Seoul-Tokyo ties at a crossroadsSometimes an expressionless face can be a more eloquent testimony than a thousand words or a fierce face. At the Korea-U.S.-Japan summit in The Hague, President Park Geun-hye replied to the greeting by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Korean with an expressionless face in what amounts to a classic example of an eloquent message. Abe probably put much effort into memorizing the greeting in Korean, which could have been difficult for a Japanese speaker. But Park kept her wooden face. The exchange is a symbolic expression of the gloomy future of Seoul-Tokyo ties, although the two leaders managed to sit down together for the rare tripartite summit at the instigation of U.S. President Barack Obama.
In the diplomatic arena, it was an extremely extraordinary event. The international media’s response will determine the evaluation of Park’s tactics. But one thing is clear: There is a possibility that the ultra-rightists in Japan will raise their voices again and worsen Korea-Japan relations. The Sankei Shimbun, a conservative newspaper, started the offense with an editorial writer’s column. Quoting “Politics as a Vocation” by Max Weber, it attacked Park’s attitude as a political sin. It also criticized Park, using skillful indirect narration, as a fool who does not know the weight of a matter and its priority.
Hiroshi Furuta, an international politics professor at the University of Tsukuba, criticized Park’s attitude as “nationalist childishness.” The Tokyo branch office of the JoongAng Ilbo received phone calls from Japanese people asking how she could have behaved liked that. We cannot rule out the possibility that this sentiment could spread across Japanese society. Instead of being satisfied with dealing a blow to the Japanese prime minister, who has often made ludicrous comments, the Korean government must start a “Plan B” toward Japan.
According to an article from The New York Times on March 26, the White House has focused its efforts in the last three months to persuade Korea and Japan to attend the trilateral summit through Obama’s invitation of the two leaders to the U.S. Embassy, with a promise to discuss only the nuclear issues of North Korea, a key topic for all three countries, excluding any sensitive issues such as Japan’s historical perceptions and its wartime sexual slavery. Obama telephoned Abe on March 6 and proposed that the three would meet together, and on the same day, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy met with Abe at a luncheon and gained his agreement. When the three leaders met, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the East Sea, as if it were a salute. It was as if the North celebrated Obama, who succeeded in arranging the meeting of Park and Abe.
A Korea-Japan summit that omitted the history and sexual slavery issues is incomplete. The largest beneficiary of the Korea-U.S.-Japan summit on North Korean nuclear issues is Obama. After suffering a critical wound to his image as a world leader from the Crimea-Ukraine crises, he showed that he had successfully mediated the icy relations between Seoul and Tokyo — the largest obstacle in the Northeast Asian cooperation — and seized the opportunity to make up for his loss in Eastern Europe. But the tripartite summit produced little progress on the nuclear issue. The three leaders only agreed to have a meeting of the three countries’ chief negotiators at the stalled six-party talks and a deputy vice ministerial-level trilateral meeting. The three leaders emphasized the principle of a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, actually turning back the clock of the thorny nuclear negotiations.
At the summit, Obama and Abe stressed the importance of security cooperation among the three countries and Obama demanded that Korea join the missile defense regime, jointly pushed by Washington and Tokyo. That is a significant issue that will bring about turmoil to Korea-U.S.-China relations. China is watchful of the Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation, treating it as a network to encircle it. China continuously strengthens its posture to counter Japan as a part of a battle for hegemony between the United States and China in the West Pacific. China’s recent revelations of historical data on Japan’s wartime crimes, its support to Korea by building the Ahn Jung-geun memorial in Harbin and its plan to show a movie featuring the Korean independence hero are a part of Beijing’s Pacific strategy. The Korea-U.S.-Japan summit actually put a heavy burden on Korea in its diplomacy with the United States, China and Japan rather than resolving the problems. The only satisfaction will be the optimistic expectation that the leaders of Korea and Japan can meet again and possibly repair the two countries’ ties.
Park’s meeting with Abe at the recent trilateral summit is a signal that separating security and North Korean nuclear issues will be the basic framework of Korea-Japan relations. Taking into account the grave geopolitical demands of Northeast Asia — symbolized by the reckless provocations of the North — separating security and nuclear issues from other grievances in Seoul-Tokyo ties will be unavoidable. Then, Korea has to normalize its functional relationship with Japan in the security field so that it can jointly cope with North Korean issues. But it has to take a three-dimensional approach to other pending issues through multiple civilian and government channels, multi-level diplomacy using global opinion, and careful cooperation with China.