America and Japan-Korea relations

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America and Japan-Korea relations

U.S. policymakers are watching with growing concern as Japan-Korea tensions continue to flare up over Dokdo and history. But what can the United States do? I posed this question to a number of senior Korean officials recently to see if there was room for a more proactive stance the United States could take to ease the friction now dividing our two critical allies in East Asia. I heard my friends’ various answers and then tested some of the proposals on Japanese colleagues in Tokyo. The exchanges did not produce any easy answers, nor did they necessarily represent the consensus Korean government view (I suspect there may not be a consensus view) but the back-and-forth may be thought-provoking for those seeking a positive way forward.

Several of my Korean interlocutors strongly urged the United States to press Japan to just be quiet about the Dokdo issue. I pointed out that there was virtually no chance that Japan would coercively seize the islands and that the Japanese case was being made primarily through textbooks and diplomatic channels, which posed no physical national security threat to the Republic of Korea.

When I recently asked senior Japanese officials and politicians about this idea of treading more softly on Dokdo (which Japan calls Takeshima), the response was fairly consistent. I was told that Japan would not renounce its claims, which Tokyo considers solid, but that it was in Japan’s interest to take constant care not to pursue their case in ways that did serious damage to relations with an important democratic neighbor. That was somewhat reassuring.

However, everyone I met in Tokyo was livid about President Lee Myung-bak’s sudden visit to the islands and took particular umbrage at how the President talked about the Japanese Emperor. Japanese politicians, officials and journalists of all ideological stripes seem unified on this point. Even reporters from the liberal Mainichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun privately complained about President Lee’s statement regarding the Emperor. Meanwhile, Japanese have begun asking why Korea is the only country that refers to Akihito as “king” (“even the Chinese use ‘emperor,’?” was a common refrain).

A second point made to me by some senior Korean officials was that Japan should accept the Korean Supreme Court’s decision to allow claims against Japan by victims of the annexation period, in a departure from previous Korean and current Japanese interpretations of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and Korea. I noted that no Japanese political leader could accept that proposal, nor could I think of a single Japanese politician (though there may be some in the Communist Party I don’t know) who might do so at some point in the future.

The problem is not only political - it is also legal. If Japan reopens itself to claims with Korea, then trial lawyers around the world would demand that the United States, Britain, Holland, Australia and every other country that signed a peace treaty with Japan after the war do the same. The Japanese government and corporations would be subjected to a deluge of law suits. There might be a moral case for that outcome in some peoples’ minds, but as a practical matter it is hard to see a bilateral Japan-Korea negotiation going there, even if the United States pushed, which is also highly unlikely.

A third theme stressed by many of my Korean friends and interlocutors was that Japan must offer a serious and sincere apology once and for all. True, they acknowledged, Prime Minister Murayama issued an official apology from the Diet in August 1995 and Prime Minister Obuchi expressed his sincere remorse and apology for the past in his joint statement with President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, among other statements of contrition by Japanese leaders in recent decades.

But my friends rightly pointed-out that other Japanese politicians have undermined those positive statements with remarks about comfort women or the annexation period that leave a lasting and painful impression in the minds of the Korean people. I tried to tease out in discussions what a lasting and sincere apology by Japanese leaders would look like, in contrast to those given by Murayama or Obuchi.

It could be a matter of more detail, or perhaps a unanimous statement from the Diet. The problem is that the Japanese politicians and public have reached what numerous observers call “apology fatigue.” How does one reopen negotiations on a new apology when a younger generation of Japanese feels less connected to events seventy years ago, and when political leaders who thought the issue was closed are increasingly under pressure to stand tall for Japan in the face of repeated insults to national dignity from China and Russia?

There may be a scenario in which a future Japanese government works with Seoul to issue a new and more robust apology, but the likelihood is that this could produce even more rebuttals and criticism from the media and politicians than the 1995 or 1998 statements did.

Some in Washington argue there must be some way to intervene, to put pressure on Japan, on Korea or on both. Others say that these problems are cyclical and will get better after elections in both countries. I am not sure either premise is correct. Elections account for part of the current problem, but there are other factors, including the Korean Supreme Court’s decision, continuing churn in Japanese politics, and the frustrations of younger Koreans and Japanese who cannot find a good job.

If the U.S. government has a role, it is to keep focused on common purpose vis-a-vis North Korea and to encourage Tokyo and Seoul to be open and forward-looking in the search for greater mutual trust. Opinion polls and everyday life suggest that Koreans and Japanese share common democratic values and have increasingly warm views of each others’ societies. More detailed exploration of the problems of history and territory may best be handled at the second track by think tanks, scholars and civil society. That approach will not produce quick results, but may be more likely to yield lasting results over time.

* The author is a senior advisor and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green
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