By Hyung-Gu Lynn, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Hyung-Gu Lynn is AECL/KEPCO Chair in Korean Research at the University of British Columbia. The views expressed are the author’s own.
The spat between Japan and South Korea over two islets, known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, and Liancourt Rocks in some international registers, has been propelled into global headlines by an unusual convergence of events. The tightly contested Olympic bronze medal match in men’s soccer; the first visit by a sitting South Korean president (Lee Myung-bak) to the islets; Japan’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Seoul; and the escalating tensions between Japan, China, and Taiwan over competing claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, have sparked what looks at first glance like a rapid deterioration in relations between East Asia’s economic powers.
However, despite the handwringing and diplomatic posturing, I’d argue that the Korea-Japan disputes aren’t all that unusual. In fact, the latest tussle is merely the most recent example of a pattern of incremental increases in bilateral economic, cultural, political and even security exchanges, punctuated on a nearly annual basis by disagreements over interpretations of history.
It doesn’t take much searching of news archives to find similar cries of concern in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s that historical disputes – whether over the content of school textbooks, interpretations of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea (1910-1945), forms of compensation to the “comfort women,” sincerity or lack thereof of Japanese apologies for colonial rule, and Dokdo/Takeshima – could seriously undermine bilateral relations. Yet in all previous cases, despite remonstrations and demonstrations, planned agreements were signed and events hosted, even if the timing was sometimes delayed.
The point isn’t merely that similar disputes have occurred in the past and therefore that this is much ado about nothing. There are undoubtedly important issues at stake, first and foremost among them interpretations of modern history that affect perceptions of national identity, pride, justice, and trustworthiness. For many in Korea, Japanese claims to the islands are seen as reflecting a lack of reflection and contrition about the country’s colonial past. Also, fishing rights, which both countries have treated separately from ownership due to prolonged deadlocks over the issue prior to the first and second fisheries agreements of 1965 and 1998, are significant economic factors. Access to oil and mineral resources are also long-term considerations.
It’s true that right now, grassroots neo-nationalist organizations in Japan seem to have gained momentum in post-Fukushima Japan, with these groups often spewing vitriol towards South Korea and Korean residents in Japan (as well China and North Korea). And Lee’s visit, meanwhile, has helped deflect public attention, at least for now, from the various corruption and bribery scandals surrounding his faction within the conservative ruling party and his own family, as well as from the political blunder of trying to sneak in a bilateral military cooperation pact with Japan this year (the signing of which has been put off indefinitely due to public and opposition party protests).
But the point that must be kept in mind is that structural constraints created by the Treaty of Normalization and accompanying agreements signed in 1965 by South Korea and Tokyo mean that the tussles over interpretations of history and Dokdo/Takeshima and other historical issues will continue at the political level for the foreseeable future.
Ownership of Dokdo/Takeshima was one of the major stumbling blocks over the seven official rounds of negotiations between 1951 and 1965, and both sides ultimately agreed to elide the item from the Treaty. The 1965 Treaty also included deliberately ambiguous wording regarding the 1910 Treaty of Annexation: “It is confirmed that all treaties or agreements concluded between the Empire of Japan and the Empire of Korea on or before August 22, 1910 are already null and void.” This left room for two distinct interpretations: Seoul’s view that the 1910 treaty was illegal to begin with, something confirmed in 1965, and Tokyo’s view that the 1910 treaty was legal, but confirmed to be no longer in effect as of 1965. In addition, the accompanying 1965 Agreement on Economic Cooperation and Property Rights noted that, “all property, rights, and profits claims by the two countries and citizens of the countries based on the San Francisco Peace Treaty Article 4 [reparations definitions] are considered completely and finally settled as a result of the Treaty.”
This provides the basis of Tokyo’s position that there is no legal requirement for the provision of official apologies for specific policies or government organized compensation to “comfort women.” Seoul promulgated domestic laws in 1966 and 1971 to distribute $300 million received from Japan as outright grants from the 1965 Treaty to individual property claims stemming from the period of Japanese rule. However, neither the 1965 Treaty nor the two South Korean domestic laws mentioned “comfort women” in its list of categories eligible for compensation or property claims, and none of the above instruments had clauses that covered future items not included under the original list of eligible claims.
In the meantime, Japan and South Korea have remained bound through a complex web of ties. The two countries remain mutually key sources of trade and sources of investment. Travelers from Japan top the list of tourists entering South Korea, while South Korean tourists also comprise the largest nationality among visitors to Japan. South Korea is the second most popular destination for Japanese travelers after China, and Japan is the most popular for travelers from South Korea. There are countless other bilateral cultural, educational, economic, political, and even military exchanges.
So how to cut through this apparent Gordian knot of historical legacies of colonialism, the Cold War, and clearly indispensable bilateral ties? Clearly, if the answer were simple enough to be explicated in a single blog, these recurring clashes would have ceased a long time ago. But at the same time, the solution has already been laid out in principle at least in the 1965 Agreement on Economic Cooperation and Property Rights, whose Article III states, “Any dispute between the High Contracting Parties concerning the interpretation or the implementation of this Agreement shall be settled primarily through diplomatic channels.”
The issue, of course, is what “diplomacy” should entail. But history indicates that both sides will eventually draw back from public posturing, and simply avoid or delay addressing historical issues, while exchanges and flows will continue to grow until the next flare-up.
Ultimately, serious and sustained research, education, and public outreach will likely have more productive long-term effects on bilateral relations than diplomatic posturing or brick throwing – figurative or literal.