Racked with the pain of history

Resentment over past conflict is causing a rift in Sino-South Korean relations. Japan says it has apologised for its wartime actions, but South Korea says more should be done to atone for violence and exploitation. As Duncan Bartlett reports, the issue is preventing the countries from presenting a united front towards their common enemy, North Korea

Events which took place before and during the Second World War are continuing to cause political tension in East Asia.

South Korea and Japan are raking through painful memories of the period when Korea was occupied by Japan, especially the treatment of so-called ‘comfort women’ who worked in brothels, serving soldiers from the invading Imperial army.

Wave of grief

In January this year, a former Korean ‘comfort woman’ named Kim Bok-dong died at the age of 92. Thousands of people expressed their grief in public and joined a large memorial event in Seoul, with some mourners holding up banners demanding that ‘Japan must apologise’. This message was reinforced by a prominent South Korean politician who demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito himself, who is due to abdicate at the end of April.Mr Moon –the speaker in the South Korean National Assembly – believes there should also be a public apology from the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

The tone of the protests has dismayed the Japanese establishment. In Tokyo, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Mr Moon’s comments were ‘deplorable’ and insisted that the Japanese government would continue to take a ‘stern position’.

Sympathy and solidarity

The issue has risen in prominence since South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In took office in 2017. He has discovered that showing sympathy with survivors of the Japanese occupation boosts his popularity, particularly among nationalists.

It has also struck a chord with many Korean women. Campaigners draw parallels between the comfort women issue and the current debate about exploitation, highlighted by the ‘Me Too’ movement. They say that the mistreatment of vulnerable women needs to be publicly challenged, whether it occurred in the last century or is still happening today.

South Korea and Japan have common interests economically

The tactic is to publicly shame men for their misdeeds. In Korea, this often leads to rhetoric which portrays Japanese men as unrepentant aggressors. In the minds of many Koreans, there is little distinction between the actions of the wartime enemy and contemporary Japanese politicians, who are predominantly male.

Furthermore, frustrations about gender inequality in South Korean society enter the picture, sometimes fuelling an anger which leads to tension and confrontation.

Statue battle

The issue is gaining international attention through a campaign to erect statues of comfort women, portraying them as young victims of foreign rapists. In the past few years, the Korean government has helped pay for statues in many sensitive locations – including near the Japanese embassy in Seoul – as well as in San Francisco and the Philippines.

When a statue was erected in Boracay Island in the Philippines last month, a 93-year-old woman named Fidencia David told reporters of her experiences under the Japanese occupation. She was only 13when Japanese soldiers abducted and abused her. ‘The pain keeps coming back each time the issue is reopened,’ she said.

Financial pressure

The South Koreans are also trying to apply financial pressure on Japan. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay reparations to Koreans who were forced to work during the period of Japanese colonial rule.

Japan insists it legally settled all claims relating to the war and occupation – including the comfort women issue – many years ago. The official view was outlined in a letter to the New York Times in February. It stated: ‘Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to the former comfort women on many occasions.’ The letter added, ‘Japan has made an effort to recover the honour and dignity and heal the psychological wounds of all the former comfort women.’

Hard to forget

Many people in Japan would now like the issue to go away. They acknowledge past mistakes but feel that little can be achieved through further debate, especially in a heated media environment. However, some hardcore supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believe that Japan has been the subject of unwarranted criticism and that going soft on South Korea would make their country appear vulnerable.

Yet the two sides have good reason to pull back from further confrontation. They are both staunch allies of the United States. They also have a vested interest in uniting against a common threat – North Korea – and they would both benefit from a successful outcome to the talks involving North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump.

North Korea

However, the way each nation views North Korea is distinctly different. While South Korea has sought dialogue with the North in the hope of building trust, Japan takes a much more stringent approach. Prime Minister Abe demands independent, credible checks that the North is sticking to its plan to denuclearise and halt its missile tests. This leads the North Korean propaganda machine to pour scorn on Japan, while at the same time offering warm words towards President Moon.

Economic impact

South Korea and Japan also have common interests economically. For example, the famous Korean electronics company LG supplies TV panels to its Japanese counterpart, Sony. LG has warned that if the dispute lingers on, it could disrupt its Asian operations.

The business community in Japan is trying to steer the country away from further escalation. Business in Japan is a powerful force which could prevent the government from hitting back at South Korea with import tariffs or visa restrictions.

However, business leaders cannot do much to calm the anger and resentment which characterises the current mood. It seems likely to simmer for some time to come, despite the many changes which have taken place in the world since the darkest period in East Asia’s recent history.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo. He also manages the news portal, Japan Story

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