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Opinion

South Korea and Japan should bury the historical hatchet

Countries are natural allies against assertive China

South Korean protesters participate in a rally on Aug. 3: modern anti-Japanese sentiment is based not on historical experience but is learned.   © Getty Images

South Koreans were taken by surprise when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on July 4 that Japan was reviewing possible controls on shipments of vital materials for making semiconductors and might even downgrade Korea as a preferential trade partner -- as it did last Friday.

The Korean tiger is used to roaring at its neighbor, for example with 20 years of weekly demonstrations outside Japan's embassy. Relations between the two countries are testy, due to unresolved historical matters. But this time when the green pheasant, Japan's national symbol, roared back, the Koreans were shocked.

There has been a strong reaction to Japan's moves -- boycotts of Japanese products and burning of Japanese flags. Two men have even set themselves on fire.

But there has also been a peculiar restraint. One columnist in a local newspaper described seeing two young Japanese ladies beginning to "chatter loudly" on the subway. "Usually, I would have quieted them down, as I have done to Korean and American girls a few times before," he wrote.

"However, I refrained from doing so, not because I could not speak Japanese, but because doing so would appear rather emotional at a diplomatically sensitive time between the two countries."

This column, which likened the Japanese move to a "third invasion" -- the first being in 1592, the second the annexation of Korea in 1910 -- illustrates a prominent current in Korean thought. Despite the anger, as expressed in popular boycotts of Japanese products, the reaction is underscored by the need for restraint for fear of damage to national economic interest.

The two nations should resolve their economic spat and then address the deeper issues that divide them and chart a new course.

Korea and Japan are natural allies and business partners. Their cultures are distinct and their national interests differ, but as democracies they share the same values. In relations between countries, this is very important. In the modern era, no liberal democracy has ever gone to war against another.

Another reason for a rapprochement is that the two are close allies of the U.S. and share a need to adjust to the emergence of China as the dominant regional power. As liberal states contending with illiberal China, they would be natural partners if they could only move beyond the emotional focus on the shared history before they became democracies.

It goes without saying that an improvement in the Japan-Korea relationship requires political leadership, particularly on the Korean side. I see two tasks for President Moon Jae-in, or his successor. The first is to present a vision and declare that the past will be resolved and a new future built.

Secondly, the president needs to make a stand and represent Korea past and present. The Korean government needs to abide by diplomatic agreements negotiated by previous governments, unless there is a serious case that they now damage the national interest.

I have two particular agreements in mind. The first is the 1965 treaty normalizing relations between the two countries. With this treaty, Japan provided compensation for victims of its colonial rule. The Korean government at the time chose to use that money for national economic development rather than give it to individuals.

That means that with claims arising after 1965 -- such as wartime "comfort women" and laborers or segregated leprosy patients -- the government needs to be clear as to what is and is not possible and deal with them with separately created funds. It is possible that Japan may contribute to such funds.

Until now, successive governments have taken refuge in vagueness and let this issue drift because of their fear of popular criticism. But trouble has now arisen because of a ruling by the Korean supreme court requiring Japanese companies to compensate laborers forced to work during World War II.

While most countries have mechanisms that prevent court rulings from overruling diplomatic treaties, the Koreans do not. In practice, the executive has exerted influence over the judiciary -- but Moon is declaring that he cannot do that. Somehow, this needs to be resolved.

The second agreement is the one by former President Park Geun-hye in 2015 that aimed to "finally and irreversibly" end the comfort women issue. The Moon government's refusal to honor this agreement set an alarming precedent. Moon should solve this, but is unlikely to.

Moon Jae-in during an election campaign in May 2017: presidents in Korea tend to see their job as following public sentiment, rather than leading it.   © AP

The reason for pessimism is not just that Moon lacks flexibility. It is that democratically elected presidents in Korea tend to see their job as following existing public sentiment, rather than leading it. It may therefore be more realistic to expect a change in public thinking about Japan to come first and for presidential leadership to follow.

That points to the need in Korea for a public debate about national identity and Japan. When I first came to Korea, I interviewed many people who had lived during the Japanese colonial occupation. I was surprised to find that while all, of course, saw the occupation as a bad thing, the people who were most passionately against it were those who had never experienced it.

What this means is that modern anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea is based not on experience but is learned. People always tell me that this deep emotional issue about Japan cannot be changed but if it was learned rather than experienced, it can be.

Michael Breen, who lives in Seoul, is the author of "The New Koreans."

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