SEOUL — While cash-strapped and war-weary Washington may welcome Tokyo’s plans to broaden the role of its self-defense forces, opinions in South Korea range from skepticism to outright hostility.
Many South Koreans, still resentful of Japan’s brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, view any hints of a resurgent Japanese military as a threat and foreshadowing of renewed expansionist ambitions.
Japan’s pacifist constitution prohibits its military from becoming involved in most combat situations. But faced with a rising and increasingly assertive China — not to mention dangerous North Korea — Tokyo is seeking to expand its self-defense role.
That effort was bolstered when the U.S. and Japan recently announced they would review their defense cooperation guidelines for the first time since 1997, an apparent signal of Washington’s support for a greater Japanese military role in the region.
“Our goal is a more balanced and effective alliance, one where our two militaries are full partners, working side by side with each other and with other regional partners to enhance peace and stability,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in Tokyo on Oct. 3 following a bilateral defense meeting.
Historical grievances and territorial disputes, including Japan’s perceived refusal to fully apologize for its use of sex slaves during the occupation and its continued claims to disputed islets, typically evoke more emotional responses in South Korea than North Korea’s frequent threats of war. However, South Korean analysts say that in the face of aggressive China and North Korea’s worrisome nuclear weapons program, Seoul has few options but to maintain a friendly relationship with Japan.
“South Korea will be understanding and accepting of the U.S. boosting the Tokyo-Washington alliance to some extent,” said Cho Sei Young, an international relations professor at Dongseo University in Busan, adding that Washington is unlikely to do anything which would seriously hurt its alliances with either country.
Japan and South Korea are scheduled to hold talks in November on security issues for the first time in three years, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While a MOFA spokesperson said no agenda has been set, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported the focus will be Japan’s efforts to rewrite its constitution to allow an expanded role for its self-defense forces.
“Japan’s defense security should be transparent and done in a manner that eases the concerns of its neighbors regarding their past history, and contributes to peace and stability in the region under the basic ideology of (Japan’s) peace constitution,” MOFA said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.
“Since Japan is already familiar with the reason its neighbors are concerned, we hope Japan establishes its defense policies transparently in order to solve such concerns,” the statement added.
Within South Korea, the U.S. is widely viewed as showing favoritism to Tokyo by signing the agreement.
“Even though the Americans were trying to help Japan expand its role in Asia and lighten their own burden, I think what they did was an extremely one-sided measure if you consider all of Asia,” said Lee Sincheol, a research professor at the Center for East Asian History at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.
Ha Jong Moon, a professor of Japanese studies at Hanshin University in Osan, said Washington’s position hit “the South Korean government’s sore spot,” and dashed hopes that the U.S. would pressure Tokyo to address historical grievances with its neighbors.
Park Hwe Rhak, a professor at Kookmin University’s Graduate School of Politics and Leadership in Seoul, said the U.S. and Japan should have been more cautious in their announcement.
However, he said in an email to Stars and Stripes that while the U.S. should have been more “prudent” in reflecting Asian concern about Japan’s future role, “the U.S. will not allow Japan to cross a certain line and will not risk the (South Korean)- U.S. alliance to please Japan.”
“Most of all, South Korea should keep in mind that the strong ROK-U.S. alliance will be the iron wall against an expanding Japan,” Park said.
Previous Japanese apologies for colonization are routinely criticized by South Koreans as insincere.
Japan’s handling of its historical grievances often evokes unfavorable comparisons to Germany, which, South Koreans often note, has not shrunk from acknowledging its responsibility for the Holocaust and has compensated victims and successfully rebuilt relationships with its European neighbors.
While speaking to reporters in Seoul earlier this year, the Japanese ambassador to South Korea, Koro Bessho, warned that both countries need to engage in closer military cooperation in hopes of deterring North Korean aggression.
He also urged both countries to keep historical grievances from becoming diplomatic issues. However, such pleas have done little to soften the hostility many South Koreans feel, even those born decades after colonization.
“Beaters forget about that they attacked someone,” said Jeong Kyung Won, 26. “But those who were beaten never forget about it. We don’t forget about Japan’s past actions because we’re victims.”