Contemporary discussions of the free trade agreement in East Asia have indicated the willingness for more economic interdependence in the region. There is no doubt that the East Asian FTA will enhance trade and advance regional economic growth. However, recent territorial disputes, along with ethno-nationalism rooted from historical conflicts, have proven to be significant barriers to an accord. There seems to be more focus on the past, rather than potential progress and economic benefits.

The chilly relationship between South Korea and Japan continues to be a significant obstacle to agreements in East Asia. Although contemporary conflicts, like the Dokdo/Takeshima Island conflict, are present, a broader lens and historic overview of World War II atrocities (the issues of comfort women, Yasukuni Shrine, etc...) reveal a deeper cleavage. Although much of the conflict stems from history long past, the issue is long lived due to the lack of complete reconciliation between the two states after World War II. For the past decades, South Korea has antagonistically viewed Japan, while Japan has continued to ignore its past war crimes. The underlying clashing conditions between the states are continuing to halt political and economic progress among the two states.  

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Physical violence between South Korea and Japan halted with the end of World War II, but reconciliation will make progress and agreements much smoother.

The main issue at hand is the fact that South Korea demands an apology from Japan, while Japan continues to deny its past actions. Objective studies of World War II present evidence of Japan’s war crimes, so the fact that Japanese atrocities occurred is without doubt; thus it may be just for South Korea to desire retribution. However, such a zero-sum mindset would only politically humiliate the Japanese government and socially shame the Japanese people, creating further enmity that can lead to more future conflicts. For the sake of reconciliation, no single state should get the better end of the stick.

Perhaps a restorative justice approach, similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Post-Apartheid South Africa, can create a path towards a culture of peace and reconciliation between the two states. The TRC sought to reveal the truth behind the atrocities and crimes committed during the Apartheid, while the perpetrators were granted amnesty if their crimes were judged to be solely politically motivated. Through series of conversations between victims and abusers, South Africa was able to transition into a more peaceful state. With amnesty and truth revealed to provide closure for the victims, there was benefit to both sides.

Similarly, the theory of restorative justice’s emphasis on mending past conflicts through active cooperation of both parties and evasion of zero-sum situations with winners and losers can be imitated by South Korea and Japan to pacify the long lasting clash. The two states need to bring back the harmonious attitudes which was present during the Korea–Japan Talks that led to the Treaty of Basic Relations during the 1950’s. Even a simple cooperative study of World War II with leading scholars from both states involved to seek the truth could make great changes in attitudes. With the truth set, a public, joint commission of Japanese and South Koreans to promote and normalize contemporary dialogue would be a significant step towards reconciliation.

The two neighboring states will continue to grow more and more interdependent, both economically and politically, in today’s globalized society. Continued pessimistic focus on history and conflicts will only lead to wider cleavages, as shown by the delayed trade agreements. In contrast, an amicable relationship, with a focus on mutual, collective development, will play a vital role in the newly proposed FTA and prove to be beneficial for both countries. It is time to let go of past differences and search for harmony.

Choi is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Political Science & Peace and Conflict.