It’s the 50th Anniversary of Japan-Korea Normalization, and Abe Conceded…Nothing

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Sometimes Japan just brings these troubles on itself…

Anyone who’s read this blog for awhile knows that I get a fair amount of flak from Korean nationalists who tell me that I should stop pointing out how South Korea manipulates Japan and history for its own domestic purposes – no one denies it, mind you, they’re just furious when I point it out – or that I am too friendly to Japan, and so on.

So this post is for you.

I am well-aware that Japan flim-flams, obfuscates, denies and all that. I have said that for years. And last Monday, the 50th anniversary of Korea-Japan diplomatic normalization was a big chance for Abe to re-set the board. He blew it. Maybe we’ll get luckier with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War next month. There will be global attention on Abe then.

The essay below the jump was originally posted here at the Lowy Interpreter earlier this week.



On June 22, 1965, South Korea and Japan signed their “Treaty on Basic Relations,” the fundament for the current relationship. As the fiftieth anniversary rolls around this week, all eyes are on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Next month is also the seventieth anniversary of Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II and the birth of modern democratic Japan. There is widespread hope – but little expectation, it must be admitted – that on these major occasions Abe will offer some concessions to Korea and the region on historical questions – most importantly: 1) Japan’s general culpability for its expansionism, culminating in the war; 2) its harsh treatment both of conquered peoples, especially the Chinese, and on the battlefield; and 3) its historical representation that frequently portrays the war as something forced in Japan or done to liberate Asia from western colonialism, in which it was a victim (because of US strategic bombing and the atom-bomb drop), and where brutalities such as the ‘comfort women’ system or Unit 731 go undiscussed.

Apologies and Liability

The debate over responding to Korea is particularly contentious. Relations between the two are near an all-time low, and Abe has consistently dodged culpability or cast doubt on established facts. The normalization debate fifty years ago was very antagonistic in Korea. There were mass protests, which the dictator at the time, Park Chung Hee, was able to override through sheer force. But as Korea has democratized, public opinion has become harder to constrain. Nationalist opinion has focused on Japan’s contrition, or lack of. The central Korean demand in the relationship is a sincere apology. Tokyo feels it has done so many times. Hence the stalemate.

A further, often unrecognized, issue is financial liability. The most contentious part of the 1965 settlement is the agreement to forgo all Korean financial claims against Japan related to the war in exchange for extensive financial and technological assistance. Japan did indeed provide this – a point my Japanese interlocutors constantly remind me of. But at the time, the ‘comfort women’ issue – the coerced impressment of Korean women into military brothels – was not widely recognized in Korea and conveniently forgotten in Japan. As the issue exploded in the 1990s, demands for compensation were inevitable. Japan has balked at formal compensation, claiming that the 1965 treaty settled all claims. But Korea at that time was an impoverished autocracy. It is hard to know if a poor, but democratic Korea with its contemporary knowledge of the comfort women issue would have signed this treaty (likely not). That casts doubt the moral propriety of liberal democratic Japan’s legalistic adherence to the claims-rejection clause.

Aware of this and the ensuing reputational damage, the Japanese government attempted to settle the issue with the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), a parastatal NGO in the 1990s/2000s that sought to compensate the victims without direct government culpability. The South Korean government considered this insufficient and encouraged former South Korean comfort women to reject the money and apology. Seoul attributed the AWF to persistent Japanese atrocity evasion, but not widely recognized there is the large fear in Tokyo that formally abandoning the 1965 denial of further claims could open the door to a landslide of Korean claims against Japan.

My own sense from Japanese colleagues and associates is that the government would like to formally recognize the comfort women and end the issue, but it fears huge liability exposure and opportunism if it steps back from the treaty. Greece, for example, in its tussle with the eurozone troika has recently ‘discovered’ that Nazi-era reparations due to it pretty closely approximate Greece’ current debt. Seoul would need to credibly commit that such blatant manipulation would not occur in this case, but that is nearly impossible. Private Korean citizens and groups could bring all sorts of post-treaty claims, and the Blue House would be unable to stop unwanted court decisions without grossly violating judicial independence. Simultaneously, Korean courts would be under huge informal public pressure to find in favor of the claimants, fueling precisely the claim wave Tokyo fears. Like the apology debate, the issue is stalemated.

What Abe Could Say To Help…but Won’t


Usually these sorts of articles end with arguments that both Japan and Korea need to compromise in order to get along and deal with the really serious issues of their neighborhood – North Korea, China, etc. And so they do. And in my previous writings on this topic, I have often suggested that Koreans might take steps to ease the tension, such as dropping on the needlessly provocative Sea of Japan re-naming campaign that only stiffens Japan’s spine, rather than encouraging reconciliation.

But it must be said at this point that Abe has veered so widely from accepted fact on Japanese twentieth century imperialism, that he must probably make the first move, not just to the Koreans, but to much of the Asia-Pacific region, including the Americans. Here are three steps, blindingly obvious to anyone outside Japanese reactionary historiography, that are needed to bring Japan not just into accord with the region, but also with accepted scholarship in the rest of the world.

1) Japan’s culpability in war-time atrocities is now accepted fact outside of head-in-the-sand Japanese conservative circles. It would help immensely if Abe & co. would simply admit what everyone else knows already anyway. As a critic of my Interpreter writing on ‘Korea fatigue’ rightly put it, we all have ‘Japan fatigue’ too, in that we have been dancing around this otherwise obvious issue for decades. Enough.

2) Japan’s historical representation – at Yushukan, the lack of any museums or architecture on behalf of the victims of its 20th century imperialism, the victim narrative, and so on – is myopic at best, a whitewash at worst. Historians have been saying this for years and years.

3) Visits to Yasukuni do nothing but anger most of the planet; even the emperor refuses to go. Why Japanese prime ministers continue to go confounds everyone.

Needless to say, such moves are unlikely, but these two looming anniversaries are huge opportunities to reset the region’s dynamics in Japan’s favor by finally ending a discussion – about the war – that it will simply never win. Is permanent denialism really a strategy? South Korean President Park Geun-Hye hinted to the Washington Post that deal on the comfort women is imminent; is Abe finally coming around?

Filed under: Abe, History, Japan, Korea (South), World War II

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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