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50 Years of Neighborly Ties

Jun. 19, 2015

Japan and South Korea have an important relationship, but it’s going through a rough patch. Historical issues and territorial disputes have overshadowed general sentiment. July 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties. We look at the development of the ties, and touch on views to solve weakening relations.

NHK World’s Hiroki Yajima joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio. He’s spent years covering the Korean Peninsula.

Beppu: So Hiroki, we’ve had a rough timeline since World War Two. The Korean peninsula was liberated in 1945. But it wasn’t until 20 years later, in 1965, that Japan and South Korea normalized relations. Why did it take so long?

Yajima: Feelings were running high on both sides in the 50s. 36 years of Japanese colonial rule created animosity in South Korea, and people in Japan were angry about the South Korean government. South Korean officials set their maritime boundaries, named after then President Rhee Syngman, without Japanese consent. They seized more than 2700 Japanese fishermen, after claiming they crossed into their waters. Talks for normalization began in 1951. But they often stalled. Things improved after Park Chung-hee took power. I talked to 2 former diplomats about how agreements were reached.

Hiroshi Fukuda was involved in the negotiations in the mid-1960s. He said there were many hurdles -- Japanese diplomats were not favorable at all to their counterparts, and Japanese people questioned why the government was negotiating only with South Korea. They said Japan should include North Korea in the talks too.

Oh Jay-hee was a senior diplomat. He said then-President Park Chung-hee wanted to have support from Japan by normalizing ties. He says President Park made the firm decision to achieve economic development and to improve people’s lives quickly.

Diplomats in the 2 countries had been talking to normalize ties in 14 years. They agreed Japan would pay a certain amount of money. But they disagreed on how much and the reason for the payment.

The turning point came in confidential talks in 1962. They involved South Korea’s Intelligence Chief Kim Jong-pil and Japan’s Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira. The 2 agreed Japan would pay about 600 million dollars.

Oh Jay-hee explains Tokyo insisted the payment was economic cooperation, while Seoul said it was entitled to a right of claim. So they settled on including both meanings in one agreement.

Fukuda says that the money was in fact for compensation. Japan would pay the money to express its apology. He says he thinks Prime Minister Sato made a bold decision to give that amount.

The treaty was finally signed on June 22nd, 1965. It went into effect half a year later.

Beppu: So, political compromises and the determination of both leaders helped settle the talks. Still, I think it was a very difficult task. What are your interviewees saying about this point?

Yajima: Veteran diplomat Fukuda said he did more than 150 hours of unpaid overtime a month. His counterpart Oh Jay-hee said he was negotiating in the daytime, writing reports in the evening, and listening to orders and suggestions at night. Both sides had many sleepless nights.

Shibuya: So did all that time and effort get the relationship off to a good start?

Yajima: The countries seemed to be closer. Businesspeople were going back and forth and large amounts of capital flowed from Japan to South Korea. But an incident created a blow for relations. Future South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped in Tokyo in 1973. The incident was related to a fierce political battle.

Kim Dae-jung was unable to elude his political enemies, even in Japan. He was kidnapped from a hotel in Tokyo. He says when he left the room around 1:00, he was approached by 5 or 6 strongly-built men. He screamed, but they told him to keep quiet or they would kill him.

A couple of days later, he was mysteriously set free in Seoul. Investigators in Tokyo collected fingerprints at the hotel, and matched them to an official at the South Korean embassy.

Former diplomat Tetsuya Endo says the Japanese side reacted strongly. “What was that all about? Was it an infringement of sovereignty?” But the South Korean government would not admit to any involvement.

Japanese officials asked their South Korean counterparts to hand Kim over for questioning. But officials in Seoul refused. Then, they placed him under house arrest.

President Park held secret negotiations with the Japanese side. Then-Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka agreed to settle the incident.

Endo says government leaders shared the view that ties between the 2 countries were important. He says they also thought a certain level of compromise would also be necessary even if they couldn’t always be so honest.

Beppu: Talking about the incident of Kim Dae-jung. How was the truth revealed?

Yajima: It was more than 30 years later that the South Korean government admitted committing the crime, and officially apologized to Japan. Kim insisted that on Park’s orders, he was meant to be murdered.

Beppu: Kim Dae-jung was eventually inaugurated as the South Korean president. How did he get there?

Yajima: The path to democracy started in the 1980s. Pro-democracy protestors clashed with troops in Gwangju. Hundreds died. Kim Dae-jung was sentenced to death over his anti-government activities, but after worldwide attention, his life was spared. He made 4 bids for the presidency before winning in 1997.

Shibuya: How did Kim manage to improve relations with Japan?

Yajima: Kim’s counterpart was Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. He deepened ties with leaders in South Korea while he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. But the path to cooperation started earlier.

Kazuo Ogura was Japan’s Ambassador to South Korea in the 1990s. Ogura says the initial turning point in bilateral relations came in 1983. Then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone chose Seoul for his first official overseas visit. This was based on his strategy to strengthen relations with the US, Japan and South Korea amid the cold war. He even made an effort to make a speech in Korean.

Ogura says people murmured excitedly when Nakasone began speaking in Korean. He wasn’t just saying hello. He went on for several minutes.

Prime Minister Obuchi inherited this eagerness to improve relations. He and Kim issued a historic joint declaration vowing to build a new partnership towards the 21st century.

Ogura says Obuchi was committed to sitting down and talking about historical issues with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. He says at the same time, the 2 leaders were motivated to move forward with a future-oriented approach, which worked well.

Chi Myong-kwan worked as a Professor of modern history at a university in Tokyo. He returned home in the early 1990s and became a close aide to then-President Kim Dae-jung. He says people thought that if South Korea were to achieve democracy, Kim Dae-jung could be the right person to lead the country. Those expectations steadily increased.

Chi met Kim in Japan in the early 1970s. Both men had fled the dictatorial regime of President Park Chung-hee. They discussed their hopes for reform. Kim took office in 1998, in the middle of the country’s economic crisis. He believed closer relations with Japan would benefit South Korea both economically and culturally. One step was to overturn a ban on Japanese music and movies.

Chi says President Kim stressed that it was necessary to build new relations between Japan and South Korea, while also considering anti-Japanese sentiment among Korean citizens.

Both figures say the 2 leaders were the right people to create a new era. Ogura says Kim told the Diet he highly values Japan’s contributions to democracy and development. He points out this was the first and last time a South Korean president officially recognized Japan’s contributions.

Chi says Obuchi told Kim that Japan had made mistakes in the past. Kim responded by thanking him. Chi says he believes it was an era when the 2 leaders talked openly and agreed on how bilateral relations, as well as relations throughout East Asia, should be.

Beppu: The relationship between Obuchi and Kim looks very different from the situation today. Prime Minister Abe and President Park Geun-hye haven’t sat down together since they took office. Why is that?

Yajima: I think it’s their views on historical issues. That’s what then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono said about those referred to as comfort women. The statement expressed sincere apology and remorse. But the issue remains a point of conflict. Chi Myong-kwan, whom I interviewed, told me he chose to accomplish many things by promoting cooperation with Japan rather than raising the issue at the negotiation table.

Beppu: So what do you think the two governments can do to find a way to improve their relationship?

Yajima: Let’s listen to how former diplomats and government officials see the worsening relations, and what kind of ideas they have to change them.

Hiroshi Fukuda, Former Japanese Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, says he thinks South Koreans still harbor a grudge over Japan’s colonial rule. He says it is reflected in everything, and it comes up a lot.

Former diplomat Tetsuya Endo says it’s definitely necessary for Japan to express remorse about the past. A forward-looking approach has roots in the past. He says Japan should face it squarely, and then progress towards the future.

Korea-Japan Cooperation Council Vice President Oh Jay-hee says some politicians and civil groups cause misunderstandings through media reports. Chi Myong-kwan, the Former Chair of the Japan-Korea Cultural Exchange Council, says he hopes citizens from both countries, rather than politicians, will help promote better relations. He says he thinks there’s a need for intellectuals to develop ties between people in both nations, even if relations between politicians are strained.

Yajima: Experts say it’s essential to create bilateral relations at an individual level. I agree with their opinions. I’m convinced that future relations depend on the efforts of individuals, and the maintenance of mutual trust and respect. Ministerial talks are scheduled in Tokyo next week, so let’s see how they go.