Poor Japan-ROK relations challenge for U.S.

The article was originally posted on The Japan News on November 9, 2013

  • Yuki TATSUMI
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki TATSUMI
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

At a recent conference on the U.S.-South Korea alliance in Washington, a former senior official of the Obama administration used the word "painful" to describe the U.S. perspective on the recent strain in Japan-South Korea relations. While carefully avoiding criticizing either South Korea or Japan, the former official reiterated that, as it faces security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, it is essential for the United States that Japan and South Korea--the two key U.S. allies in Asia--have a constructive relationship with one another. He expressed his "strong hope" that Japanese and South Korean leaders will come to see that focusing on both countries' common strategic interests will serve their individual national interests far better than prolonging the current tension.

As the United States explores ways to sustain its "pivot/rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region in a cost-effective manner, it will place greater emphasis on cooperation with allies. In particular, it will be increasingly important for the United States to see security cooperation broaden and deepen among its allies. In this context, the current diplomatic impasse between Japan and South Korea has begun to create a serious alliance management problem for the United States.

In the immediate term, a strained Japan-South Korea relationship not only makes policy coordination vis-a-vis North Korea extremely difficult but also makes practical security cooperation among the three almost impossible. Tension between Japan and South Korea also hinders trilateral cooperation in other policy areas, such as dealing with China and capacity-building in Southeast Asia. Despite the obvious convergence of interests, however, Japan-South Korea relations indeed have remained at new lows, with little prospect of improvement in the near future.

The heart of the tension between Tokyo and Seoul in the last several years has been "history issues." Namely, Seoul has expressed its grievances over the lack of a straightforward apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Its complaints have often been aggravated by Japanese political leaders' insensitivity toward such issues--including their visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and statements that appear to deny involvement by the Japanese government (particularly its military) in organizing the "comfort women" system under which a great number of Korean women were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese imperial soldiers during the war.

Washington has had its own questions regarding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's view of history. Most recently, in April 2013, he became the subject of intense criticism not only in South Korea and China but also in the United States when he referred to the "definition of 'aggression'" during a debate on the Diet floor. Abe's statement upset many in Washington who interpreted it as rejecting the legitimacy of the process of establishing the post-World War II international order. Because of its own doubts about Abe, Washington was more sympathetic to Seoul's intense criticism of Abe in the beginning.

However, incessant criticism of Abe by South Korean President Park Geun Hye and the South Korean government's persistent refusals to hold bilateral meetings with Japan even to discuss North Korean issues, despite the restraint demonstrated by Abe for the last several months, have led many in Washington to question the South Korean government's intentions.

While Washington continues to urge Japanese political leaders to exercise maximum restraint in their behavior to prevent further aggravation of the "history issue," it takes the view that merely demonizing Japanese leaders accomplishes very little. Rather, Washington is concerned that the nonstop diplomatic assault from South Korea could alienate a critical population in Japan--moderates who advocate a robust security role for Japan while believing in facilitating Japan's reconciliation in Asia.

They are right to be concerned. Many Japanese feel that Japan has apologized enough. And they have a point. Seoul's criticism of a lack of individual compensation for "comfort women" fails to consider the activities of the Asian Women's Fund. This ¥11-billion fund established by the Japanese government, with approximately half of its funding coming from private donations by Japanese citizens, offered the victims cash compensation and other assistance.

Even regarding the apology by the Japanese government, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued an official statement in 1995 that said: "Japan...through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology." Ever since then, the statement has been honored by all of his successors. In short, the criticism that "Japan has not apologized" is simply inaccurate.

In addition, the recent rulings by South Korean courts ordering Japanese companies to pay cash compensation to those who were subject to forced labor during World War II upset a great number of Japanese, including moderates. When Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations in 1965, the two countries also signed a separate agreement on the settlement of wartime claims. Under this agreement, Japan agreed to provide large-scale financial aid to South Korea, and South Korea agreed to relinquish its right to claim wartime compensation in return. In other words, it was the South Korean government that chose to forego the right to claim wartime compensation.

Many Japanese interpret the South Korean government's lack of response to the court rulings as a sign of unwillingness to honor those agreements, which served as the foundation of Japan-South Korea relations after normalization.

Although some in Washington urge the United States to play a more active role, the United States is unlikely to put itself in a position of seeming to side with one ally over the other. In the meantime, given the renewed vocal criticism by Park against Japan during her recent visit to Europe, Tokyo and Seoul are unlikely to reestablish channels for dialogue at senior political levels anytime soon. However, nuclear and missile threats from North Korea and other shared security concerns make it imperative that Japan and the Republic of Korea reestablish policy consultation at least at the working level. Washington should continue to encourage Tokyo and Seoul to compartmentalize their dialogue on the "history issues" and reenergize bilateral dialogue on issues of bigger strategic importance. Abe and other political leaders in Japan should support such U.S. efforts by not taking actions that give critics an excuse to continue their demonization of Japan, while better articulating Japan's past efforts in reconciliation with its Asian neighbors.

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