ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2002-0530-AFC

South Korea and Japan:
High time these neighbors put future before past

Aidan Foster-Carter

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Aidan Foster-Carter

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge a generous contribution, with a written permission, of this paper of Aidan Foster-Carter to ICAS. The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in England. An edited version of this paper was op-ed-published in the International Herald Tribune, May 30, 2002: sjk]

South Korea and Japan: High time these neighbors put future before past

Aidan Foster-Carter

Starting May 31, South Korea and Japan will co-host soccer's World Cup. Why? Each would rather have done it alone - and could have. Both have successfully mounted the Olympic Games. Yet so fierce was their rivalry that FIFA ducked out of choosing, and made them share it. So they have, but with a bad grace: largely ignoring each other, and even squabbling about whose name goes first on the tickets.

Will these two ever get along? The roots of acrimony are well-known. Imperial Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, with brutalities including some 200,000 "comfort women" (sex slaves). Yet Tokyo has never apologized or compensated enough, in Korean eyes. Adding insult to injury, revisionist school textbooks whitewash pre-1945 atrocities, and premier Koizumi visits a shrine that honors war criminals.

But frankly, so what? In last year's textbook furore, which undid Kim Dae Jung's patient efforts to build a more grown-up relationship across the Sea of No Agreed Name - Sea of Japan to most of us, East Sea to Koreans - the fact that almost no Japanese schools actually adopted the darn things was rarely mentioned.

Yes, Japan should emulate Germany and come clean on its past, not hide like Austria. But Koreans too should rethink their gut reflexes. For nations as for individuals, it is unhealthy to harp endlessly on past hurts: You have to move on. Most countries have been colonies - but most have long since got over it.

Then there are double standards. If Japan can do no right in Korean eyes, China can do no wrong. In the recent row over the North Korean asylum seekers dragged by Chinese police out of Japan's consulate in Shenyang, most Seoul media comment was keener to blame Japanese duplicity - or alleged complicity -than to confront Beijing for breaking international law by refusing refugee status to any North Koreans.

This bias too is rooted in history, selectively remembered. Koreans today see China as the source of their civilization, forgetting centuries of vassalage. I call this "penultimate oppressor love". It is hardly unique - just so do Balts forgive Germany, but not Russia - but it makes for dubious policy. So keen is Seoul not to offend the Middle Kingdom, that it won't even let the Dalai Lama visit this majority Buddhist country.

True, this is not a zero-sum game. After forty years when the Cold War cut all ties between South Korea and its mighty neighbor, some rebalancing was necessary - likewise with Russia. But how far should that go? On present trends, China will soon overtake the US and Japan to become Seoul's top trading partner. Greater China - with Hong Kong and Taiwan - already is. Business is one thing, but many South Koreans seem as comfy cozying up to China as they are prickly to any imagined slight from Japan or America.

Is that wise? Hegemonic ambitions aside, how China will evolve in the coming decades is far from clear. Russia too is a big unknown, with its "wild east" run more by local gangsters than Moscow. Then there is North Korea. All in all, South Korea inhabits a dicey neighborhood. It sure could use a friend in the area.

Equally, so could Japan. So what's stopping them? Objectively, it would be hard to find two neighbors with more in common. Culture? A shared Confucian-Buddhist heritage, acquired by Japan via Korea. Geography? Two smallish, hilly, temperate, densely populated, resource-poor, ex-rice cultivators, which industrialized and now live by their wits. Economics? Competitors, yes - but with a joint interest in an open trading system. Institutions? Korea Inc was a clone of Japan Inc - but has been quicker to reform.

The list goes on. Energy? Both rely on nuclear power, import all their oil, and depend on southeast Asian sealanes. For wider security, both are close - if not always smooth - allies of the US: a wise choice, in the circumstances. Politically, these are northeast Asia's sole democracies and Asia's only OECD members.

Would South Koreans really rather wallow in self-pity than use this rock-solid foundation to build a new future? History must be overcome, and there is a precedent. Despite fighting three devastating wars in 75 years, after 1945 France and Germany forged an alliance that became the basis of today's EU. Japan and South Korea should do likewise: in their own interests, and to base a wider regionalism on sound values.

Kim Dae Jung and Keizo Obuchi had a try, but one died and the other is on the way out. Such vision is all too rare in both Seoul and Tokyo. Meanwhile a stagnant Japan feels ever sorrier for itself; while nasty rightists like Shintaro Ishihara, the popular governor of Tokyo, wait in the wings. Time is running out for Koreans and Japanese to realize they play on the same team. Will soccer help? We had all better hope so.

Last update 1/30/2009 jdb

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