By Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Benoit Hardy-Chartrand is a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where he contributes to a project on Confidence, Trust and Empathy in Asia-Pacific security. The views expressed are his own.
Japan and South Korea’s bilateral relations are their worst in years. Since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun-Hye were elected in December 2012, their only encounter was a trilateral meeting hosted and arranged by U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2014, held on the sidelines of a summit in the Netherlands. The meeting provided for an awkward moment and did little to ease the visible chill between the two leaders.
While a territorial dispute concerning a group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan (or what Koreans prefer to call the East Sea) has contributed to the freeze, the crux of the problem remains Japan’s perceived attempts to whitewash certain aspects of its wartime conduct, particularly with regard to the so-called comfort women. The euphemism refers to the thousands of women, the majority of whom were from Korea, forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. South Koreans feel that Japanese leaders have not properly repented for their country’s past, often contrasting Japan’s handling of history to how Germany dealt with the Nazis’ war crimes.
In reality, the Japanese government has officially extended numerous apologies for the atrocities committed before and during World War II. The two most recent expressions of contrition were the landmark Kono statement in 1993 and the 1995 Murayama statement, which have been officially upheld by all successive Japanese administrations. So why are Koreans – and Chinese, among others – still demanding apologies from Japan?
Above all, actions and statements by prominent Japanese politicians and public figures have often contradicted or undermined the government’s official apologies. In April 2013, for example, Abe told the House of Councillors that the “term ‘aggression’ was not defined internationally or academically,” an assertion that was interpreted by many as a denial of Japan’s actions during World War II. In January 2014, Katsuto Momii, the new head of Japan’s national public broadcasting organization and a close ally of Abe, publicly played down the issue of comfort women during his first press conference. Several other statements or actions by Japanese politicians have provoked an outcry in South Korea.
But perhaps the most contentious Japanese move is the recent report on the 1993 Kono statement. On June 20, the Abe administration released a report about the events that led to the official apology by the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The report asserted that the 1993 apology had been the result of negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo. Among other things, it stated that the word “coercive” had been included at the request of the South Korean government. The message was clear: the landmark apology was not based solely on historical evidence and the findings of the government, but on a political bargain designed to appease Seoul. The report was widely perceived as backtracking on the apology, despite Tokyo’s assertions to the contrary. Either way, perhaps because it is more interested in pandering to Japanese nationalists, the Abe administration has so far seemed incapable of understanding South Korean sensibilities.
As Japan’s main ally, the United States can do more to encourage the Abe administration to tread more carefully with regard to Japan’s past. To be sure, it did express its disappointment after Abe’s December 26 visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where 14 convicted war criminals are honored among Japan’s war dead. However, Washington’s criticism of Tokyo’s handling of the comfort women issue has been relatively muted. During a visit to Seoul in April, Obama called the forced recruitment of comfort women a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights,” but had refrained from publicly addressing the issue when he visited Tokyo a few days earlier. Mentioning the issue while in Tokyo would have undoubtedly had more impact on Japanese leaders than doing so in Seoul.
Ultimately, the responsibility for improving ties between South Korea and Japan rests on Abe’s shoulders. While Park could be blamed for trying to score easy political points with her criticisms of Japan, Abe needs to do more to restrain the more nationalist voices in his party and firmly condemn any attempts at historical revisionism – his handling of the historical issues has hurt Japan’s image and contributed to the recent forceful reactions to his foreign policy plans.
It can only be hoped that Abe will, sooner rather than later, realize that an isolated Japan does little to boost regional stability – and will only hurt Tokyo in the long run.