The Debate

South Korea’s Irresponsible Diplomacy With Japan

Recent Features

The Debate

South Korea’s Irresponsible Diplomacy With Japan

President Lee’s island visit was uncalled for given Japan’s repeated apologies over its past.

(The following is a guest post from Jeffrey W. Hornung, an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI)

The Olympics is a time to lay aside political grievances and honor sportsmanship. Yet, when midfielder Park Jong-Woo displayed a sign reading “Dokdo is our land” after South Korea’s victory over Japan in the bronze medal soccer match, he gained the dishonorable distinction of being the only athlete at this Olympics to break this cherished tradition (and Olympic rules forbidding athletes from making political statements). He was subsequently barred from the medal ceremony.

The soccer match itself encapsulates Seoul’s recent approach with Tokyo. It was a fast-paced game in which, according to NBC announcers, South Korea came out extraordinarily aggressive, garnering three yellow cards in the first half. Soon thereafter South Korean President Lee Myung-bak earned himself a diplomatic yellow card by taking the unprecedented step of visiting islands controlled by Seoul but claimed by Tokyo (Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese) and issued a number of demands on Japan. This has arguably brought bilateral ties to their worst nadir since Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi administration, and while subsequent Japanese governments worked to repair relations in that case, do not expect this from Tokyo this time around. Lee’s diplomacy was irresponsible and the consequences will be long lasting.

On August 10, Lee became the first South Korean president to visit the disputed islands. While it demonstrated Seoul’s continued control over the islands, it was an overreaction to simmering strains. Japan’s latest Defense White Paper included its claim to the islands. This was nothing new, as Japan has made this claim numerous times, but it brought the territorial dispute back as the central bilateral issue. Seoul escalated the situation by announcing it would stage regular military exercises near the islands. At this critical juncture, instead of finding a way to de-escalate tensions, Lee visited the islands. The visit poured fuel on the already volatile situation, igniting a diplomatic firestorm. Lee defended his actions by telling the press that it was intended to push Tokyo to settle colonial-era grievances, which he claimed Japan has repeatedly failed to resolve. He subsequently demanded a “heartfelt” apology from Emperor Akihito for Japan’s colonial occupation and said that Tokyo should sincerely apologize for its role in recruiting comfort women. Tokyo has taken umbrage to all of these.

This is not because Tokyo refuses to acknowledge its history, but because it has already done these things. The often unrecognized fact is that Japanese government and society have made concerted efforts to understand, reconcile, and apologize for Japan’s wartime aggression. This includes teaching about Japan’s imperial expansion and aggression (i.e. Nanjing, comfort women, forced labor) in textbooks that, according to a recent Stanford study by Daniel Sneider and Shin Gi-Wook, presents an unpatriotic account of Japan’s role (i.e. not inculcating patriotism or glorifying the war). It also includes the establishment of the quasi-public Asian Women’s Fund to compensate comfort women, which dispersed a handwritten apology by the sitting premier to those receiving compensation.

Importantly, since the 1990s, there has been a flurry of apologies for Japan’s wartime aggression. This includes the 1995 Murayama Statement, which stands as Japan’s official apology. It was preceded and followed by dozens of other apologies and statements of remorse by premiers and the current Emperor. The list is large and includes statements issued directly to South Korea, such as when premiers Toshiki Kaifu and Kiichi Miyazawa apologized to President Roh Tae-Woo in May 1990 and January 1992, respectively, for Japan’s actions against the Korean people, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s comfort women apology in June 1996 to President Kim Young-Sam, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s December 2010 apology for the colonization of Korea, which included the return of some 1,200 volumes of Korean royal documents looted during Japan’s annexation. 

Despite this, the actions of individual Japanese politicians that counter these official efforts receive the majority of attention. This includes statements that contradict official apologies or politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where 2.5 million war dead are honored, including 14 Class-A war criminals enshrined in 1978.  Although these actions represent the personal views of a minority, they are often treated as representation of the dominant sentiment in Japan. In turn, they negate any positive forward-momentum gained by official government efforts.

These are markedly different, however, from statements made by a head of state like Lee, which have a claim of authority. Yet, in this case, Lee’s demands demonstrate a paucity of knowledge or an unwillingness to acknowledge Tokyo’s previous efforts. Or worse, they appear purely political. Lee’s popularity is lagging due to corruption scandals implicating his brother and close aides and his administration’s attempt to sign an information sharing agreement with Tokyo. Although constitutionally prohibited from running for re-election, Lee may be attempting to raise his party’s popularity before December’s election. At the very least, Lee’s actions tap into the country’s national pride.

Yet, from a diplomatic perspective, Lee’s behavior lacks logic as it unnecessarily escalates tensions. Although Lee’s visit was meant to press Japan to settle historical issues, it is unclear how provoking Tokyo will do this. Instead, it strains bilateral ties as continued calls for apologies produce a backlash in Japan, strengthening the hand of those who oppose conciliatory approaches. Tokyo summoned Seoul’s Ambassador to Japan to protest Lee’s visit and temporarily recalled its own Ambassador to South Korea.

Worse, Seoul and Tokyo face shared threats: the modernization of China’s military, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and the strengthening of Russia’s Far Eastern presence. As allies of the U.S., they are also responsible for helping ensure Washington’s rebalance to the region has substance. Lee’s move widens the gap between Tokyo and Seoul at a crucial time they should be finding ways to cooperate.    

The long-term consequences have the potential to be severe because Lee’s actions have put Tokyo in a position where it can no longer show flexibility with Seoul. Already Japan is considering how to internationalize the territorial issue, including bringing the case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It has not entertained this idea since 1962 out of consideration of bilateral ties. While a case cannot be heard unless all parties agree, it nevertheless has the potential of playing into Tokyo’s hand if Seoul refuses to engage, thereby “ceding the floor” to Japan on the international stage. Worse, bilateral ties could rapidly devolve. Tokyo is considering suspending all summits with Seoul, including an expected meeting on APEC’s sidelines this month and an expected visit to South Korea by Japan’s premier. The worst outcome is the possibility that China or North Korea may take advantage of the dissonance to leverage gains elsewhere. Japanese and North Korean Red Cross organizations met in August for the first time since 2002, where they discussed the repatriation of Japanese remains left behind after Japan’s occupation of the Peninsula. With their discussions concluding government involvement as necessary, both governments held a meeting for the first time in four years based on the principle of settling historical issues and restoring normal relations. They also plan to hold another one in the near future. Given that 2002 Red Cross Organizations’ discussions on Japanese abductees helped assist other efforts that led to the surprise September 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, it is possible Pyongyang could strike a separate diplomatic agreement with Tokyo on important issues like normalization.   

In the past, calls for Japan to face up its past resonated because, apart from reparations, the government was largely silent on acknowledging its past role. Not so today. As noted above, Japanese government and society have made numerous efforts to acknowledge and atone for past wrongdoings. A 1998 joint declaration with South Korea even articulated President Kim Dae-Jung’s acceptance of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s apology and expressed a need to overcome history and build a “future-oriented” relationship. When ambiguous demands like Lee’s recent ones for Japan to “face its past” or “sincerely apologize” are thrown at Tokyo now, it appears nothing more than a populist attempt to play the history card for purely political purposes.

Like the bronze medal soccer match, Seoul’s recent diplomatic behavior has been aggressive and demands a yellow card. While Lee’s Dokdo visit may have scored political points, the resulting bilateral damage demonstrates irresponsibility. Additionally, ambiguous calls for apologies or settling historical grievances need to be better articulated if Seoul hopes to achieve any positive effect. Although there is no agreement in South Korea on what constitutes an acceptable apology, Seoul should clarify how the Murayama Statement and the Asian Women’s Fund, and all other apologies, are wholly insufficient efforts by Japan to face its past. Maybe Seoul could explain why Tokyo’s word choice for apology (詫びる: wabiru) is linguistically inferior. Or, if South Korea is certain in its Dokdo claim, it should up the ante on Japan to take the dispute to the ICJ. In short, Seoul needs to proactively articulate what it wants instead of taking provocative actions and issuing ambiguous demands. Until it does so, actions like those recently taken by Seoul will only empower those within Japan who are tired of the history card being played for political purposes.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI and an Adjunct Fellow  with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for  Strategic and International  Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are solely his.