A new chapter for Tokyo–Seoul relations, 50 years on?

Author: Lionel Babicz, University of Sydney

The synchronised but separate 50th anniversary celebrations of the Japan–South Korea Treaty on Basic Relations illustrates the relationship between the two countries: inexorably close and painfully distant. The 22 June 2015 celebrations were quite unusual. There was no summit meeting, but two parallel ceremonies with President Park Geun-hye attending in Seoul and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

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The 1965 treaty already reflected this state of things. Signed 20 lengthy years after the liberation of the Korean peninsula (annexed to Japan between 1910 and 1945), the agreement — which established diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul — was the outcome of a 14-year-long process and some 1500 meetings.

One of the reasons for the protracted negotiations was a South Korean hypersensitivity associated with a Japanese lack of tact. After one of the Japanese negotiators had mentioned the ‘positive aspects’ of colonialism, the talks were suspended for five years, from 1953 to 1958. The 1950–53 Korean War and the following reconstruction also contributed to the delay, as well as disputes around the Syngman Rhee Line. Established by President Rhee in 1952, this maritime boundary included the Dokdo/Takeshima islands in South Korean territory, while also prohibiting Japanese fishing activity.

But in 1965, a range of converging factors brought the negotiations to a successful conclusion. In 1964, the first Chinese nuclear test had intensified regional tensions. Furthermore, the deepening American involvement in the Vietnam War was also a key element of this rapprochement. Japan was required to contribute large sums to the South Korean economy, while Seoul agreed to send some three hundred thousand troops to Vietnam, making it the second largest military contingent after the United States.

Last but not least, President Park Chung-hee (a former officer of the Manchukuo Imperial Army, the armed forces of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo) was willing to tighten ties with Japan. Did Park imagine that half a century later his daughter Geun-hye would head the country, striving to keep a safe distance from Tokyo and to not be identified with the pro-Japanese image of her father?

Although Seoul and Tokyo were drawn together, the 1965 treaty was also the outcome of painstaking compromises. No apologies for the colonial period were included in the written documents, but a brief oral statement of ‘regrets’ was made by the Japanese Foreign Minister Etsusaburo Shiina upon his arrival in Seoul.

The diverging views on the legality of the 1910 annexation treaty (and other previous conventions and protocols) were also carefully bypassed with a statement defining these documents as ‘already null and void’. Likewise, the territorial dispute around Dokdo/Takeshima was shelved by means of an exchange of notes stating that ‘conflicts between the two countries shall be primarily resolved through diplomatic channels’.

But the most crucial compromise was on the question of reparations for Japan’s colonial rule. Tokyo agreed to provide Seoul with a range of grants and loans, but this was done under the sole label of ‘economic cooperation’. This US$800 million package would be used for the economic development of South Korea (by 1973 South Korea’s GDP would have increased four-fold), but the lack of individual compensation left the door open to grievances and claims. In 2011, for instance, following a court ruling South Korea asked Japan to start negotiations over the issue of compensations to former South Korean ‘comfort women‘. Tokyo, considering the reparations issue settled, has not answered the request.

In light of all this, it was no wonder that — half a century later — evoking this historic agreement garnered little enthusiasm. Initially, Park and Abe had not even planned to attend the anniversary events, organised by the Japanese embassy in Seoul and the South Korean embassy in Tokyo. But at the last moment they changed their minds. Both seized the opportunity to try to revive the degraded bilateral relationship. This move was preceded by a short visit to Tokyo by the South Korean foreign minister, Yun Byung-se — the first such trip in four years. Yun attended the Tokyo ceremony, where he read a message from President Park Geun-hye.

The similarity of the tenor of Abe and Park’s ceremonial speeches was striking. Both leaders did indeed evoke the past, but they also resolutely turned their look toward the future.

‘Let’s build a new era for both of our countries, hand in hand reflecting on the past 50 years of friendship, history of development and looking to the coming 50 years’, said Abe.

‘We should make this 50th year of normalisation of ties a turning point so that South Korea and Japan can walk together toward the future of new cooperation, co-existence and co-prosperity’, echoed Park.

Discussions on a summit meeting between Abe and Park are under way, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaking about ‘the earliest time possible’.

Another sign of a possible thaw between Tokyo and Seoul is that the two countries have agreed to cooperate to have Meiji industrial sites and Baekje historical sites listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Indeed, on 5 July, 23 Meiji sites and eight Baekje sites joined the list. Seoul had lifted its opposition to the move after the Japanese representative had acknowledged that South Koreans ‘were brought against their will and were forced to work under severe conditions’ at some of these sites.

Who knows? The 50th anniversary of the 1965 normalisation treaty may mark the opening of a new chapter in the Japanese–South Korean relationship. But much still depends on how Abe will choose to mark the 70th anniversary of World War II in August.

Lionel Babicz is a lecturer in Japanese history at the University of Sydney.

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