There are two old clichéd maxims that describe the relationship between Korea and Japan:
Familiarity breeds contempt.
Family squabbles are the worst; they are best to be avoided, preferably like the plague.
Perhaps no two strong societies have had as much contact over the centuries than Japan and Korea. Although the Japanese are loathe to admit it, they borrowed much from ancient Korea. A friend jokes that Japanese archaeologists have been forbidden to open ancient tombs because there might be a smell of kimchee, the odiferous Korean pickled spice cabbage. And in fact there is some evidence of the Korean origins, or ancient associations of the Japanese imperial family.
Japan has a million Zainichi , Japanese of Korean ethnic descent, some native-born, others Korea-born, some naturalized citizens, others registered foreign nationals. Prejudice and discrimination against these Japanese-Koreans is widespread, a subject of constant friction.
Adding to friction, of course, is the half century of a bitter Japanese Occupation of Korea ending with Tokyo’s collapse after World War II. Tokyo’s efforts to “Japanize” the Koreans – with Japanese names, economic integration, etc. – produced embittered resistance, often armed, as a substantial collaboration by part of the Korean population..
This heritage has stood in the way of an American attempt to smooth relations between the two nations as the nub of an Asian anti-Communist alliance, perhaps rssembling NATO. The barrier was high during the Cold War even though both countries had bilateral alliances with the U.S., an open and celebrated military collaboration in South Korea and an increasingly close if one-sided defense arrangement with Japan.
It is one of the anomalies of the current scene that Korean Pres. Park Geun-hye has played “hard to get” in persistent American efforts to effect a Seoul-Tokyo alliance. Park’s father, Park Chung Hee, was an officer in Japan’s Manchurian based Japanese Kwantung army when the war ended in 1945. He went on to climb the ranks of the U.S,-sponsored South Korean army, directing an authoritarian regime which has been given credit for South Korea’s remarkable economic success. A “settlement” in 1965 between Park and Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the current Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe’s grandfather, introduced growing Japanese economic collaboration which was fundamental to Park’s successful economic program.
But frictions continually have arisen between Tokyo and Seoul, in no small part because of this Prime Minister Park’s effort to triangulate Korean relations between Tokyo, the U.S. and a growing warm relationship with Beijing, despite its close alliance with intransigent North Korea. Ms. Park has used the very popular if controversial issue of Korean women pressed into service as prostitutes for the wartime Japanese military. Until recently, the Japanese have insisted such recruitment was not a Japanese Imperial government or army affair by done by private contractors.
It is this background which made the agreement between the two governments announced last week so important, “finally and irreversibly” resolving Tokyo’s use of tens of thousands of Korean women as “wartime sex slaves”. Ms. Park had made the issue primary. Japan poneied up 1bn yen [$8,306,393.356] to be divided among the 46 former “comfort women” still alive. now in their late 80s and early 90s. The Japanese government also conceded that its military authorities played a role in “the sexual enslavement” although Abe did not make another formal apology which Tokyo has already done in the past.
It now remains to be seen whether, indeed, as both sides intoned, this agreement will usher in a new period of more effective collaboration – especially as part of former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia” by U.S. policymakers to meet a growing Chinese aggressive expansion in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.