On last June 22, leaders of South Korea and Japan attended concurrent events held in both countries, which marked the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations, and exchanged messages. Their presence at the commemorative events referred to the fundamental agreement to build a new cooperative and future-oriented bilateral relationship by ending the confrontation that has persisted between the two countries.
Although different opinions were expressed over Japan's request to add its modern industrial facilities, which involved forced labor, to UNESCO's World Heritage List, both countries agreed to make effort to avoid an acute tension over the issue. The two recent events showed a possibility of the Asian countries seeking compromise. Meanwhile, since South Korean thieves stole two Buddha statues from the Japanese island of Tsushima, South Korea had refused to return the statues on the grounds that they are cultural assets that were stolen by Japanese pirates. But, South Korea has decided to repatriate one of the two statues, arguing that it does not seem to have been plundered from the country to Japan. South Korea is apparently trying not to take a diplomatic hard-line against Japan, considering bilateral relations.
South Korea-Japan relations remain highly important although there are a number of irritative issues including past history, because the neighboring countries in Northeast Asia share common values such as liberal democracy, market economy and respect for human rights. Even though Japan removed from its 2015 Diplomatic Bluebook a statement that common values are shared by South Korea and Japan, it is undeniable that the countries do share common values. As these are also in line with fundamental values of the United States, cooperation among the three countries is possible, and South Korea and Japan can work together with other liberal parties.
Economic exchanges between South Korea and China are expanding, but China, a country ruled by the dictatorial communist party, does not seem to share the same political and social values as South Korea. It is also needless to say that trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan is important in terms of security to enable effective responses to provocations and threats from North Korea that is a traditional ally of China.
However, there are unresolved issues over South Korea-Japan relations that are described as 'victim-offender.'
The trouble with the bilateral relations stems from the 1965 normalization treaty, in which the two parties failed to reach a consensus on certain issues and just sealed the deal. So, there remains an ember of contention that could escalate tensions between the countries.
Article 2 of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea states that treaties that were signed between the countries before 1910 are 'already invalid.' During the making process of the article, South Korea claimed that the old treaties were fundamentally invalid, whereas Japan argued that they became ineffective with the defeat of Japan in 1945, showing difference in opinions. The phrase 'already invalid' was used as it could be interpreted in both ways.
In other words, the countries normalized diplomatic ties as a makeshift measure, leaving room for arbitrary interpretation for both sides. The treaty that was signed without holding Japan responsible for offering an apology for its colonization of South Korea has led to issues over historical perceptions and compensation for South Korean women forced into prostitution. Therefore, the countries should recognize different opinions of each other and make effort to build a consensus on each diplomatic issue.
In fact, they cannot just stick to their own claims in legal terms on the international stage. In the 'joint declaration on new South Korea-Japan partnership towards the twenty-first century' made during the 1998 meeting of then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, it was officially clarified that Japan was an aggressor and South Korea was a victim. This statement is still valid as the countries have not renounced the partnership declaration.
This means that even though Japan claims that its colonization was legally effective, it is accountable for what it has done to South Korea and other countries, now that it has admitted to being the aggressor.
It is known that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will use the word 'remorse' for his country's wartime responsibility in a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. However, it is unknown whether the statement will include recognition of and sincere apology for Japan's colonization.
Japan should considerately regard South Korea as a victim and also realize that it is in such a legal position that it cannot simply insist on its claims over Article 2 of the 1965 treaty. Japan should also appreciate the importance of South Korea-Japan relations in keeping peace and stability in Northeast Asia and make a statement that can console the minds of South Koreans by expressing an apology for its actions committed during the colonial rule.