As It Happens·As It Happens Q&A

South Korea and Japan improving relations doesn't erase dark WW II history, says expert

South Korea and Japan made significant steps in healing their frayed relations this week, says political scientist Katharine Moon — but Japan still needs to come to terms with the crimes of its past.

The 2 nations made historic steps in terms of diplomacy and trade this week

Two smiling men in suits clink glasses of beer across a dinner table.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, toasts with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during their talks at a restaurant in Tokyo on Thursday. (Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office/Kyodo/Reuters)

South Korea and Japan made significant steps in reconciling their differences this week, says political scientist Katharine Moon — but she says Japan still needs to come to terms with the crimes of its past.

Yoon Suk Yeol became the first sitting South Korean president to visit Japan in 12 years on Thursday when he made a diplomatic trip to Tokyo. Soon after, the two countries announced plans drop an almost four-year-old trade dispute on high-tech materials for smartphone displays and chips.

While some Koreans have welcomed the move, others are critical of Yoon for cozying up to a country that annexed and colonized South Korea in 1910, and forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work as labourers in Japanese companies, or sex slaves at military-run brothels, during the Second World War.

Just last week, South Korea announced it would no longer demand Japanese compensation for Korean victims of forced labour. Instead, Seoul said it will create a government-run fund to pay the victims.

Moon is a professor emerita of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a visiting professor at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the Korea-U.S. alliance, inter-Korean relations, and East Asian politics. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

Japan's prime minister described this as a big step, this meeting. Given all of the time that's passed, [and] all of the differences between these two nations, is that an understatement?

I think that's an accurate statement. It is a big deal because South Korea and South Koreans have been more than reluctant to do something constructive with Japan for the last several decades. And the two countries' relations, economically and also somewhat militarily, have suffered.

I think they are coming together to position themselves for a stronger relationship, especially in the context of current urgencies regarding China's intentions as well as domestic economic needs.

When we talk about the "Why now?" after all this time, is it solely because of concerns about ... China?

It is partly because China has acted more aggressively, or maybe bracingly, especially in the region. And both Japan and Korea have, of course, felt pressure by the U.S. to make their positions clear in terms of their alliance relationships with the United States.

But it is a fact that China's growing intentions to compete with the U.S., Japan and other developed countries in the high-tech and AI [artificial intelligence] field make it much more imperative for South Korea to be able to access high-tech chip materials … which they can only get from Japan.

And the sourcing has been cut off by Japan in retaliation for South Korea's Supreme Court back in 2018 ... ruling that Japanese companies have to pay reparations for forced labour of Koreans during the colonial era.

Portrait of a smiling woman with a short black bob, bright red lipstick and matching earrings.
Katharine Moon is a professor emerita of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. (Submitted by Katharine Moon)

Who made the first call here? Who picked up the phone? 

The South Koreans made the first call. But ... except for the Trump administration, I would say pretty much the last four [U.S.] administrations have been wanting Japan and Korea to reconcile and to improve their relationship, because it helps the United States' position in East Asia. And it would make it easier to deal with North Korea and also to deal with trade relations, as well as larger global pacts, agreements, that the U.S. was interested in.

For the South Koreans, President Yoon came in expecting and wanting to do damage control with Japan. And I think his administration realized early on that there's really nothing to lose domestically. He is not going to win any brownie points by engaging in more hostile relations with Japan regarding colonial-era issues. 

And if anything, Yoon has made it clear he is a pro-business president and that economic concerns of South Korea come first. And so that significantly explains why the administration in Korea has been willing to take the initiative.

A smiling man waves from the backseat of a car.
Yoon waves while leaving his dinner with Japan's prime minister. He has come under fire by South Koreans calling on Japan to take responsibility for its colonial actions. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

These disputes go back to, you know, the time period between 1910 and 1945 — the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula, atrocities during the Second World War and, you know, South Koreans being forced to work in Japanese factories during that time period. So how did they get past such deep disagreement about that time? What had to be done to, you know, assuage people's concerns?

I think that South Korean activists are still wanting the Korean government to spearhead reparations and … formal apologies, from the Japanese government. They are very unhappy about President Yoon's administration going ahead to make nice with the Japanese.

And I would say that this move by the South Korean leadership to improve relations with Japan does not annul or deny the atrocities of the past that the Japanese had perpetrated during the colonial era.

The way I look at it in terms of President Yoon's position regarding Japan is this is purely a national interest-based, practical move to improve economic ties, to improve South Korea's high-end chip manufacturing base in particular, [and] to increase co-operation with Japan as a way to increase the solidarity with the United States military alliance.

That [segment of the] South Korean public that wants to pursue these colonial-era issues, they are free to do so in Japanese courts and South Korean courts or in other court venues. They can mobilize public opinion globally against [the] Japanese if they so choose. Their private actions are not cut off ... by the Yoon administration's move to improve relations with Japan.

And I would say that trying to make sure that the Japanese understand their own history ... that should continue. 

But the question is: Should the South Korean government be waving that flag solely as foreign policy interest vis-a-vis Japan? And my answer is no.

You said at the outset that characterizing this as a big step was an accurate characterization. But will there be more steps? Is this sustainable, this relationship?

I think the next step really is up to the Japanese.... They need to enhance economic relations in a larger sense. They need to restore favoured nation status back to South Korea in terms of trade, and engage in some larger measures [and] gestures.

What is really necessary is to make sure that any kind of people-to-people relations, any kind of efforts by the Japanese and the Koreans to improve their situation, be completely transparent and open source, and that Japanese get the opportunity to reconsider their own history. 

They see themselves as victims in World War Two because of the atomic weapons that were inflicted upon them by the United States. But they, themselves, inflicted so much damage, harm and death to many people, [including] South Koreans and other Asians.

This history is not going to go away because of this reconciliation effort by the two countries. 

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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