Relations with Japan can improve

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Relations with Japan can improve

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Michael Green

In my January column, I asked six questions about Korea in 2014, including whether relations with Japan would get back on track. I concluded that a Korean-Japan summit would be hard, but working-level cooperation on defense and North Korea would improve. A month later, I see slightly more room for optimism. Part of this was prompted by my invitation to meet with a combined session of the Korea-America Student Conference and the Japan-America Student Conference in Washington, D.C., on January 30.

In several hours of discussions with these conscientious young men and women, I heard Japanese students acknowledge that their history classes taught too little of the past; Korean students confessed that their media focused only on bad stories about Japan; and students from all three countries resolved to work together based on their common humanity and commitment to living in a more democratic and peaceful world.

So how might a Korea-Japan summit happen this year? A visit by Park Geun-hye to Tokyo or Abe Shinzo to Seoul seems unlikely on its own. The spotlight and pressure to resolve all bilateral issues would be too great. There could be a summit of the China-Japan-Korea trilateral forum in Seoul, but Beijing is holding Abe at arm’s length and appears in no hurry to help patch up Korea-Japan relations since the current tensions benefit Chinese foreign policy.

Park and Abe could also meet on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September in New York. It is even conceivable that President Barack Obama might host a trilateral summit since the UNGA would be on American soil. Then there are the East Asia and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits in October and November in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, and Beijing, respectively.

There are several hurdles to restoring the trust necessary to host a Korea-Japan summit by the end of the year. However, none are insurmountable.

The first is the Blue House uncertainty about whether Abe will visit the Yasukuni Shrine again or take other steps that inflame Korean public opinion in the interim. Abe is not saying what he will do and many of his closest advisers were surprised that he visited the shrine in December. However, the prospects of a shrine visit in 2014 are very low. In polls, a plurality of Japanese narrowly approved of his visit to the shrine in December, but a clear majority said that he should not go again. Abe fulfilled his campaign pledge to go in his first year - but he never made a pledge to go regularly.

Other concerns include Takeshima Day on Feb. 22 and the proposal for new Japanese textbooks in March, some of which will likely include references to Dokdo as Takeshima and claim the island as Japanese territory. If the Japanese political leadership refrains from participation in these developments, they will remain irritants in bilateral relations but not necessarily major obstacles.

The Japanese side is nervously watching events in Korea as well. If the Korean Supreme Court upholds the judgments of lesser courts last year that Japanese companies must pay compensation for forced labor practices during World War II, then Japanese firms may divest from Korea, and the Japanese government may order the rest not to pay compensation. This would be a calamitous economic and political development.

Observers in Tokyo are particularly nonplussed that the Korean government is unwilling to send an amicus brief to the court explaining that the 1965 Korea-Japan normalization settled all compensation claims, something the U.S. government and virtually all others have done in response to similar lawsuits.

Japanese political leaders also see President Park’s continued efforts to erect a monument to Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin, China, as highly provocative. To Koreans, Ahn is a national hero, but the man he assassinated, Ito Hirobumi, is a national hero in Japan.

Japanese political leaders on the center and center left are not pressing Abe to compromise on these points and generally agree with his government’s wait-and-see attitude toward Seoul. Officials and politicians in Tokyo remain somewhat pessimistic about the Supreme Court issue, but while a decision on forced labor compensation could put Korea-Japan relations into a deep freeze, it might also force Seoul and Tokyo to move into more active problem-solving in the bilateral relationship. After all, every crisis is a potential opportunity.

The issue of comfort women is possibly the most difficult hurdle in bilateral relations because the emotional scars are so deep in Korea and because Abe has been identified as a leading critic of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s official apology in 1993. Abe’s promise to issue a new “forward-looking” statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015 has led many observers in Seoul to conclude he intends to revise or move away from the Kono apology next year.

This view is too pessimistic. Abe’s government has already stated that it stands by the Kono Statement and has said little about what might be in a statement next year. Korean diplomacy should aim at shaping a statement that reinforces Japan’s remorse and apology but looks to expanded cooperation, much like the 1998 joint statement between Kim Dae-jung and Keizo Obuchi. It is worth remembering that the 1998 statement was the result of intensive diplomacy over the course of a year - all the more reason why Seoul and Tokyo should not remain passive about bilateral relations right now.

Whether an Abe government would agree to official compensation to the surviving comfort women is a harder question, but it should not be the primary issue the two governments try to address. Indeed, both sides have reasons to avoid expectations that a summit would resolve all contentious issues.

One reason for keeping the door partially open is North Korea. Historical patterns and current reporting on North Korean activities around its nuclear sites suggest that Pyongyang may be gearing up for yet another dangerous provocation this spring. Exogenous crises put the Korea-Japan troubles over history in a different context and remind both sides why they need to work together in the face of challenges to the values and interests they have in common.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green

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