By Brad Glosserman, Executive Director, Pacific Forum CSIS, and Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at CFR. They are co-authors of the just released The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States.
Robert Kelly is right to identify national identity issues as a — if not the — main source of problems in South Korea's foreign policy and its politics more generally. But when it comes to South Korea's relations with Japan he is only half right, because national identity is equally problematic for Japan. The creation of a stable, enduring, forward-looking relationship between those two countries demands that both rewrite national identity narratives that identify the other as a problem rather than as a partner.
The intense debates in Japan about national security policy, trade, and even nuclear energy are as much about national identity as they are about the particular pieces of legislation before the Diet. The competing sides in these debates appeal to competing notions of who the Japanese are. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters, Japan is a 'first-tier nation' that should do more to shoulder international responsibilities.
As part of that effort it must shed an oppressive pacifism that robs its citizens of both the will and capacity to act. If that effort rehabilitates a regime that has been 'unjustly' condemned for its behaviour during the Pacific War (their thinking, not ours), even better. Opposing that view are Japanese who argue that constitutional restraints on Japanese military action are not just legal but an essential component of modern Japanese identity.
In both cases, national narratives about identity spark conflict between the two countries.
Thus, Ahn Jung Geun is lionized in South Korea as an independence activist and freedom fighter who struggled to free Korea from Japanese imperialists; to Japanese, he is the terrorist who killed Ito Hirobumi, the Governor General of Korea and one of the seminal figures in Japan's modernisation. Similarly, Japan's desire to add 23 sites to UNESCO's World Heritage list of places that have 'outstanding value' to humanity has been challenged by South Korea. For Japan, these locales — mines, shipyards and factories — are building blocks of their country. For Korea, seven of these places were the site of crimes committed pursuant to the occupation of the peninsula; tens of thousands of Koreans did forced labor during the Pacific War.
A final example occurred during the recent Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, when Japanese delegates recommended that the final document call on officials and leaders to visit the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to see first-hand the effects of nuclear weapons.
That suggestion was challenged by China and South Korea on the grounds that such visits, without an understanding of the circumstances that prompted the bombings, gave an incomplete version of history. In short, the Japanese offered a picture of their country as victimised by war – a key strand of national identity – which Koreans argued undermined the narrative of their own victimhood.
The power and persistence of national identity is one of the most important obstacles to the forging of a productive partnership between Japan and South Korea. We believe the two countries need to take substantive action to break the cycle of rapprochement and rupture that dominates their relationship and reframe it in positive-sum terms through the establishment of a shared identity narrative.
In our new study of this relationship, we call on the governments in Tokyo and Seoul to take bold steps. For example, Japan should relinquish its claim to the disputed islands of Takeshima/Dokdo and make payments to surviving comfort women in order to take responsibility for injustices during the Pacific War and to signal a desire to truly move on. These steps are intended to 'shock the system' in both countries and begin to rewrite the national identity narratives in both countries. Given the significance Koreans attach to these two issues — in the just-released Genron NPO-East Asia Institute public opinion survey of relations between the two countries, 88.3% of Koreans identify Takeshima/Dokdo as a barrier to improved relations and 63.5% blame the comfort-women issue — such a step could break the deadlock.
We also call on the two countries to sign a new treaty of peace and friendship declaring that they would never use force to resolve disputes; would declare Japanese support for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under Seoul, a statement that would end speculation about Japan's long-term intentions about the fate of the peninsula; would outline the shared values and interests that unite the two countries and declare them a basis for cooperative action by the two governments; would explicitly recognise and back Japan's regional security role in East Asia; and finally, would establish a day for joint commemoration by the two countries of the history of the 20th century, a celebration of a joint future rather than a bloody past.
We also urge the US to do its part to ensure that both sides honour commitments and get the credit they deserve.
Our proposals – there are more details in our book – have encountered two main criticisms. The first is that they are too bold and beyond the realm of political possibility. We plead guilty to charges of ambition. But the politically possible is a function of political ambitions. If leaders in Tokyo and Seoul want to be considered genuinely historic figures who fundamentally change their nation's place in the region, then they would do well to be bold.
The second criticism is that we ask more of Japan than Korea. In truth, Japan has done more and needs to acknowledge as much. But it is important to recognise that Japanese actions of the kind we propose would put the burden of response on South Korea. If Koreans respond negatively to such an offer, Korean grievance would be revealed as the real impediment to improved relations, and Korea rather than Japan would be identified as the reason for the failure to make progress.