[Column] What to expect following the “normalization” of Korea-Japan ties

Posted on : 2023-03-22 17:03 KST Modified on : 2023-03-22 17:03 KST
Japan’s unspoken demand that South Korea “resolve this issue on its own” after the 2018 Supreme Court ruling has become a reality
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan ahead of their summit in Tokyo on March 16. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan ahead of their summit in Tokyo on March 16. (Yonhap)

By Lim Jae-sung, attorney and sociologist

“It is too early to discuss the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to South Korea when the Statue of Peace is still standing in front of the Japanese Embassy.”

Let’s suppose that the Japanese government makes this demand of Korea. The consensus in Japan after the South Korean Supreme Court finalized its ruling on the issue of forced mobilization in 2018 was one of “teaching Korea a lesson.” I wonder if that is exactly what is happening now, and, if so, what comes next.

On March 6, Seoul announced that victims of forced mobilization would be compensated by South Korean funds. Japan made no announcement of an apology or intention to participate in the compensation. This was a unilateral move by the South Korean government to override the judgment of its own court. Japan’s unspoken demand that South Korea “resolve this issue on its own” after the 2018 Supreme Court ruling has become a reality.

Let’s look at what will happen next from three perspectives: diplomacy, domestic politics, and the victims.

Firstly, diplomacy. The presidential office is promoting a “new era of South Korea-Japan relations,” but no debt has been repaid and no cash has been delivered. What if Japan puts additional conditions on the normalization of relations? The South Korean government will have no choice but to accept. Can you imagine overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on forced mobilization, for which the victims fought for more than 20 years, only to be faced with an icy relationship with Japan? Our national pride would never recover from such a fall.

All too aware of this situation, Japan was meticulous in its preparations. Since the summit, the Japanese government has been leaking the contents of the summit to the media slowly. From the implementation of the 2015 agreement on the military sexual slavery issue, a 2018 incident in which a South Korean destroyer allegedly locked onto a Japanese aircraft on its radar, the demand for Fukushima seafood imports, and even Dokdo.

A series of events has been repeating: When the Japanese media reports that such issues were discussed, the South Korean media asks the South Korean government if this is true. In turn, the South Korean government either confirms nothing or denies everything. Korea has become a laughingstock since the summit’s conclusion.

The implementation of the so-called “comfort women” agreement is the issue Japan will be most aggressive about. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was foreign minister at the time the agreement was inked and personally read the 2015 pact aloud at its signing. At the time, the South Korean government announced that it would “strive to solve” the issue of the Statue of Peace, a memorial to victims of the comfort women system, in an “appropriate manner.”

Japan will take the opportunity presented by the South Korean government having abandoned all of its diplomatic levers and hoisting a white flag in hopes of a friendly response, to make sure that every single thing that they want to fix will be acknowledged by the South Korean government.

Next, we need to think about domestic politics. An all-out offensive will follow, since the administration will stoop to anything, even spreading falsehoods, to justify this diplomatic disaster. Kim Gi-hyeon, the newly elected leader of the People Power Party, criticized the opposition party by saying, “If we’re going with the logic of the Democratic Party, does that mean that former President Roh Moo-hyun was Japan’s servant?” on Monday.

Kim’s logic is that the Act on Support for Victims of Forced Mobilization Abroad Before and After the Pacific War — enacted in 2007, during the Roh Moo-hyun administration — contains the same subrogation system as the Yoon administration’s proposal.

This is not true. This act merely stipulates government support for humanitarian compensation for victims. Subrogation is a process in which a third party assumes a debt on behalf of a debtor. Compensation and debt settlement are not the same thing.

Another situation like the Park Geun-hye administration’s inspection and surveillance of the Sewol ferry tragedy victims and their support groups could as well happen. Kim Tae-hyo, first deputy director of the National Security Office, said in a media interview on Saturday that “we need to filter and listen more carefully to the words of unrelated parties.” When it’s hard to attack the victims of dissent directly, you attack the periphery.

It’s a familiar logic. In 2019, when a similar third-party repayment proposal came under fire, the office of then-National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang sarcastically questioned who was behind the victims advocacy groups, stating that “none of the groups opposed to the plan are run by victims of forced labor.”

Under both Moon Jae-in and Yoon Suk-yeol administrations, victims have consistently demanded an apology from Japan. These demands have been dismissed by the ruling party as “the demands of unrelated parties, of non-victims.” The more the president’s approval ratings fall, the deeper the divide will grow.

Lastly, the victims. There are people who opposed the government’s proposal and stood by their demand for reparations and an apology from offending Japanese companies until the very end. Now they must fight to hold onto the Supreme Court ruling from a South Korean government that wants to take it away from them. They will face isolation like never before. They will be stigmatized as people who oppose the future-oriented development of the country and as people who are beleaguering the president.

Is this the way we want South Korea-Japan relations to become “normalized?” A normalization that takes away the rights of victims, maximizes political conflicts with falsehoods, and is created in a one-way, subordinate relationship instead of a relationship that is equal and reciprocal? Is this really “normalization?”

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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