Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part VI: Taking Stock

[Series Index]

The ’65 System is dead—but Americans are slow to wake up to this fact. Much of the foreign policy circles in and around Washington DC still think South Korea and Japan can patch things up quickly and get on as they did before July 2019. They argue: it’s about point-scoring in the domestic politics by stoking the nationalistic passion. Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo are being childish over ancient history. South Korea and Japan ought to be natural allies, sharing a common bond as liberal democracies to stand up against the threats of China and North Korea. 

But why would Abe Shinzo or Moon Jae-in need more political points? Abe is the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history with three re-election victories, and Moon is the most popular president in South Korean history whose approval rating at one time was over 80 percent. Abe did not begin the trade war to become more popular with the Japanese, and Moon did not say “we will never lose to Japan again” to become more popular with Koreans. Neither Abe nor Moon is using history to be popular; they are popular because they are focused on history.

Moon Jae-in (left) and Abe Shinzo, c. 2017 (source)

The patronizing suggestion that South Korea and Japan are “natural allies” is likewise ignorant. Of course, in a vacuum, friendship is better than strife. Why not pursue the better thing, when South Korea and Japan both have democratic government, market economy and broadly similar cultures? 

This point conveniently glosses over the fact that neither country considers each other a “natural ally.” In 2015, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointedly deleted the description of South Korea as “shar[ing] basic values with Japan such as freedom, democracy, and a market economy.” In a US-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit in 2017, Moon Jae-in noted matter-of-factly to Trump and Abe: “the United States is our ally; Japan is not.” 

Countries existed in the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese isles for more than 4,000 years; during those 4,000 years, no part of Korea was Japan, and no part of Japan was Korea. Compare this to, for example, India and Pakistan: two regions of a single empire that lasted over three centuries, with democracy and market economy in both countries. Yet India and Pakistan represent two nuclear powers that are closest to going to war with each other. Does anyone tut-tut at the two countries, about how they should be “natural allies”? 

Or consider England and Germany—both advanced democracies, highly developed market economy and broadly similar Christendom culture. (If you scoffed at “broadly similar Christendom culture” covering both England and Germany, just remember that the Japanese and Koreans have the same reaction to the claim that they have similar cultures.) The English head of state traces her heritage to Germany: it has been barely more than a century when the House of Windsor was called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. So where are all the talking points about the “natural alliance” for England and Germany, as England rushes headlong for Brexit?

The selective manner in which the “natural allies” talking point is deployed to other neighboring countries reveals the assumption behind the seemingly well-intentioned question. American observers insist that South Korea and Japan ought to be natural allies, not because they actually are, but because the United States needs them to form such an alliance that serves the US objectives.

(More after the jump)

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It also doesn’t make sense to point to “the greater threat” of China. The USSR could serve as the backstop to the ’65 System; China cannot. The Soviet Union truly represented an existential, whole-of-society threat. It was engaged in a policy of mutually assured destruction with the free world, with a body of ideology that clearly stood apart from the liberal-capitalist order. South Korea, after all, fought a war against a Soviet Union proxy that nearly erased it from the map. In contrast, the United States cannot even decide what to do with China, its greatest trading partner outside of North America. Dozens of US experts have published an op-ed titled “China is not an enemy”, and even those who support Donald Trump’s trade war against China do so reluctantly, not enthusiastically. Why would South Korea and Japan regard China as “the greater threat,” and sign up for the new Cold War that the United States did not yet begin?

If China is a poor replacement for the USSR as “the greater threat,” North Korea is a laughable one. It’s been decades since North Korea presented an existential threat to either South Korea or Japan, and that will not change for the foreseeable future. The only thing North Korea can do is to self-destruct while causing significant harm to South Korea or Japan. That, of course, is something that must be avoided. But it is not something for which South Korea really needs help from Japan, or vice versa, since either country can eliminate North Korea on its own should a war breaks out. Even more fundamentally, the end goals of South Korea and Japan as to North Korea are fundamentally different. In one way or another, South Korea is seeking to make peace and reunify with North Korea. Japan has no such mandate.

Once again: the ’65 System is dead. We can be certain of the death of the ’65 System, because Abe’s trade war pierced through the core of the System. The ’65 System deliberately left the history issue unanswered, so that South Korea and Japan could first build a close economic and security cooperation and gradually work toward bridging the gap in their respective stances. Abe’s trade war directly challenged this logic: unless South Korea capitulated to Japan’s version of history, no economic or security cooperation was possible. No matter what kind of bilateral relationship may emerge between Japan and South Korea, it will not be a system that depends on indefinitely tabling the history issue, because South Korea and Japan have come to a point where the issues of history can no longer be deferred.

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It didn’t have to be this way. The United States could have demanded from Imperial Japan the same level of historical self-reflection it demanded from Nazi Germany. The US could have excluded the leaders of the Japanese Empire from the positions of power, rather than elevating them back to the top levels of the government. It could have compelled Japan to engage in a more honest accounting of the damages caused by its imperialism and war, and pay due reparations to its neighbors with unqualified apologies. With the true resolution of the historical issues, there was no reason why northeastern Asia could not have developed like western Europe. Just as much as Germany became the centerpiece of the European Union that today forms a healthy block of liberal democracy and free trade, Japan could have been the centerpiece of eastern Asia that could have linked Korea, Taiwan, southeast Asia and beyond.

The United States never did that. We can have a long debate on the many possible reasons, such as the exigencies of the Cold War and the different extent of Soviet advances in western Europe versus northeast Asia. But the ultimate reason is straightforward: the United States never took Korea seriously. The suffering of the European countries deserved healing; the suffering of Asian countries did not. European injury was real, such that they needed to be healed before western Europe can move forward as a community. Asian injury was not, so Asian people can shut up and march onto the direction to which the United States pointed. 

In a photo taken in China, "Comfort Women" line up in front of soldiers. Date unknown. (source)

Therein lies the fundamental injustice of the ’65 System: its survival depended on South Korean dictatorship’s ability to silence the individual victims of Japanese imperialism. The System could work only as long as the people who received the wrong end of history to remain muzzled under Korea’s authoritarian dictatorship. It is not a surprise, then, that South Korea has been blamed disproportionately whenever the status of the ’65 System was threatened—because when the victim raises her claim to vindicate her rights, she inevitably destroys the superficial peace that has been suffocating her.

In order to maintain the ’65 System, those who held a vested interest in the System—which included most US foreign policy heads, Japan’s conservatives, and South Korea’s conservatives—had engaged a series of appalling victim-blaming. “Why make an issue out of bygones, which happened so long ago?” “What’s the point of dwelling on the past, when it is virtually impossible to sort out the historical injustice from a natural development?” “By the way, things were not as bad as you claim. And at any rate, look how well you’re doing now!” “There may have been injustice, you people did it to yourselves. You were weak, and you deserved it.” They callously disregard what Kan Naoto has thoughtfully noted: “Those who render pain tend to forget it while those who suffered cannot forget it easily.”

These are the same set of odious logic marshaled to justify any kind of systemic oppression—racism, sexism, slavery, you name it. This is not a coincidence: where rubber met the road, Koreans experience Japanese imperialism most acutely in the form of racist slavery and systemized rape. Comfort Women deniers love placing the blame on the ethnic Korean middlemen who procured the women for the rape stations, just as much as the defenders of African slavery love talking about how it was really Africans who enslaved each other. Japanese right wing loves talking about how Imperial Japan improved the lives of Koreans, just as much as American white supremacists love talking about how African Americans have it better in the US compared to their brethren in Africa. There is constant gaslighting as to how Imperial Japan treated Koreans during the colonial times, like a battered wife trapped in a household with an abusive spouse. 

This victim-blaming was also carried out by attributing to Koreans the same negative characteristics that attach to the victim who speaks up. Koreans are “emotional,” for example, while the Japanese are merely following the international law. Koreans do not keep their promises and move the goalposts all the time. Little thought is given to the ample historical record that Japan never intended to pay any reparations in 1965, and in fact did not do so. No one talks about how much contorted mental gymnastics the Japanese government has engaged in the interpretation of the Treaty of San Francisco and the Basic Treaty, just to avoid redressing the wrongs it had committed to the victims of World War II, both Japanese and Korean. 

Above all, no one talks about how deeply emotional and irrational it is for Abe Shinzo to end the ’65 System, the foundation of Japan’s relationship with its closest economic and security partner, for the sake of defending wartime slavery. The US foreign policy circles did not protest Abe’s trade war nearly as strongly as when they howled against Moon Jae-in’s decision to cancel military intelligence sharing agreement. In part, this was because Americans were simply ignorant about the fact that the survival of the ’65 System in its modern iteration depended on separating the history issue from economic and security cooperation. But it is also in part because it is always easier to get the victim to shut up than to have the perpetrator face up to its crime.

But it is no longer possible to silence the Korean victims of Japanese imperialism. Indeed, from the abortive 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, we can see how any such attempt to muzzle them will end: in an impeachment of the president and decimation of the political party that supported her. When the greater attainment of freedom and democracy leads to the fall of an international order, one cannot help wonder just how much that order was worth keeping.

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Ito Hirobumi, one of modern Japan’s Founding Fathers and the first colonial chief of Korea, was killed by An Jung-geun, a very modern Korean with a baptismal name of Thomas. The national narrative of history shapes the national identity. Modern Japan’s national identity is being the Asiatic empire. Modern Korea’s national identity is resisting Japan’s imperialism. The two narratives that form the national identities of Japan and South Korea are mutually exclusive. There is no potential for a compromise between Ito and An, between a colonizer and a proud man who refuses to be enslaved. The encounter between the two can only end in conflict. 

Any serious attempt to predict the future of Japan and Korea must take the conflict in identities seriously. If the politics of the last 100 years taught us anything, it taught us the centrality of identity in politics. Obviously, it is in the self-interest of both Japan and South Korea to cooperate closely, if only because friendship is better than strife. But in politics, self-interest is no match to identity. Lyndon Johnson remarked: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” 

Same applies to Japan: it is willing to hurt itself in order to look down on Korea. Abe Shinzo’s trade war damages Japan just as much as it damages South Korea, but Abe will press on—because defending the use of wartime slave labor is truly that important to Japan. By linking trade and national security with the history issue, Abe is sending a clear message to Korea: no economic or security cooperation is possible unless Korea submits to Japan’s version of history. South Korea simply will not accept this demand. Indeed, the entire modern history of South Korea, rising from the ashes of the Korean War into a top-ten economic and military power, can be understood as an effort not to be coerced into anyone else’s historical narrative anymore.

This means that, for a third party who wishes to step into this picture—say, like the United States—the prognosis appears grim. Deferring and quarantining the historical issue is no longer possible. Any third party who steps into these narratives faces a binary choice. There can be no both sides and no mediation. In a situation like this, the US would be tempted to avoid making the choice altogether, and step away from the whole row.

South Korea tests its Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missiles, c. 2017 (source)

In some ways, the US has been already doing that for the past decade. Since Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” the US has been taking a paradoxical posture of trying to accomplish more with less investment. Weary from the disastrous Iraq War, the US wanted to reduce its international footprint. Yet responding to the rise of China demanded more resources than before. The US tried to bridge this gap by getting its allies and security interests to do more. Under Donald Trump, who sees US allies as free riders, this trend intensified, erratically zigzagging US position from giving more autonomy to its allies to abandoning its allies altogether.

Both South Korea and Japan have used the greater autonomy to re-arm themselves. After the Korean War, the United States prohibited South Korea from developing its missiles system, fearing South Korea might start a war against North Korea. Today, South Korea boasts one of the world’s largest arsenals of ballistic missiles, with range and payload that grow by day. After World War II, the Untied States prohibited Japan from building a military. Today, the US encourages not only Japan’s re-militarization, but also the international venture for Japan’s Self-Defense Force.

All this was done under the assumption that South Korea and Japan will act in their own self-interest, and cooperate with each other in order to counter China. But this assumption forgets the lesson from Henry Kissinger, who once told Zhou Enlai that the US military was not in Japan to attack China, but to stop Japan from re-arming itself and repeating the 1930s. With greater autonomy and more powerful military, neither South Korea nor Japan will limit itself to narrowly executing what US imagines to be in the self-interest of either country. Loosened from the US influence, Japan and South Korea will act out its national identity.

From the perspective of nuclear proliferation, the under-the-radar arms race that is currently unfolding in east Asia has a potential to be even more alarming. The line separates the US that expects its allies to do more in defense, from the US that is no longer interested in the security of its east Asian allies is as thin as 77,744 votes in three out of the 50 US states. US detachment from Asia can easily come to a point where Japan and South Korea are convinced the United States will not defend them against the nuclear weapons of China and North Korea. Inevitably, they will seek to develop their own nuclear weapons—as South Korea’s Park Chung-hee did in 1972 as he saw US withdrawing from Vietnam. If the US thinks it is challenging to maintain the relationship between South Korea and Japan, it should imagine how the task will look if both countries are armed with nuclear weapons.

Finally, the United States should consider the possibility that the world may be a very different in just a generation from today. The friction between South Korea and Japan is but a preview of the international picture that is coming down the pike. As the former colonies of the 20th century imperialism are becoming increasingly wealthier and autonomous, the historical bills will continue to come due—South Korea’s bill merely happened to arrive first because it is arguably the most successful former colony from the 20th century imperialism. Abdication from dealing with the aftermath of 20th century imperialism may well be an abdication from 21th century international affairs.

Looking back the history of Asia from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, one cannot help but be struck by the speed in which the unthinkable becomes plausible, and plausible becomes inevitable. It is a mistake to think today’s US allies will remain so in the coming decades, especially if the US abdicates from the hard work of maintaining the alliance. Japan was a US ally in World War I, but 23 years after the Great War, Japan was bombing the Pearl Harbor. It is clear the primary foreign policy challenge for the United States for the next century will be centered in east Asia. The US can either invest more into Asia and maintain the peace that ultimately extends across the Pacific, or withdraw from Asia and wait haplessly for the rising tensions to make it across the ocean in the form of bombers and ballistic missiles.

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Regardless of whether the United States enters into a Cold War-level standoff with China, the US simply cannot afford to step away from east Asia, the most consequential region of the world in this century. If the United States is to stick with east Asia, it must rely on its two primary allies, South Korea and Japan. The US midwifed the ’65 System because it needed a bilateral relationship between the two countries to serve as a cornerstone against international communism in the Cold War. Today’s need for the two US allies may not be as dire as during the Cold War, but it is nonetheless significant. Just as much as US supervised the creation of the ’65 System, it must encourage the birth of the new bilateral system that can survive the 21st century and beyond.

Seoul and Tokyo. (source)

What is to be done? I have two counsels.

My first counsel is realism. The United States must realize the ultimate reason for the ’65 System’s demise: the inability to indefinitely defer the history issue by suppressing South Korean voices. The next system between Japan and South Korea must be more equitable, if only because South Korea 2019 is very different from South Korea 1965. Korea of the mid-20th century was authoritarian, impoverished and vulnerable to communist invasion. Korea of the 21st century is a vibrant democracy, economic heavyweight, and military powerhouse. It cannot be folded into a regime like the ’65 System.

Inevitably, this means taking steps that will appear to Japan as favoring South Korea. In a situation with mutually exclusive historical narratives, this is inevitable. There is no need for the United States to be heavy-handed; ultimately, the history issue for Japan and South Korea to resolve on their own. But the US cannot be so concerned with the appearance of impartiality that it steps away from the Japan-South Korea relations altogether. Above all, condemning imperialism is simply the right thing to do. The United States must remind Japan that the US also suffered from Japan during World War II, yet it has been excessively generous on Japan’s historical revisionism out of strategic considerations that were present in 1965, but not in 2019.

My second counsel is patience. There are certain stopgap measures in the Japan-South Korea relations that the United States is able to implement, and it should do so. Chief among them would be to push Abe Shinzo to back off the trade war, in exchange for Moon Jae-in to re-enter the military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan. As much as possible, South Korea-Japan relations should be pushed back to the equilibrium that existed from 1990 to 2010: quarantine the history issue to be resolved separately from economic and security cooperation. It may be a long time before the level of cooperation between the two countries recover to the pre-trade war days, but staunching further deterioration is the priority.

Beyond that, it will be a long struggle. Abe Shinzo’s trade war against Korea is overwhelmingly popular in Japan, even among those who are not particularly fond of Abe. Few things are uglier than a formerly privileged facing a climb-down from his perch. It will take a great deal of nudging and cajoling for Japan to begin shifting away from its identity as an imperialist power. The good news, at least, is that it will involve fewer morally appalling actions, like making an end run around former wartime sex slaves who are waiting for justice to be served before they pass away.

If I may offer any hope, it is that the historical issue between Korea and Japan will not last forever. Both in Japan and South Korea, a new generation is emerging. Unlike that of their grandparents and parents, the attitude of young Koreans—in their teens and early 20s—is neither injury nor admiration. The young Koreans are familiar with Japan. But they are two generations removed from Imperial Japan’s cruelty, and they have no post-war memory of Japan being the better place, the model that South Korea self-hatingly emulated.

Across the strait, the newest generation of Japanese remembers neither the post-imperial greatness nor the bitter taste of decline in the Lost Decades. They have spent their entire lives in comfortable stagnation, focusing more on the small joys of daily lives over the allure of national grandeur. Their only memory of South Korea is that of a pop culture trend-setter. To them, dismissing Korea as the weaker country is absurd; the idea of dictating Korea’s actions is unthinkable.

With these generations, there is a chance for the two countries to construct a new bilateral regime that overcomes the fatal defects of the ’65 System. There is a chance for South Korea and Japan to start over on equal footing—but only if the next coming decades shape this future generation into believing their countries ought to be friends, not enemies.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. You appear to have a huge amount of faith in the ability of the U.S. government to set things right here by persuading the Japanese government to officially condemn its own history as an imperial power. I'm not sure where you are getting this faith from. The U.S. was complicit in Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, and indeed Japan never would have been able to take over Korea without the tacit approval of Washington, Paris, and London. So for the U.S. to credibly persuade the Japanese government to condemn its history as an imperial power, the U.S. government would first have to condemn itself for aiding and abetting Japan's rise to the status of imperial power in the early 20th century.

    This will likely never happen, for the simple reason that the U.S. itself has been and still is a significant colonial and occupying power. If the U.S. government condemned long deceased American officials for supporting Japan's takeover of Korea in 1910, that would immediately lead to calls for the U.S. government to then condemn its own previous annexations of Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and many other places. A huge can of worms that the U.S. government would like to see kept shut would be opened.

    Out of curiosity, given how voluminously you write about Japan, have you ever visited that country?

    1. The third section of the post (one with a missile launch photo) explains why it is in the US interest to do so. Please read it one more time.

      I have visited Japan many times.

    2. 10/19/19 Response to badgering for added apologies:

      As a product of America's sense of rightness of incarcerating almost all of the Japanese (120,000 out of 125,000) American citizens in 1942, and its incarceration of the Native Americans on reservations and the final desegregation of the Black citizens from white citizens in 1965. Attempting to put any kind of argument of / for the equal treatment and interpretation of written documents (ie our Bill of Rights) towards and colored nationality (especially those of communist leanings) is very naive.
      I hear your arguments of and for added acknowledgement and apologies from Abe and Japan, but, please know that everyone in Japan is/ and has to "shout the US mandated message and march to the orders of the winners".
      This is the true "Dog whistle" that you don't seem to hear.
      America, and specifically Macarthur, was afraid of the threat of communism taking over all of Korea and established the rules of surrender for Japan.
      You can complain and feel as much indignation of Japan's treatment towards the Koreans, but, for the last 70 years, it is your own cousins in North Korea who have perpetuated and continued to perpetuate those same atrocious crimes of enslavement and death against the Korean peoples.
      You South Koreans enjoy westernized liberties for the first time in your 2000 year history, Based much in part of America's mandates of restitution and apologies made of Japan to further her (America's) agenda to keep North Korea at bay.
      Without the UN and the US involvement in the Korean's affairs in the 1950's, You all would have been subjected by the North Koreans to a completely differ life style . They, your North Korean's cousins, started the Korean War to take you over.
      If all you say about Abe is true, why would Japan even been involved in So Koreas welfare since 1965? Because, Japan has been mandated to, and as a defeated, subjected Country, must comply to- and be in support of her captors.
      As soon as Japan is free of the mandates of the United States defeat of Japan, if ever, and she (Japan) is free to live under her own charter, IMO, your voice and your calling can and will produce a much clearer response to your constant badgering and disrespect of Japan's leaders.

  2. OK, I read that section one more time and I still don't see a convincing case for why American officials will conclude it is in their country's interest to pursue the path outlined in your first counsel. It is easy to write "condemning imperialism is simply the right thing to do," but as you know the United States has repeatedly failed to do the right thing in foreign affairs. And while strategic considerations have changed in East Asia since 1965, what hasn't changed is the huge can of worms I mentioned that Washington would probably like to keep shut forever.

    In relation to that, how do you feel about the points that I raised about how extremely risky and difficult it would be for the government of the United States--one of the major colonial powers of the modern era--to persuade (even in a non-heavy handed manner) the government of Japan to condemn its colonial rule over Korea and other places until 1945? If Washington takes that step, people in Hawaii and Puerto Rico and many other places currently under U.S. rule will likely demand immediate, unconditional independence.

    My own view is that Japan and South Korea will be better off in the long run sorting out these disputes themselves. The record of involvement by the United States government in attempting to manage these bilateral disputes (usually by sweeping them under the rug) has not been especially helpful, particularly to the South Korean side. Given its own history as a colonial power, I am skeptical the U.S. will ever be able to credibly intervene in a way that favors South Korea and not Japan.

    1. Foreign policy is not math. There is no transitivity. The fact that Korea became independent from Japan's imperialism did not lead to Okinawa's independence from Japan.



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