[Viewpoint] Interests, not emotionKorea’s Supreme Court’s ruling this past week on the legality of claims by Korean victims of Japan’s labor conscription policies during World War II is certain to complicate the already complex relations between the two East Asian neighbors. But before every politician on the peninsula jumps on the “bash-Japan” bandwagon, serious thought must be given to the importance of stable Seoul-Tokyo relations for Korea’s well-being.
First, it is a historical fact that without Japan’s help in the 1960s, Korea could not have achieved the country’s remarkable economic growth. In the 1950s, U.S. aid specialists predicted that Korea would grow no larger than a war-torn, agriculture-based rural economy. These predictions were so terribly wrong because they did not account for the role that Japan would play in Korea’s steel and chemical industry boom.
Japan’s provision of money, skills and material were certainly not out of a sense of philanthropy, and were largely forged through U.S. cold war pressures, but the result is that Korea has outgrown anyone’s expectations and indeed has surpassed Japan. Samsung Electronics’ gross sales revenues today amount to more than the top three Japanese competitors combined. That is an extraordinary testament to Korea, but this could not have happened without Japan.
Second, though it may not seem so today, Japan is critical of future unification contingencies. A collapsing North Korea would traverse the political and economic interests of all the major players in the region. From a Korean perspective, it is important that these countries are international advocates of Korea’s vision for unification, not opponents of it. In this regard, it becomes important to cultivate Japan’s support as a country that shares common democratic values and that has inordinate influence in the international institutions in which unification would be deliberated.
Third, Japan comprises a critical part of any answer to the strategic question of how Korea should deal with the rise of China. This is because China’s treatment of Korea will always be determinative of Korea’s relations with its two key regional partners, Japan and the United States. Contrary to the popular view that Korea must avoid too close a relationship with its two democratic friends in Asia for fear of alienating China, Beijing’s respect and treatment of Seoul heightens when the latter is not feuding with its traditional allies. To put the algorithm simply: Strong U.S.-Korea-Japan ties enhances Seoul’s leverage in dealing with China. Weak ties only give China more leverage in dealing with its smaller neighbor to the south.
Many Koreans would chafe at my analysis because they cannot get past the historical anger. Indeed, this anger has limited Lee Myung-bak’s efforts to improve Korea-Japan relations despite being the most pro-Japan president in Korea since Park Chung Hee.
But opportunities to improve relations are truly afoot. In my meetings with government officials and experts in Seoul this past week on the occasion of the Joongang Ilbo-CSIS conference, I learned that Seoul and Tokyo have completed negotiations on two key security agreements: the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), and the Acquisition of Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). Gsomia would allow Seoul and Tokyo to systematically share intelligence on the North. ACSA would promote the sharing of military supplies and services between the two countries.
These agreements undeniably benefit Korea, but they are being held up in part because of concerns about historically-motivated political opposition to Seoul’s conclusion of security agreements with its former colonial oppressor. Delaying these further is ill-advised. The current government cannot run for office again, so the domestic politics of these agreements, though painful, have no lasting political consequence. And both agreements would help to enhance deterrence against future North Korean provocations.
Finally, Seoul should drop its opposition to establishing a trilateral secretariat for U.S.-Korea-Japan relations. Such a secretariat would not be simply to copy the creation of the Korea-Japan-China office, but would represent an important institution for furthering coordinated trilateral alliance cooperation that builds on Gsomia and ACSA. Moreover, with operational control transfer approaching in three years, coordinated trilateral relations will become more important to formalize.
Again, Koreans will dislike all of these recommendations, but the Japanese bureaucracy’s incredibly incompetent ability to finesse, even a little, historical irritants like textbooks, Dokdo or comfort women (Korean women forced into sexual slavery)should not stand in the way of a rational calculation of South Korean interests.
* The author is a professor at Georgetown University and the Korea chair at the CSIS.
by Victor Cha