Jong-un, is well known. North Korean state-controlled media, meanwhile, typically blare out anti-Japanese invectives. The enmity today remains deep, with Tokyo watching with suspicion and nervousness as Seoul and Washington have tried to come to terms with the incumbent totalitarian regime in Pyongyang.
In the mid-1990s, Japan and Korea actually achieved some groundbreaking advances in their relations. Focusing on the future, both Korean and Japanese administrations encouraged cultural exchanges. One of the most remarkable developments was the rise in popularity among Japanese of Korean popular music. K-Pop, as well as Korean television drama series, created enormous goodwill between the countries. By the late 1990s, according to polls, nearly 80 percent of Japanese had a positive image of Korea. Relations soured in the early 2000s with the visits by the Japanese prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, to Yasukuni Shrine, in which are commemorated 14 of Japan’s most infamous war criminals. Eight years later, when Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islets of Dokdo (known as Takeshima in Japan and Liancourt Rocks internationally), surveys indicated that only 40 percent of Japanese had a positive image of Korea.
Untangling fraught ties
In 2015, the South Korean and Japanese governments announced that negotiations over the comfort women issue had concluded. Japan apologized and took responsibility and agreed to contribute funds to establish a foundation for the victims. Korea acknowledged Japan’s efforts and agreed to try to resolve the dispute over the statue of a comfort woman, referred to as the Statue of Peace, installed in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011. About 55 percent of Koreans supported the agreement, with 40 percent opposed, but two thirds of the population were against moving the monument. The political opposition to the government of Korea president Park Geun-hye was firmly against the deal. After Park was removed from office amid scandal, the agreement was essentially void.
The current trade dispute went to a higher level when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to remove South Korea from the white list of favored trading partners. This was an unnecessary move that prompted Koreans to boycott Japanese goods and avoid travel to Japan. Japanese radicals ridiculed that reaction.
Despite the fiery rhetoric, there still appears to be a reservoir of goodwill between Japanese and Koreans. Moreover, it is becoming clearer that the economic war benefits neither country. The discord is entwined with domestic politics in obvious and hidden ways. But politicians in the two countries must resist the temptation to use the quarrel for short-term gain. The ability of the governments to manage the anger on both sides will be an important indicator of their leadership. A truce would allow them to focus on more pressing issues and shared interests.
Korea’s announcement that it would withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a crucial pact between the two countries, has raised the stakes and expanded the fight beyond trade. Quitting the GSOMIA has called into question the integrity of regional security cooperation, particularly on North Korea. The Japanese had expressed their willingness to continue the GSOMIA. Korea should not be using GSOMIA as leverage for political purposes and strictly focus on the military and intelligence value of the mechanism.
History can be a high hurdle to get over for many countries which are geographic and cultural neighbors and logically should benefit from ever closer friendship and deeper cooperation. Japan and Korea will always be next door to each other. But erasing the shameful record of Japan’s past atrocities will probably take many more generations.
The US should play the role of chaperone to ensure that the two countries keep their gloves down. Even though President Donald Trump has proven unpredictable, Washington still enjoys Tokyo and Seoul’s respect and trust. While the US has its own political challenges, it is crucial that it does not neglect responsibilities in Northeast Asia, especially in its role as the security guarantor in the region. If the Japan-Korea trade war spins out of control, there will be serious economic and security implications for US interests. For its part, Japan could take some steps to lower the temperature, perhaps deploying their recently enthroned emperor, Naruhito, to reach out to the Korean people.
Events of recent weeks have shown how poor political leadership can put in serious jeopardy a relationship that has long been on shaky ground. This spat has highlighted how connected the two countries have become. To think that Korea and Japan can decouple is unrealistic. They need to live with each other for the benefit of their people, the region and the world. If the tension is wound down with deft diplomacy on both sides, possibly with the help of the US, this summer of rage might well give way to a calmer autumn and in the long run to a more mature and healthy relationship.