Why South Korea and Japan still can’t put the past behind them

ONE HUNDRED years ago this week, 33 Korean intellectuals called for independence from the colonial overlord, Japan. Its gendarmes struggled to contain the revolt this sparked, in which over 800,000 Koreans took part. At least 900 Koreans were killed. In one notorious incident police locked protesters in a church and burned it down.

To mark the anniversary, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is encouraging hundreds of commemorative events in the coming weeks. Japanese diplomats are nervous about the beating Japan is to get. For Mr Moon, the founding of a provisional government by exiles in Shanghai, as the March 1st movement was being suppressed, more neatly marks the birth of modern Korea than the creation of the Republic of Korea in 1948. After all, that took place, somewhat embarrassingly, under American tutelage. The first president, Syngman Rhee, was a dictator. And only two years later the country was plunged into a civil war that has left the peninsula still cruelly divided today.

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History is messy and painful. Even today few Koreans acknowledge that millions of their compatriots collaborated with the Japanese. Far better to define the Korean character as emanating, pure and brave, from a far-distant moment when it revealed itself in opposition to a monster. For some politicians, Japan-bashing is part of the point.

But relations between Japan and South Korea are bad enough already. Mr Moon has undermined an agreement between his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, meant at last to resolve the issue of Korean “comfort women”—tens of thousands forced during the second world war to have sex with soldiers in imperial army brothels. In return for (yet another) Japanese apology and ¥1bn ($9.3m), South Korea was to stop using the issue as a diplomatic wedge, and to remove the statue of a comfort woman outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Half of the money has gone unpaid, and the statue remains.

Things got worse last year when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese industrial giants to compensate South Koreans forced to work for them during the war. Japan is furious. It says the treaty of 1965 establishing formal relations settled all colonial-era claims in return for $800m, $6.3bn in today’s money, in aid and loans. (The issue of the comfort women arose later.) The South’s then dictator—Ms Park’s father, Park Chung-hee—used the money to kick-start development rather than succour victims.

Then, in December, Japan claimed a South Korean destroyer in the Sea of Japan had locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese maritime-surveillance plane—highly provocative, if true. Denying it, the South Korean government accused the plane of buzzing an operation to rescue a stricken North Korean fishing vessel. This is a sensitive sea: South Korea is neuralgic over Japan’s claim to Dokdo, a remote group of islets.

At least relations among ordinary Koreans and Japanese are good—last year 7.5m South Koreans visited Japan. But as Park Cheol-hee of Seoul National University puts it, leaders are squandering the chances that warmth affords, at a time of growing regional peril. Certainly, Japan is to blame too. Its wartime apologies came thick and fast in the 1990s, when it was keen to be seen to be doing the right thing. These days Mr Abe and his government are more cynical—and fed up. It is popular to decry remorse as “masochism”. Mr Abe has even suggested that comfort women weren’t coerced.

Worried about its two allies falling out, America urges them to overcome historical differences. That’s blithe. The United States never acknowledges its own contributions to the region’s difficult history. In 1905 it gave Japan a free hand in Korea. As the occupying power in the late 1940s, it put a stop to Japan’s lively examination of its wartime guilt in order to ensure the country was onside during the cold war.

In 1951, by evading the matter of rightful ownership when helping Japan draw a line under the war in the Treaty of San Francisco, America laid the ground for Dokdo’s present controversy. And leading up to the 1965 treaty, when America had bills to pay in Vietnam and wanted Japan to pony up in South Korea, it urged both sides to adopt only vague statements about “remorse for the past” in favour of looking to the future. Today’s problems are a reminder: a “future-oriented” relationship can’t start without a proper reckoning with the past.

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