Changes in the Japan-South Korea National Identity Gap
The roller coaster of relations between Japan and South Korea has taken a sudden jolt with the December 28, 2015 agreement on “comfort women.” Some anticipate a turning point, stabilizing relations at last. Others skeptically warn that a downturn could occur again because the emotions on both sides are primed to be aroused by a new provocation. Concentrating on the “comfort women” issue—the central symbol of recent mutual distrust—does not suffice for understanding what has gone wrong or may lie ahead. With this issue declared “finally and irreversibly” resolved, there is new need to pay attention to how other signs of a national identity gap are changing. The legacies of Abe Shinzo and Park Geun-hye will be enduring, even if Abenomics is failing and Korean progressives gained in the April 2016 National Assembly polls.
In 1971 Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong appeared to be as irreconcilable foes as any leaders in the Cold War era, but they went down in history as the leaders who found a path toward two decades of dramatically increased cooperation and trust. A decade later Ronald Reagan loomed as the most demonized foe the Soviet Union had faced in the Cold War era before his reconciliation with Mikhail Gorbachev proved even more transformative in increasing cooperation and trust between enemies. For Abe and Park to go from implacable foes— beyond any personal antagonism in ROK-Japanese relations since at least the end of the Cold War (apart from Roh Moo-hyun vs. Koizumi Junichiro and Abe in 2005-07)—to partners in an historic agreement evokes parallels to these earlier breakthroughs. Comparisons must not only address the national security and economic explanations that have been cited for the earlier cases, but also the national identity explanations that apply to them and to today.