S. Korea-Japan: Time for Outside Mediation?
Image Credit: President of South Korea (website)

S. Korea-Japan: Time for Outside Mediation?


“Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes!”

This old Russian proverb comes to mind whenever I think of current Japan-South Korea relations.

The Japanese, it would appear, are eager to forget the past, while the Koreans can’t seem to see beyond it. Isn’t it time for America’s two key Northeast Asian allies to work toward a better future with both eyes open?

It some instances the flare-ups represent mere political opera with little of real substance at stake. But the latest cause for tension – the ROK government’s cancellation of both the June 29 signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and its plan to pursue an equally sensitive (but sensible) military Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Japan – has serious national security implications and also affects Washington’s relations with both nations. It also cost one of South Korea’s more forward thinking strategists, senior presidential secretary for national security strategy Kim Tae-Hyo, his job. His “sin”? He put Korea’s national interests ahead of public opinion.

GSOMIA is not some nefarious plot, as some critics in South Korea are making it out to be. It’s a fairly routine agreement outlining procedures which would help facilitate the sharing of classified defense-related threat information dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and other potential common security challenges. It would also make trilateral defense cooperation with Washington easier for both. Seoul has similar agreements with some two dozen other countries and is talking about negotiating a similar agreement with Beijing (an effort that seems aimed more at generating political cover but would be useful nonetheless, but only after moving forward with the Japan agreement). An ACSA allows for logistical cooperation when both are engaged in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and peacekeeping operations. Both pacts, long overdue, were scheduled to be signed in May. Unfortunately, that’s when public opinion and national emotions took over in South Korea, turning what Professor Jeffery Hornung described as “a practical, forward-looking effort to strengthen relations between two vibrant democracies facing shared security challenges” into “another casualty of the complexities of politics and history.”

The announcement of the impending signing provided opposition politicians – especially those who pander to citizens with lingering anti-Japanese feelings  – with a political windfall they have chosen to shamelessly exploit. Ruling party politicians have been equally shameful in their response – I guess it’s too much to expect political courage in an election year (a malady not unique to South Korea, I would hasten to add). The South Korean press has also seen fit to help inflame rather than help inform the public about the importance of such agreements.

The Lee Myung-bak administration continues to pay lip service to the agreements, saying they have not been scrapped but merely shelved until a more propitious moment. No one sees that moment coming before the December ROK presidential elections, however, resulting in more precious time being wasted. Ironically, along the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia earlier this month, ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan joined U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba in agreeing to form a trilateral consultative body to “promote peace and stability in Northeast Asia.” But will genuine consultation and real world cooperation be possible between Seoul and Tokyo without GSOMIA and an ACSA? It’s hard to imagine how.

In discussing the history issue, most Japanese and Korean interlocutors seem to agree on only one thing: the ball is in the other one’s court. Japanese claim, not without some merit, that Tokyo has both acknowledged and apologized numerous times for the crimes of World War Two; “how much longer,” they ask, “are we to be punished for the sins of our great-grandfathers.” But other Japanese can’t seem to resist keeping the flames alive, claiming the past never occurred or, more frequently, that it wasn’t as bad as critics claim (as if it’s somehow OK if “only” 80,000 Korean women were forced into sex slavery rather than the 200,000 that some Koreans claim). Official Japanese government protests against “comfort women” statues which are springing up in the U.S. as well as in South Korea further inflame the situation and prompt even more statues to be commissioned.

Note to Tokyo: it’s called “freedom of expression”; it’s what happens in democracies. Ditto to South Koreans who insist that the government of Japan issue a formal apology every time some private citizen or parliamentarian utters a preposterous statement denying what everyone knows is fact. Democracy 101: go back and read the rules! If President Obama had to apologize for every foolish remark made by a member of the U.S. Congress, he would never get off his knees.

I have long argued that the most sensible U.S. response to the history debate is to say and do as little as possible. When faced with a lose-lose situation between two allies, it is normally more sensible not to play the game. But, like it or not, U.S. territory has now become part of the extended battlefield, and U.S. security interests are being at least peripherally affected. Seldom has a situation seemed more appropriate for a preventive diplomacy intervention than the current “comfort women” dispute between Tokyo and Seoul. The history dispute goes beyond the forced sexual slavery of Korean (and Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, and other, including even Japanese) women by the Japanese Army during World War Two, of course, and there are territorial issues to boot, but the “comfort women” issue has become the poster child and rallying point and must be dealt with first.

As an ally and trusted friend of both nations, Washington is well situated to play the mediator role, assuming both sides ask for the intervention — the first rule of preventive diplomacy is that outside assistance is voluntarily sought and accepted. President Obama should privately offer to provide an impartial mediator to help craft a statement that both sides can accept in order to help finally settle or at least depoliticize this issue. Someone like former President Bill Clinton or former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft comes quickly to mind.

President Lee, along with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, has a golden opportunity to help Koreans and Japanese face the future with both eyes open by seeking and accepting outside mediation to put this cancerous issue behind for the sake of both nations. Or he, and the people of Korea (and Japan), can remain consumed and blinded by their tragic past.

I fully understand the importance of public sentiment in a democracy but am also reminded of comments attributed to a former U.S. President,  who when reportedly asked if he knew what the American people really thought about a particular issue, relied “I know what they damn well ought to think about it.” That’s called leadership, and that’s what’s really needed to get beyond the past.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, HawaiiThis article was originally published by Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet here, and represents the views of the respective author.

August 29, 2012 at 14:03

I feel reluctant to say this to my (mostly) nationalist brethren, but the truth is, we Koreans should be taking the first step to get things right, not as a victim towards a perpetrator, but as one of two equals who must ultimately co-operate in discussion. In retrospect, we've never really offered Japan a gesture of pure reconciliation in the sphere of purely democratic politics (so no, the 1965 Agreement, signed under a military junta, counts not). Shame on us if we lose our heads over the comments of some right-wing Japanese politicians and Imperialist groups, but shame on them if they fool us with tokenistic and hypocritical reconciliatory gestures. I'm not saying we should forget it – history still provides us with valuable lessons – we should forgive, yet not forget.
But on the subject of "losing our heads," the public distrust of Japan in Korea is tremendous, and this only amplifies anti-Korean sentiment in Japan, which in turn sparks more distrust and angst in the Korean populace, and so on and so forth until we end up with an endless loop of hate and dirty comments. In Orwellian terms, it's summed up nicely in this anecdote: "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks." (Politics and the English Language) It's a cycle in which the cause of action, spurred by the debate between the governments of S.Korea and Japan, only serves to amplify the effect, reinforcing the cause. To me, this is just plain stupid. I personally admit that at times, I still do take the Korean opinion on issues such as the Dokdo/Takeshima issue, but I think this entire distrust, with the sentiment stating that "Japan will use the agreement to take over Korea," is just out of proportion. People. It's an information and logistical agreement, for goodness' sake, not a tacit acceptance of subservience to Japan.
Kudos, however, to the author for mentioning this point:
"But other Japanese can’t seem to resist keeping the flames alive…"
The problem with this is that these "other Japanese" are obviously our far-right-wing nationalist Nazi wannabes. Almost every country in the world with a democratic society plays host to these supposed nutjobs, and there's nothing we can do about it without violating the principle of freedom of speech. I get outraged when I read Japanese ugyoku-dantai members' comments. But I'm equally disgusted when I see the disconcertingly frequent Korean netizens' comments about how another A-bomb should be dropped above Tokyo to "clear these Japs' heads," and I find myself one of the few clicking the "disagree" button when there are about 10 to 100 times that number compelling themselves to agree to such.
What both sides have wrong, which serves, in my unprofessional opinion, as the basis for this distrust and hate, is the confusion of the state and the people. I've been to Japan, stayed with a Japanese family and for a short time attended a Japanese school, and, despite the image that the media tries to convey to many Koreans, many sensible Japanese, mostly youths, are actually quite considerate towards the Korean viewpoint, hold strongly pacifist "never-again" views alike to those held by many Germans, and simply want peace between the two countries. Unfortunately for them, the far right of Japan have, despite their relative minority, an exponentially louder political voice than they do, and, in an unfortunate series of sentiment and subjectivity, all Japanese, including these people, who are obviously vital to this Korea-Japan discourse, are sucked into this whirlpool of negative stereotypes held by the Koreans, and the conservative Japanese government, only trying to woo its more vocal political adherents, drags a lot of Japanese society into this general and unjustified hatred of Korea. This is the same with the current Korean government, which seemingly uses anti-Japanese sentiment as a political wildcard. The message we need to get across to the Koreans is this: the Japanese are a respectable people, and we can learn from them – indeed, we already have on many levels. Whilst the far right Japanese viewpoint that "Korea wouldn't've been what it is today without the Occupation" is questionable, it is an indisputable truth that Miracle on the Han would have been utterly impossible without close reference to the Japanese economic model.
And to those pacifist Japanese unjustly hated on, know this: in our increasingly intertwining world, S.Korea and Japan will find that they have no choice but to accept that our two nations need each other in peace and in times of trial. Come this epiphany (the GSOMIA being the first albeit belated step to this), people like you will be worth a hundred times your weight in gold in the development of a truly peaceful Northeast Asia. As Japan's economy stagnates, S.Korea, which in comparison is still developing strongly, will have to act as a key economic partner. And, as a both optimistic and pessimistic believer in the theory that Korea will unite not long from now, the current Japanese youth will have to play a key role in deciding the future of Korean society, whether we Koreans like it or not.
Whilst I find the reluctance to accept historical fact on the part of the Japanese government deplorable, so too do I, seemingly with many others on the international stage, find the scrapping of this historical agreement to be equally regrettable.
As an ethnic Korean born in and attending high school in Australia and studying Japanese amongst other things, I've found myself exposed to the (often emotionally spurred) Korean, (predominantly ultraconversative) Japanese and international opinions on this. I feel compelled to support Korea, as well as all the other victims of Japanese imperialism, yet stand in neutral, objective ground, and call for all sides to attempt to find some sort of consensus. Us youths, untainted by the subjective hatred of our conflicting forbearers, should expect an important role – if we don't strive to observe and discuss objectively, reconnect ties and make amends, we'll be stuck with two countries forever bickering, throwing away their potential towards each other in the backdrop of a unifying world society.
I apologise to any unfortunate souls reading this (and hell, even the moderator who'll have to read over this) for this long post. But the inconvenient truth is that even this sort of discourse will be ignored in the mutual, and lately more pronounced, animosity between the two sides, if we as the international community don't play an active role in the near future.

August 14, 2012 at 10:12

If you can't agree with one's apology then why wait more talk nothing happen it's time to fight the only way to express both  your hatred and anger towards each other. 

August 6, 2012 at 02:53

Until the Koreans have spent a few years being vassals of the Chinese, they will never understand.
But, if they understood the actions of thier people who first fought the Japanese with the help of the Chinese but then had to fight the Chinese once they won , so they wouldn't take thier country, they will never understand.
Stand strong, Korea, the Chinese took the North from you already, dont let them take the South as well.

Jim from BC
August 1, 2012 at 21:34

This isn't a golden mean situation where both sides are equally to blame. The Japanese committed horrible atrocities and have never truly faced up to them as a society and to this today try to paint themselves as the victims. If the Japanese government and people could adopt a policy of honesty and openness about the crimes of the Japanese Empire, both diplomatically and at home in their education system and their history books and museums they would not only be able to hope for a reset with korea, but with all of their neighbours. Taking an honest look at their own history might do wonders for their societies mental and emotional health as well. The Americans have never done enough to encourage reflection in Japan and they've left a festering wound. These historic shames need to be faced, it's no different from the Armenian Genocide in Turkey or Vietnam in the US or the Civil War in the american south. Once you start lying to yourself about history you find that more and more lies are needed until one day you turn around and your entire culture has been rewritten to accomodate one lie.

August 1, 2012 at 16:30

the US to the rescue, and it needs to do this, without the US looming large SK and japan would be bickeruing non-stop but the U.S needs their cooperation for any asian plans it has.

July 31, 2012 at 08:50

The only way I can imagine ROK and Japan doing it, is if the US is willing to play the role of the "bad cop", so both sides can say to their public "the americans forced me to do it", then that can provoke some anti-americanims. But… Hey! That is leadership, is in it?

J. Berkshire Miller
July 30, 2012 at 19:08

This is a timely piece. A strategic partnership between South Korea and Japan is not just important but essential to US policy in North East Asia. This is an important aspect of the rebalancing effort in Asia – not just military basing and hard talk at rivals, but innovative diplomacy aimed at shoring up traditional allies. I also hope that the GSOMIA does not die as a result of nationalist posturing – this would not be in the interest of Tokyo or Seoul.

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