Friendly foes - Explaining the rift between South Korea and Japan

If the world were governed by rationality, Japan and South Korea would be the closest of allies. Both face security risks from the erratic whims of the latter’s militaristic, totalitarian northern neighbour, enjoy an enduring relationship with the United States and harbour wary sentiment towards China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. Nevertheless, the reality isn’t so straightforward. Relations between the two countries have been reluctant at best, and spiteful at their worst. Just recently, the government in Tokyo opted to impose controls on exports to South Korea, primarily in response to a South Korean court ruling ordering Japanese industrial firm Mitsubishi to pay compensation to Koreans who were used as forced labour during the Second World War. Why is it that these two countries have consistently failed to bury their differences and form a well-spirited, mutually beneficial diplomatic relationship?

One could point to the ideological differences between their respective incumbencies. Shinzo Abe, the current Japanese premier, is a vociferous nationalist, and the Liberal Democratic Party which he leads contains elements that could be characterised as far-right by Western metrics. On the other hand, his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-In, sits firmly on the centre-left and is often described by pundits as a pacifist. However, a cursory glance at the two countries’ histories reveals a much more pervasive antagonism that has endured throughout the post-war era, primarily rooted in Tokyo’s conduct during the Second World War, in addition to their occupation of the Korean peninsula dating back to 1910. While it would be valid to raise the point that the two countries’ bad blood predates the 20th Century, it is the war that has served as the focal point of their current hostilities.

One of the most torturous disputes has centred around the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of “comfort women” – effectively sex slaves taken from the populations of their occupied territories, including, but not confined to, Koreans. Seoul has repeatedly lambasted Tokyo over a perceived failure to comprehensively acknowledge and come to terms with the horrific conduct of its soldiers. Seoul’s charges at various points have been met by the Japanese right with indifference, hubris and resentment. Abe in particular has been vocal on this front throughout his political career, and has had no qualms repudiating the notion that the Japanese state was culpable for these abuses in the past. This is just one example of a wider discourse over which (for the most part justified) wartime grievances continue to loom large. Yet, in other parts of the world affected by the war – such as Europe - reconciliation has occurred to great effect; why not in the Asia-Pacific?

In the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory, the US was highly conscious of a recently defeated Japan – having been impoverished and ravaged by war – succumbing to communism and subsequently aligning with the USSR and China, who before long were deemed the greatest threat in the absence of a fascist axis. As a result, they made a bargain of sorts with the country’s nationalist hard-right, many of whom had been intimately involved in the war, along with its most contemptuous abuses. In effect, if they aligned with the US’s foreign policy interests and kept the left-wing parties out of power, they would receive crucial economic and political backing and have their war crimes all but absolved. Figures such as Nobusuke Kishi – a hardline nationalist who presided over the brutal occupation of Chinese Manchuria (and, revealingly, is the maternal grandfather of Shinzo Abe) – have thus instrumentally shaped modern Japan’s socio-political norms. Taking this into consideration, it is easy to understand why, to this day, the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has been characterised by grievance and hostility. Korea has suffered immensely at the hands of Japan’s imperialists, yet their descendants and apologists remain at the heart of the latter’s political system, and are as unapologetic as ever.

Image - Unsplash

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