South Korea’s 74th anniversary of liberation from Japan has come at a time of the worst bilateral relations ever since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1965. The bilateral relations that have been worsening since the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on the forced labor issue last October have reached a point of no return as Japan has implemented export regulations in early July. The Shinzo Abe administration broke the unwritten rule between the two countries by involving economic measures into historical and diplomatic issues, putting at risk the bilateral relations that have maintained cooperation even with many challenges in the past. There is no clear solution on the horizon.
The National Liberation Day of South Korea is marked as the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Japan, which serves as a clear piece of evidence of how the two countries have gone through opposing courses throughout history. Seventy-four years after the liberation, most of those living now have not experienced the war, but the historical issues have remained the key element that cannot be covered or forgotten in the bilateral relations. Japan has pursued to leave the postwar system behind and is now occupied by the generations with little knowledge and the feeling of indebtedness for what happened in the past. During the same period, South Korea has achieved remarkable economic growth and democratization despite the tragic Korean War, which divided the Korean Peninsula. However, most Koreans, including the postwar generations, still hold the Japanese colonial era in their hearts, as if it is an ongoing situation, rather than what's in the past.
Yet, South Korea and Japan are predestined to revive the hard-earned cooperative relationship and move forward into the future as neighboring countries. Some in the South Korean political circles are claiming that the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations between South Korea and Japan has fundamental limitations and therefore must be nullified. However, they must admit that there are both positive and negative sides to it as the two countries have achieved win-win economic development under the 1965 system.
Despite the added tension caused by the political circles of the two countries for the past month and a half, the private sector has been emphasizing the measures to calmly resolve the issues. In particular, the special statement released by 67 South Korean elder intellectuals is notable in that they emphasize returning to the spirit and solution of the joint statement by Kim Dae-jung and Keizo Obuchi in 1998. Then-Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi expressed “deep self-reflection and apology” while former President Kim of South Korea welcomed it promising “forward-looking relations.” The 67 intellectuals also called the two countries to withdraw export controls, expand communication, and continue to negotiate regarding the past agreements and promises. Meanwhile, in Japan, 78 intellectuals, including historian Haruki Wada, have been campaigning to obtain signatures to call for the immediate withdrawal of Tokyo’s export regulations under the title of “Is South Korea our enemy?” since late July.
Now is a time for both countries to utilize their collective intelligence for a more mature upgrade of the 1965 system. Political administrations will only last for a limited time while nations and their people continue to go on. Japanese people willing to understand and cooperate with South Korea are the diplomatic assets to the country. On the other hand, emotional conflicts between the people of the two countries, such as anti-Korean and anti-Japan sentiments, will undermine future assets, although may not be obvious at the moment. While South Korea and Japan have been involved in conflicts surrounding their intertwined history, international politics have become so frozen as to indicate the Second Cold War. Cooperation between South Korea and Japan is a must to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. This year marks South Korea’s 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement and the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea while the 75th anniversary of the National Liberation Day will be celebrated next year. Now is a time to find a turning point to put South Korea-Japan relations on the course to proactively move forward into a new future based on the past history.