[Correspondent’s column] Japan’s more than happy to forgo good-faith response to Yoon’s concessions

Posted on : 2023-10-20 16:57 KST Modified on : 2023-10-20 16:57 KST
Seven months after Yoon’s concession on forced labor compensation, there are still no corresponding measures from Japan
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida raise their glasses of beer for a toast at a meal during Yoon’s trip to Tokyo for a summit in March 2023. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida raise their glasses of beer for a toast at a meal during Yoon’s trip to Tokyo for a summit in March 2023. (Yonhap)
By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent

On Oct. 8, 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi (1937-2000) announced a joint declaration titled the “New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership Toward the 21st Century” in Tokyo, which changed the course of the two countries’ relations. Twenty-five years have now passed since the joint declaration of the partnership, which outlined five areas of cooperation and expressed Obuchi’s “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s colonial rule over Korea.

The Korea-Japan relationship has gone through plenty of ups and downs since then. After Yoon Suk-yeol became president of Korea in May 2022, that relationship hit another inflection point.

Following a South Korean court’s ruling that Japanese companies should pay damages to Korean victims of forced labor during the Japanese colonial period, Yoon pushed through a compromise plan under which the damages were paid not by the Japanese companies responsible for the forced labor but by Korea’s government-run Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan.

Yoon’s move had the effect of thawing a severe chill in Korea’s relationship with Japan. But as reflected by the backlash from some of the victims, unilateral concessions by one side aren’t enough to repair a relationship.

In apparent awareness of that fact, Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin noted in his announcement of the compromise plan that Korea had “filled at least half the cup of water” and said he “expects the other half of the cup to be filled by a good-faith response from Japan.”

Seven months later, how have things gone? Nothing has changed in Japan. Perpetrator companies such as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have not made the apology the victims so desired, nor have they donated any money to the compensation fund.

Moreover, it’s been eight years but the Japanese government continues to not live up to the promises it made when it, in 2015 registered Hashima Island, a site where Koreans were forced to labor, as a UNESCO World Heritage site. While it created the Industrial Heritage Information Center in Tokyo, saying the facility would acknowledge forced Korean labor and memorialize those killed, the center’s inclusion of rhetoric suggesting that there wasn’t any discrimination against Koreans has only added to the whitewashing of history.

The Japanese government has refused to acknowledge, let alone investigate, the massacre of Koreans in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, even on the disaster’s centenary on Sept. 1.

Japanese elementary, middle, and high school history textbooks, which raise controversies every year, are almost entirely devoid of any mention of the coercive nature of the Japanese military’s “comfort women” system of sexual slavery and forced mobilization of laborers.

For quite some time now, Japan has maintained the stance represented in the 2015 statement by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in which he said that Japan “must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” instead of reflecting on their past history of colonization.

Yoon’s stance on historical issues has led Japan to believe that they are no longer “predestined to apologize.” This explains why Yoon is so popular in Japan.

A recent editorial in the Nikkei newspaper on the 25th anniversary of the declaration by Kim and Obuchi caught my eye. While praising Yoon’s determination, the newspaper noted that “with an approval rating in the low 30 percent, he has a weak base to push for improved relations” between the two countries. “It is important that measures are taken so that the bilateral relationship does not go backward even with changes in leadership,” the paper went on.

The editorial stressed a need to accelerate the construction of a “multilayered framework,” and called it “appropriate” to institutionalize the framework of Japan-South Korea, and Japan-South Korea-US cooperation.

The editorial suggested the need for a new joint declaration with “a common vision that specifies the principles that will serve the spirit of the framework and the areas in which cooperation should take place.”

Such an enthusiastic call for a policy that does nothing to “fill half of the cup” but only clings to the Yoon administration’s “giveaway” diplomacy makes me sigh.

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

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