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Reasoning with the past

June 28,2019
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Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Many say the time has come to think about ‘Korea without Japan’ and ‘Japan without Korea’,” said Ha Young-sun — a professor emeritus in the department of political science and international relations at Seoul National University and the head of the East Asia Institute — about the recent mood among political scientists in Japan. “Some even say it is better to side with China over Korea.”

The professor went on to say, “As long as we cannot forgive Japan and Japan cannot repent, the Korea-Japan conflict is not something that can be resolved over a short period,” adding that the Korea-Japan conflict may go on longer than the U.S.-China conflict.

President Moon Jae-in will visit Japan later this week to attend the Group of 20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. But the possibility of Moon’s trip ending emptyhanded grows fast. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the host of the event, is reluctant to have a summit with Moon, citing his busy schedule. They could have a pull-aside during the summit, but Abe made it clear that he does not have any intention to spend time with Moon. Although nothing is finalized, the possibility is high that no bilateral summit will take place. It is not normal for Korea’s president to visit another country and fail to meet the leader.

A tsunami is approaching Korea-Japan relations after the Moon administration abandoned its predecessor’s agreement with Tokyo to settle the thorny comfort women issue and the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies should compensate Korean victims of forced labor. Pandora’s box is about to open, but Seoul and Tokyo are just blaming each other. The Moon administration is not budging and the Abe administration is just ignoring it, criticizing it for having ignored international norms.

During his speech last year, Abe said he wants to strengthen future-oriented cooperative relations between Korea and Japan for a new era. But this year, he just skipped any mention about bilateral ties. It could be a strategy of deliberately ignoring Korea.

The comfort women and forced labor controversies are caused by blind spots in the Treaty on Basic Relations between Korea and Japan in 1965, when ties were normalized. But they concealed their drastic differences toward the past by leaving some room to interpret the agreement in their own way. The treaty did not stipulate Japan’s aggression, colonial rule, apology and repentance. In return for $500 million of economic aid, Korea signed another agreement, which said the Korean people’s right to claim compensation from Japan was completely and finally settled. Though the treaty was unavoidable at the time, the half-baked agreements continue to hinter the advancement of bilateral ties between the two.

In October last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the forced labor victims’ individual rights to seek compensation are not covered by the bilateral agreement and ordered the concerned Japanese companies to pay 100 million won ($86,528) to each victim. Based on the ruling, a Korean court has seized stocks of Nippon Steel.

The Japanese government said it will employ all possible means to retaliate, if the assets are actually sold off to pay compensation. If Japan actually takes action, companies and people will be the real victims. Despite the ticking bomb, the Moon administration insists that it cannot intervene in the matter due to the principle of the separation of power in democracy.

Last year, the people’s exchanges between Korea and Japan exceeded 10 million for the first time. About 7.45 million Koreans visited Japan while 2.95 million Japanese people visited Korea. When the two countries’ relations face a catastrophe, civilian exchanges will be affected.

As the aftermath of the U.S.-China trade war is already affecting Korean companies, the conflict between Korea and Japan will deal a critical blow to the Korean economy.

Last week, the Chosun Ilbo published an obituary for Shim Su-gwan, the 14th-generation descendant of Shim Dang-gil, a famous potter in Japan. A part of the story was particularly inspiring. Shim Dang-gil was abducted to Kagoshima, Japan, in 1598 during Japan’s second invasion of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The whole family of Shim Su-gwan has made pottery through the generations, living in Japan for nearly 400 years.

When he visited Korea in 1974, he was asked about Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. “[Although Japan’s crimes are grave], where will this young Korea go if it is too obsessed with the past? If you are talking about 36 years [of colonial rule], I need to talk about 370 years.”
Although it has been 70 years since Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, our emotions come before reason when dealing with Japan.

If Korea-Japan relations ground to a halt, Korea will suffer more damage. There is no true solution to the forced labor and comfort women issues. Instead of trying to find a solution that does not exist, how about declaring we freeze the issues and put them on hold indefinitely. That will help matters be wrapped up and shelved, at least for now.

We should try to exist as normal neighboring countries, without mentioning the problems as if they do not exist. If enough time passes — probably about as long as the Shim family lived in Japan — the problems could disappear completely.

A political determination of the leaders of Korea and Japan and the two countries’ legislatures is critical here.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 25, Page 31