Old wounds cripple new ties

LAST week, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made a historic visit to the Dokdo islands, sparking howls of protests in Japan, which calls the islands Takeshima.

The visit highlights one thing: A dispute has become really bad when those involved deny that there is a dispute in the first place.

For its part, Seoul insists that the islands - located 87km from the nearest South Korean territory and 158km from the nearest Japanese land - is an "integral part of Korean territory".

Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, which dedicates a page to Dokdo, adds for good measure that "no territorial dispute exists regarding Dokdo, and Dokdo is not a matter to be dealt with through diplomatic negotiations or judicial settlement".

The Japanese base their claim on historical precedents, arguing that they had incorporated Takeshima into Shimane prefecture in 1905.

Tokyo also insists that there is no dispute. In 2004, for example, members of a right-wing group set sail for Takeshima. Tokyo's then envoy to Seoul, Mr Toshiyuki Takano, enraged scores of South Koreans when he told reporters that he did not understand the fuss, given that the islands were Japan's.

Claims by both South Korea and Japan are extensive, and documented in colourful brochures which are available on their official websites (interestingly, both offer such brochures in 10 languages). But the antagonism between them lies deeper than a cluster of islands set between the two neighbours.

Yes, there are abundant fish resources around the islands, but the dispute is not merely about economics. And even though a landmark deal for intelligence-sharing between the two countries was torpedoed by South Korean politicians last month, the dispute is also not just about politics.

Rather, the crux of the dispute lies in history, or more specifically, Japan's refusal to make amends for its wartime past.

Speaking earlier this week, Mr Lee accused Japan of ignoring demands to resolve issues arising from its harsh rule over Korea between 1910 and 1945. This includes "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II.

"A powerful nation like Japan can resolve such issues if it decides to do so, but it has shown passive attitudes due to domestic political reasons. So I felt the need to show (Korean grievances) through action," Mr Lee said.

South Korean anger towards Japan is understandable.

On Monday, a group of students swam 230km from an eastern port in South Korea to Dokdo. In 2004, a mother and her son sliced off their little fingers in protest at what they called Japan's "resurgent imperialism".

Wariness about Japan is not restricted to South Korea. Recently, a Straits Times reader faxed a letter to me, after I wrote about how Japan and South Korea could work together in regional affairs. Japan's participation in such affairs, he wrote in Chinese script, harks back to its wartime "East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere".

It isn't too difficult for Japan to soothe its neighbours' feelings: Rather than express mere "remorse" about Japan's wartime aggression, Tokyo should come clean and apologise for its crimes.

But that seems easier said than done.

According to Mr Ian Buruma, the author of The Wages Of Guilt: Memories Of War In Germany And Japan, Germany follows a Christian culture of "guilt" while Japan adheres to a Confucian culture of "shame". While Germany has taken massive strides to admit its wartime guilt and made restitution, Japan has gone to extraordinary lengths to silence people who remind the country of its misdeeds.

For example, a Japanese diplomat in New Jersey recently called for the removal of a monument to Korea's comfort women. Just two days ago, two Japanese ministers visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the country's wartime dead and leading war criminals.

The onus, however, is not only on Japan.

South Koreans might want to try forgiveness. As derided as the concept is in the world of international relations, forgiveness goes a long way in settling historical feuds.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that "an eye for an eye makes the world go blind". Writing in the Korea Times in 2010, Hyon O'Brien was even more direct: "We can no longer wait for repentant Japan to bow down and apologise sincerely for the past accumulated wrongs to Korea. Can we learn from Mandela and Jean Valjean? We need to exercise forgiveness to heal our two nations. Isn't it about time?"

Mr Nelson Mandela stands out as one of the best examples of forgiveness. After spending 27 years in South Africa's prisons, he refused to retaliate against those complicit in apartheid. Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, is a classic example of how a man redeemed himself after having been forgiven for past misdeeds.

In the end, it would be a pity if Japan and South Korea cannot set aside their past and work together. Both are flourishing capitalist democracies dedicated to regional stability and prosperity. As military allies of the United States, a Japan-South Korean axis can arguably serve as a brake on Chinese ambitions in the region.

The case for South Korean-Japanese cooperation is compelling. That said, Japan's lack of contrition and South Korea's inability to forgive stem less from the head, and more from the heart. And matters of the heart, as everyone knows, are notoriously hard to settle with rational argument.