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20.11.2013 г.

Problems of the Historical Past in Japanese-South Korean Relations: Approaches of the DPJ (2009-2012) and Abe's New Cabinet

Alisa Batakova

Japan and South Korea are important partners and collaborators in widely ranging areas. Relations with South Korea are one of the priorities of Japanese diplomacy.

At the same time, the Republic of Korea is known for its strong anti-Japanese sentiments and general distrust of Japan, which stem from the historical memory of Japanese colonial administration of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Japan's recognition of its historical responsibility comes in for discussion during bilateral meetings at the highest level and at various international gatherings; likewise, they feature prominently in the political discourse and are under the scrutiny of the media. Now and again these "problems of the past," which serve as a kind of constant background for bilateral relations, become aggravated and thus pose a challenge to Japan's foreign policy.

The change of government in Japan as a result of the victory scored in the parliamentary elections of 30 August 2009 by the Democratic Party (DPJ), raised hopes for improvement in Japan's relations with East Asian neighbors on the basis of a more sensitive attitude to history expected from the Democrats. The DPJ administration declared that "turning to Asia" would be a foundation of its foreign policy, with the implications that stronger cooperation with East Asian countries in various fields will help to build an East Asian community in the future. The first DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama admitted that "problems of the past" affect the development of bilateral relations, and stressed the need for restraint in dealing with issues that readily cause an emotional reaction of Japanese partners. On August 10, 2010, in a statement made in connection with the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Korea, the next DPJ leader, Naoto Kan, became the first Japanese prime minister to admit that the colonization was coercive in nature. This position of the new Japanese administration was highly praised in Seoul.

The "honeymoon" in the bilateral relationship did not last, however. By the end of the DPJ tenure in power, the worsening of the territorial dispute over Dokdo / Takeshima coupled with a number of statements by Japanese officials indicated that the Democrats were departing from their original position with regard to the sensitive issues of the past; the cooling of Japanese-South Korean relations followed in no time. Both the political dialogue at the highest level and exchanges between NGOs were suspended.

The forthcoming thaw in bilateral relations was announced by the Japanese media after the victory of Pak Kin Hyo (daughter of former President Park Chung-hee who normalized Japanese-South Korean relations in 1965) in the December 2012 presidential elections in the Republic of Korea, and the statement by the newly elected Prime Minister of Japan and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Abe about the importance of relations with Seoul. Events that followed showed such conclusions to be premature, however.

A number of disputable pronouncements by Abe, including those related to the possibility of revising the statements of T. Murayama and E. Kono, together with the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by a large group of deputies of the Japanese Parliament and by four current cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, resulted in a situation when after six months of Abe's stay in power, the press and the public were again involved in disputes over virtually all aspects of the "problems of the past." The Korean side, for its part, cancelled the visit to Japan of the minister of foreign affairs and trade. Thus, prospects of hosting the first meeting of the new leaders of the two countries are not clear to this day. Meanwhile, the press have begun to express concern about possible rapprochement between Seoul and Beijing on an anti-Japanese base.

Fearing further deterioration of relations with the Republic of Korea, the Abe administration attempted to mitigate the negative influence of the factor of the past; evidence to this effect can be found in statements by the Japanese prime minister about the need to entrust the problems of history to experts in history instead of using them to create diplomatic and political problems. Moreover, Abe refused to pay a personal visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. The Republic of Korea did not perceive this as a concession, however.

The settlement of all aspects of the "problems of the past" requires political will on both sides. So far the DPJ administration's efforts in this direction have been inconsistent and brought only temporary results. At present, when Tokyo is keen on preparing the country's public opinion for a constitutional reform and revision of the official estimates of World War Two, and when Seoul is still committed to linking bilateral relations to progress in resolving problems of history, a dramatic breakthrough in this area is probably not to be expected.
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