History matters in Korea-US-Japan relations

The flurry of summit talks in Tokyo, Washington and Seoul in the past two months clearly points to the urgency of the geopolitical situation unfolding in this region.

Lee Kyong-Hee

Lee Kyong-Hee

The Korea Herald


May 11, 2023

SEOUL – On the cusp of World War II, Syngman Rhee warned Americans about Imperial Japan’s expansionist ambitions. “To review the past is to preview the future,” wrote the future president of Korea in his 1941 book, “Japan Inside out: The Challenge of Today.” Months after the book’s release, Japanese planes bombed US naval ships at Pearl Harbor.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korea-US alliance and mutual defense treaty, hailed as a historic success. Yet, the challenge to peace is undiminished. The flurry of summit talks in Tokyo, Washington and Seoul in the past two months clearly points to the urgency of the geopolitical situation unfolding in this region. Korea faces greater security challenges than ever.

The leaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan will meet again next week in Hiroshima, Japan, on the sidelines of the G-7 summit. Their agenda reportedly will include solidifying tripartite security cooperation.

The host city, of course, will remind attendees about its mass death and devastation from a single US atomic bomb in the final days of World War II. Its native son, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and President Yoon Suk Yeol are expected to jointly pay respects at the Cenotaph for Korean Atomic Bomb Victims in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It would be the first such visit by the leaders of the two countries. And it also would be an opportune time for the two leaders to alleviate the misgivings among the South Korean public about how they view contentious historical issues between their nations.

An estimated 20,000-30,000 Koreans, many of them forced laborers, were killed in the United States’ atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Koreans forcibly mobilized to work at Japanese mines and factories, as well as military brothels, to assist Japan’s war efforts in the Pacific. However, Japan has persistently denied the use of forced labor.

At a joint press conference after his summit talks with Yoon in Seoul on May 7, Kishida again remained tactfully ambiguous. He said, “My heart aches when I think of the many people who endured terrible suffering and grief under the difficult circumstances of the time.” He avoided saying who he was referring to. And he said his feelings were “personal,” suggesting that he was not speaking on behalf of his government. He thus dealt another blow to Yoon and his administration’s naive wishes that Tokyo would “fill up the half-filled water cup” offered to reboot bilateral ties.

Yoon has only himself to blame. At a press interview before his departure for a state visit to Washington on April 26, he effectively invited Japan’s impudence, his magnanimity obviously based on his ignorance of history.

“Europe has experienced several wars for the past 100 years and despite that, warring countries have found ways to cooperate for the future,” he said. “I can’t accept the notion that because of what happened 100 years ago, something is absolutely impossible [to do] and that they (Japanese) must kneel (for forgiveness) because of our history 100 years ago. And this is an issue that requires decision … In terms of persuasion, I believe I did my best.”

Yet, there is little evidence that Yoon tried to persuade the general public and government branches on how to thaw relations with Japan. The “decision” has the unilateral markings of a feudal king, not the head of a democratic state representing the majority of citizens.

It is widely assumed that the hectic fence-mending between Korea and Japan stems from Washington’s pressure to bring its two key Asian allies closer in the US strategizing against China. Kishida’s hurried visit to Seoul was the first by a Japanese prime minister in 12 years. In March, Yoon visited Tokyo for the first Korea-Japan summit in as many years, and a couple of weeks ago he went to Washington.

The summit between Yoon and US President Joe Biden produced the Nuclear Consultative Group, as part of the Washington Declaration that reassured US extended deterrence while shackling South Koreans’ growing aspirations for nuclear arms of their own. If Kishida seeks to put Japan in the group, he should expect a cold shoulder. Already, the touted three-way security cooperation with Tokyo as a partner unnerves most Koreans. They do not find the Japanese trustworthy enough yet to be privy to the nation’s vital security information, let alone joint strategic planning.

In his book, Rhee lamented how “the act of international banditry and outlawry was perpetrated by Japan with the full sanction and approval of the civilized nations of the world.” Korea signed the first of its treaties of amity and commerce with the US in 1882. In 1905, Rhee deplored, the US used its “good offices,” not for Korea, according to the treaty covenants, but for Japan, which was dealing “unjustly and oppressively” with Korea in open violation of its promise.

Rhee apparently was referring to the Taft-Katsura agreement of July 1905. While at war with Russia, Japan’s Prime Minister Katsura Taro met with US Secretary of War William H. Taft and explained Japan’s reason for making a protectorate of Korea, saying Japan had no interest in the Philippines, a US territory at the time.

The war ended in September 1905, with Japan’s unexpected victory. In November of that year, Japan forced the waning court of the Korean Empire to sign the Protectorate Treaty, depriving Korea of its diplomatic rights ahead of its colonization. In February of that year, Japan “incorporated” Dokdo, making the group of islets in the East Sea the first casualty of its lust for hegemony over Korea.

Tokyo still asserts its territorial rights over the islets, Korea’s inherent territory, which had been recognized by Japan up until its imperial aggression. Washington must first nudge Japan to drop its unjust claim on Dokdo, instead of tacitly condoning, before it can expect highly functional tripartite security cooperation involving Tokyo and Seoul.

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. — Ed.

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