As Japan-South Korea relations cool, antagonism limits diplomatic options
Due to differences in views over issues related to historical perceptions and words or deeds of political leaders of both countries, a structure of mutual distrust between Japan and South Korea is taking hold.
As a joint public opinion survey conducted recently by The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Hankook Ilbo shows, this is a critical situation for both sides.
The survey found that 73 percent of Japanese think South Korea is not trustworthy, tying a previous survey result posted last year and marking a record high for two years in a row. In South Korea, 85 percent of pollees said Japan is not trustworthy.
In the bilateral surveys taken from the 1990s up to 2011, particularly conspicuous was distrust of Japan among South Koreans. In recent years, however, Japanese have been viewing South Korea with an increasingly critical eye. Relations between the two countries are in a new phase.
The major turning point in bilateral relations probably came in 2012, when then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made an unprecedented visit to the Takeshima islands and demanded an “apology by the Emperor.”
Lee has neither withdrawn his demand nor apologized to Japan since then.
The Hanryu boom for Korean popular culture that once swept across Japan created a sense of affinity here, but that has now faded, replaced by a negative backlash.
Current South Korean President Park Geun-hye has called on Japan to present solutions to the issue of so-called comfort women as a precondition for holding a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. South Korea’s unilateral call for concessions from Japan is fueling anti-Korean sentiment among Japanese.
Extremely wide gaps between the two countries over issues related to historical perceptions cast a dark shadow over diplomatic relations.
Regarding Japanese prime ministers’ apologies to South Korea over Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, 76 percent of Japanese said they think the apologies made so far are “sufficient,” while only 4 percent of South Koreans responded so.
Regarding the Japanese government’s efforts to address the subject of the comfort women, 54 percent of Japanese respondents said they approved of them, while only 3 percent of South Koreans said likewise.
The Japanese government has taken the position that the issue of the right to claim reparations, including those pertaining to comfort women, has been legally settled between the two countries.
On that basis, the government has provided atonement money, together with a prime ministerial letter of apology, to 61 former comfort women from South Korea, through the Asian Women’s Fund it established in 1995. The government has also given them medical and welfare support with public funds.
Yet the South Korean government, going along with private groups that are tenaciously trying to establish the responsibility of Japan as a state, has not actively publicized these efforts made by Japan. This may be one reason why antiJapanese sentiment among people in South Korea has not eased.
During her meeting on June 1 with visiting Japanese officials, including former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Park made a point of mentioning that the number of former comfort women who are still alive has dropped to 52. Without clarifying what she specifically meant, Park called on the Japanese side to expedite its effort “to restore the honor” of former comfort women.
Masatoshi Muto, a former Japanese ambassador to South Korea, writes in a new book about the spreading anti-Korean sentiment among Japanese. He wrote that it stems from South Korea’s repeated demands for Japan to apologize, which reflects the thinking that: “We are the one who is right. So Japan ought to follow us.”
Isn’t the current situation, in which “anti-Japanese sentiment” among South Koreans and “antiKorean sentiment” among Japanese have become a normal state of affairs, narrowing the range of policy options that leaders of both countries could take? This is an editorial published by The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 10.