President Barack Obama watches as South Korean President Park Geun-hye, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leave their seats, March 25, 2014, during the start of their trilateral meeting at the US Ambassador's Residence in the Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama watches as South Korean President Park Geun-hye, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leave their seats, March 25, 2014, during the start of their trilateral meeting at the US Ambassador's Residence in the Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Japan and South Korea should be the most natural of allies. They are both developed economies and espouse liberal democratic ideals. They share a similar cultural background. They are both close allies of the United States. They face similar security threats, most notably North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.  And they both have the same interests in regional stability and bilateral cooperation.

Despite all of these commonalities, Japan and South Korea’s bilateral relations are at their worst in years. Since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun-Hye were elected in December 2012, their only encounter was a trilateral meeting hosted and arranged by US President Barack Obama in March 2014, held on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands. The meeting provided for an awkward moment and did little to ease the visible chill between the two leaders.

While a territorial dispute concerning a group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan (or what Koreans prefer to call the East Sea) has contributed to the freeze, the crux of the problem remains Japan’s perceived attempts to whitewash certain aspects of its wartime conduct, particularly with regard to the so-called comfort women. The euphemism refers to the thousands of women, the majority of whom were from Korea, forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. South Koreans feel that Japanese leaders have not properly repented for their country’s past, often contrasting Japan’s handling of history to how Germany dealt with the Nazis’ war crimes.

In reality, the Japanese government has officially extended numerous apologies for the atrocities committed before and during World War II. The two most recent expressions of contrition were the landmark Kono statement in 1993 and the 1995 Murayama statement, which have been officially upheld by all successive Japanese administrations. So why are Koreans — and Chinese, among others — still demanding apologies from Japan?

Above all, actions and statements by prominent Japanese politicians and public figures have often contradicted or undermined the government’s official apologies. In April 2013, Prime Minister Abe told the House of Councillors that the “term ‘aggression’ was not defined internationally or academically,” an assertion that was interpreted by many as a denial of Japan’s actions during World War II. In January 2014, Katsuto Momii, the new head of Japan’s national public broadcasting organization and a close ally of Shinzo Abe, publicly played down the issue of comfort women during his first press conference. Several other statements or actions by conservative Japanese politicians have provoked an outcry in South Korea.

But perhaps the most contentious Japanese move is the recent report on the 1993 Kono statement. On June 20, the Abe administration released a report written by a government-appointed study group about the events that led to the official apology by the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The report asserted that the 1993 apology had been the result of negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo. Among others, it stated that the word “coercive” had been included at the request of the South Korean government. The message was clear: the landmark apology was not based solely on historical evidence and the findings of the government, but on a political bargain designed to appease Seoul. It is not hard to see why the report was widely perceived as backtracking on the apology, despite Tokyo’s assertions to the contrary.

Perhaps more interested in pandering to Japanese nationalists, the Abe administration has seemed so far incapable of understanding South Korean sensibilities. This lack of empathy has also been displayed by former officials involved in the Kono and Murayama statements. The June 20 report states that during a February 2014 testimony at the House of Representative, former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobuo Ishihara said, “problems of the past between Japan and the ROK were once settled, but have recently been brought up again by the ROK government, and it is extremely regrettable that the good intentions of the Government of Japan at that time are not being recognized.” As illustrated by Ishihara’s statement, many Japanese are unable to see that their own leaders’ words and actions have brought past grievances to the fore. Both sides believe the other is responsible for the continuation of the dispute. Empathy gaps block the road to reconciliation, as in many other disputes in the region.  

The Abe administration’s approach to the history issue has consequences for regional stability and the United States’ East Asia policy. Washington longs for closer ties between Seoul and Tokyo, as it views trilateral cooperation as necessary for dealing with the North Korean threat and an increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to South Korea underscored the bleak outlook for a Seoul-Tokyo rapprochement in the short-term. United by shared historical grievances toward Japan, Xi and Park have joined voices in criticizing Tokyo for its handling of the comfort women issue as well as its push to lift restrictions on the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ capacity to operate beyond its borders.

As Japan’s main ally, the United States can do more to encourage the Abe administration to tread more carefully with regard to Japan’s past. To be sure, it did express its disappointment after Prime Minister Abe’s December 26 visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where 14 convicted war criminals are honoured among Japan’s war dead. However, Washington’s direct criticism of Tokyo’s handling of the comfort women issue has been relatively muted. During a visit to Seoul in April, Obama called the forced recruitment of comfort women a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights,” but had refrained from publicly addressing the issue when he visited Tokyo a few days earlier. Mentioning the issue while in Tokyo would have undoubtedly had more impact on Japanese leaders than doing so in Seoul.

Ultimately, the responsibility for improving ties between South Korea and Japan rests on Abe’s shoulders. While Park Geun-Hye could be blamed for trying to score easy political points with her criticisms of Japan, Shinzo Abe needs to do more to restrain the more nationalist voices in his party and firmly condemn any attempts at historical revisionism. His handling of the historical issues has caused harm to Japan’s image and contributed to the recent forceful reactions to his foreign policy plans. In the long run, an isolated Japan is not conducive to regional stability. 

Next: James Manicom on empathy in the South China Sea.

Ultimately, the responsibility for improving ties between South Korea and Japan rests on Abe’s shoulders. While Park Geun-Hye could be blamed for trying to score easy political points with her criticisms of Japan, Shinzo Abe needs to do more to restrain t
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