The opportunity for restored foreign relations between South Korea and Japan appears to be diminishing. Though the two fated neighbors have survived thousands of years, not without complications, they are entering a time rife with numerous urgent and important problems that both must work together to solve. For a long time, but especially modern history’s process of development, South Korea and Japan walked their own paths, with different experiences and different interpretations of history. Often in the equation of international relations, geopolitics and location are the most important constants, but equally important is how deeply a national consciousness has spread its roots.
Accordingly, Korea-Japan relations are also accountable to the differences in national consciousness between the two countries; foreign relations therefore have clashed and been limited. Now is the time to put aside these conflicts and seek to move toward harmony and common interests.
In the 19th century, the biggest problem in Asia, including Korea, China and Japan, was coping with the growing pressure of Western imperialism. In this crisis situation, Japan alone boldly adopted Western civilization and systems of governance, and succeeded in a complete reconstruction for modernization. With this excess power, Japan was victorious in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, and recognized as one of the world’s superpowers. Japan then annexed the feudal identity-bound Korea, invaded China, and entered an age of militarism. In this pursuit of modernization most Japanese academics explain that Japan was faced with the “state creation paradox.” This paradox of wholeheartedly embracing Western culture and institutions for the sake of modernization, while protecting Japanese traditions and norms, could not be avoided. Setting the validity of this explanation aside, Japan’s modernization conceived a serious duality in foreign relations that merits attention.
The so-called “state creation” opportunity came in second half of the 19th century, when Japan was caught between the advanced Western states and the backward Asia. Japan outgrew Asia to join the West, but it could be said that this dual identity in foreign relations affected the “Sino-centric complex” that was deeply embedded in the Japanese people’s historical awareness.* Geopolitically and culturally, the traditional belief that China was the center of the world was challenged by Japanese intellectuals. Authentic Sino-centrism means mastering justice, knowledge and truth, and establishing the rule of law. The idea that Japan could become this center now began to gain traction. By overtaking China, wouldn’t the “Sino-centric complex,” which looks down upon lesser-developed countries, take a greater hold in the Japanese consciousness?
One side-effect of this Japanese “Sino-centric complex” was regarding its closest neighbor on the Korean Peninsula as a periphery state and lightly dismissing its identity. Japan overlooked Korea’s adaptation of Confucian philosophy of self-refinement, and its notion that larger nations and smaller nations can coexist by establishing hierarchical politics, customs and culture. Japan was obsessed with militarism and its expansive power in the first half of the 20th century. Korea’s independence movement included Republicans, Democrats and Liberalists working together with Marxists, Leninists and Socialists, all waiting for liberation. Unlike Japan and the gifts it received in defeat from its occupation forces, Korea was caught in the maelstrom of the Cold War as an unindustrialized country that found democracy and success after resisting a military dictatorship. This is the difference between the national identities of the two countries.
World War II let down the curtain on the age of imperialism, and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union ended over a quarter of a century ago. The international order and peace are decidedly influenced by the dominant power in the United States. However, America as the world’s only superpower is slowly fading away in the 21st century. Do the U.S. and China, both continental powers, not consider themselves in that superpower role? If these two hegemons had a direct collision, Asia would be swallowed up in a colossal disaster. South Korea must concentrate its power in creating a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China because it is the most susceptible to this potential conflict.
Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, and has exemplified the effectiveness of soft power for the past half-century. For the sake of Asia’s future and to avoid a U.S.-China collision, it is critical that the global community’s leader in peaceful development now contribute to the path of cooperation. The nightmares of the past should be washed away for the sake of creating a new Asian neighborhood. For this joint goal, South Korea and Japan should try to understand and respect each other’s positions, and must work together to start a new chapter in South Korea-Japan relations.
Lee Hong-koo is the former Prime Minister of South Korea.
*Translator’s Note: “Dual identity” refers to being both Asian and Western.