- - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Familiarity breeds contempt, and family squabbles are the worst, to be avoided if at all possible. That goes for nations as well as individuals. Perhaps no two strong societies have had as much contact over the centuries as Japan and Korea, contact at the price of considerable fuss and friction.

The Japanese, for example, have borrowed more from the Koreans than they like to say. Japanese archaeologists, goes one family joke, were forbidden to open ancient tombs lest they be greeted by the aroma of kimchi, the pungent spicy pickled cabbage that is the Korean national dish. In fact, there’s said to be a trace of Korean genes in the Japanese imperial family.

Japan is the home of a million Zainichi, Japanese of Korean ethnic descent, some native-born, others Korea-born, some naturalized citizens, and others registered foreign nationals. There was, it turns out, more in the melting pot than pickled cabbage. Prejudice and discrimination against these Japanese-Koreans is widespread, a subject of constant friction.

Adding to the friction was a half-century of harsh and bitter Japanese occupation of Korea, ending with the Japanese collapse at the end of World War II. The campaign to “Japanize” the Koreans, giving them Japanese names and requiring them to learn and speak Japanese, produced embittered resistance, sometimes armed, and reluctant collaboration.

This heritage has stood in the way of the American attempt to smooth relations between the two nations as the nub of an Asian anti-Communist alliance, something to resemble NATO. The barrier was raised high during the Cold War, even though both countries profited from bilateral military alliances with the United States, celebrated military collaboration in South Korea and an increasingly close if one-sided U.S. defense arrangement with Japan.

Korean President Park Geun-hye has played hard to get despite persistent American efforts to establish a Seoul-Tokyo alliance. Her father, Park Chung Hee, was an officer in the Manchurian-based Japanese Kwantung army when the war ended in 1945. He climbed the ranks of the U.S.-sponsored South Korean army, directing an authoritarian regime in Seoul which is credited with South Korea’s remarkable economic success. A “settlement” in 1965 between Mr. Park and Nobusuke Kishi, the prime minister of Japan at the time and the grandfather of Shinzo Abe, the current Japanese prime minister, introduced the growing Japanese economic collaboration which was fundamental to Mr. Park’s successful economic program.

But frictions have arisen frequently between Tokyo and Seoul, in no small part because of the present Korean prime minister’s effort to triangulate Korean and American interests, while cultivating warm relations with Beijing despite its close alliance with North Korea. Mrs. Park, the current Korean president, has cultivated the issue of Korean women pressed into service as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Until recently, the Japanese insisted that neither the government nor the army had anything to do with the arrangements, that the comfort women were private contractors.

This makes the settlement of the comfort-women agreement between the two governments announced last week so important, “finally and irreversibly” resolving the issue of Tokyo’s use of tens of thousands of Korean women as wartime sex slaves. Japan agreed to pay $8.3 million, to be divided among the 46 former “comfort women” still alive. Some of them are more than 90 years old. The Japanese government conceded that its military authorities played a “role” in the sexual enslavement, although Prime Minister Abe did not agree to make another formal apology. So the dance continues, with the music marred by occasional sour notes.

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