- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2019

Both countries are known for their futuristic cityscapes and technological innovation, but if there was ever a case in which William Faulkner’s adage that “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past” holds true, it is Japan and South Korea.

Relations between South Korea and Japan — U.S. allies both — are at something of a historical nadir, and the fight has everything do with events that fewer and fewer people alive even remember.

The trouble began a few weeks ago when … actually, no. Enter Faulkner.

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The trouble, or at least this iteration of it, began between 1910 and 1945, during Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea. Hundreds of thousands of Korean women were exploited as sex slaves. Hundreds of thousands of Korean men, meanwhile, were exploited for slave labor. Japan’s imperial government even took steps to eradicate Korean culture, at one point going so far as to try to stamp out the Korean language.

That South Korea today is such a thriving, prosperous culture (one that proudly speaks Korean, thank you) in the wake of Japan’s decades of barbarity and the horrors of the Korean War a few years later is a testament to the strength and resilience of its people.

Germany apologized profusely for its actions in the first half of the 20th century and is today a respected global power that is liked by its neighbors. (Well, except when Chancellor Angela Merkel tells the spendthrifts in Paris and Rome to get their acts together — oh, and take a few hundred thousand migrants.) Japan, less so.

Germany’s government was utterly dismantled after the conclusion of the war and the country divided for nearly a half century, whereas Gen. Douglas MacArthur made the decision to maintain the Japanese royal family that presided over the war. This enabled Japan to avoid the historical reckoning that consumed Germany in the decades after the war.

Koreans still seethe over the lack of accountability. Last fall, South Korean courts ordered Japanese companies — including household names like Mitsubishi — to pay compensation to Koreans whom they enslaved during the imperial period. Japan rebuffed the judgment, claiming that a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries settled the matter. But that treaty did not preclude individual settlements.

Then Japan, in an act widely seen as political retaliation, soon placed restrictions on certain high-tech exports to South Korea, intimating darkly that some dual-use technologies were ending up in North Korean hands.

This year has seen a surge in grassroots anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. Widespread consumer boycotts have harmed Japanese brands like Uniqlo, Toyota and Asahi. Far fewer Koreans are flying to Japan for vacations.

Astonishingly, this nationalist sentiment runs just as strongly among young Koreans as it does with those who remember Japanese rule. A few years ago, I happened to be in Seoul during another fight between the two countries, this one over disputed islands. One of my 20-something Korean friends immediately began boycotting his preferred brand of Japanese cigarettes.

With relations with Japan on the rocks, South Korea’s leftist president, Moon Jae-in, has cast his eyes northward. He recently put the kibosh on a military intelligence sharing deal with Japan, raising hackles in Washington, and pines openly for a closer relationship with Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.

Mr. Moon’s fealty toward North Korea — his government has just pledged $1 billion in a misbegotten bid to build a “peace economy” with the totalitarian state — speaks to an irony at the heart of the Korean left. In Korean politics, it is the leftists who tend to be more ethnocentric than the right. So Mr. Moon sees potential allies in his North Korean brothers — no matter how barbarous that regime is to, well, other Koreans — but only enemies in Japan.

In Northeast Asia, the past isn’t just the present; it evidently is also the future.

Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.

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