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South Korea: Stuck in the 20th century?

July 14, 2012

More than 65 years after the end of World War II, Japan and South Korea remain prisoners of their history.


by John Feffer

South Korea is at the cutting edge of global technology. It is one of the most wired countries, and its biggest cities have the fastest Internet connections in the world.

Whether it’s cell phones or genetic engineering, Korean scientists and companies set the pace. Korean culture, too, is thoroughly up to date, from K-pop sensations like Rain to blockbuster movies like “Old Boy”.

In many ways, South Korea has replaced Japan as the face of the future: wired, fast-paced, dynamic. If Hollywood remakes “Blade Runner”, the characters will navigate an urban landscape that looks more like Seoul than Tokyo.

In its foreign policy, however, South Korea is stuck in the last century. Its relations with North Korea, for instance, are defined by the territorial division and fratricidal battles that took place between 1945 and 1953.

Despite a decade of thawing ties with the North that began in 1998, Seoul has reverted to the frostier attitudes of an earlier time. Hostile rhetoric coming from both capitals, exchange of artillery fire in the West Sea, and suspected North Korean involvement in the sinking of a South Korean ship have all contributed to this reversion to last century’s norm.

The current government of Lee Myung-bak in Seoul has cracked down on unauthorised visits to the North. It recently arrested 68-year-old activist Ro Su-hui for travelling to Pyongyang and observing the 100-day memorial of the death of Kim Jong Il, the former leader of North Korea. Lee Myung-bak’s conservative party has also accused the opposition party of harbouring pro-communist legislators.

This inability of Seoul and Pyongyang to transcend a 20th-century mindset is understandable, given the continued division of the Korean peninsula and the widening economic, political, and cultural disparities between the north and south.

More difficult to understand, perhaps, is the relationship between Japan and Korea. The four decades of colonial policies that Tokyo imposed on the Korean peninsula during the first half of the 20th century continue to cast a long shadow over the two countries.

New deal

Recently, the South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak attempted to push through a new security agreement with Japan. On the face of it, the treaty made a lot of sense. South Korea and Japan are, after all, allies that coordinate their security policies rather closely with the United States.

Moreover, the deal was rather limited. Tokyo and Seoul would have directly shared information on North Korea, China, and missile defence that they currently receive indirectly through the United States.

But the proposed deal met with fierce resistance inside South Korea. Not only the opposition party lambasted the government, but even members of Lee Myung-bak’s own party voiced concerns. The policy adviser most responsible for the pact, Kim Tae-hyo, resigned in disgrace over the policy.

Much of the uproar concerned the secret nature of the negotiations that produced the pact. But the fury surrounding the controversy has much deeper emotional roots.

South Korean presidents serve one five-year term, so they are less subject to election-year pressures than politicians who serve multiple terms. Still, with his party facing a potentially strong opposition in the December presidential elections, the deal with Japan has raised many questions in Korea about why the president chose to pursue such a politically risky gambit.

Part of the reason for the pact was US pressure on its two allies to make nice, explains Chung-in Moon, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“But I believe the Lee Myung-bak government might also have wanted military intelligence on North Korea – for instance, satellite or Aegis-based intelligence – from Japan. The Lee Myung-bak government has always wanted to strengthen ROK-Japan-US trilateral military ties. The accord might have been pushed as part of such strategic thinking of the government.”

Prisoners of history

Korean efforts to repair ties with Japan go back to the era of Kim Dae-jung, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president.

In 1998, his government began to lift restrictions on Japanese culture entering Korea. The Lee Myung-bak administration also promised a “future-oriented relationship” with Japan when it assumed office in 2008.

The Japanese government has been open to greater cooperation with Korea.

“In long-term planning in Japan, they are starting to assume that Korea is going to be a likely ally for geopolitical reasons,” says Emanuel Pastreich, a professor of humanities at Kyunghee University in Seoul, “and we see efforts in Japan to actually take Korea seriously, even to learn from Korea. So the Japanese are more open to collaboration.”

Still, the two countries remain far apart on their dispute over Dokdo island and resolution of the issue of the “comfort women”, the girls and women, including many Koreans, drafted into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.

More than 65 years after the end of World War II, Japan and South Korea remain prisoners of their history.

“The primary reason that solutions to these problems have been blocked, or in some cases relations between the two nations have been exacerbated, is that for generations the Japanese government, conservative politicians, and conservative citizens groups have made inaccurate and misleading claims,” argues Honda Hirokuni of Dokkyo University in Tokyo.

“If we wish to pursue a true and lasting solution and establish a new era of Korean-Japanese relations, we need to revisit the original 1965 normalisation of Japan-Korea relations and, on the basis of the revision of that original agreement, build a new partnership. Part of that new partnership must be a collective security architecture for East Asia as a whole.”

Chung-in Moon doesn’t expect a narrowing of differences any time soon. “In the year of a presidential election, neither the ruling nor the opposition party will be willing to support such a pact unless Japan makes major concessions on Dokdo, past history issues, and the comfort women, which are highly unlikely in the context of Japanese domestic politics.”

“It will take a much longer period for healing and authentic reconciliation,” he concludes. “But one thing is clear: Japan should take proactive actions on unresolved issues between the two countries.”



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