Abe the bridge burner

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Abe the bridge burner

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Nam Jeong-ho

The worst part of the Shinzo Abe government’s so-called re-examination of the Kono Statement is not its continuing denial of history. What’s more shocking is Tokyo revealing diplomatic secrets that should have been kept confidential. No one expected Abe would cross such a clear diplomatic line for purely domestic political purposes.

Diplomatic secrets are necessary evils. During the time of absolute monarchies in Europe, diplomatic confidentiality was maintained and secret diplomacy was widely used. Royal families made secret deals to divide colonies, and hush-hush envoys were sent to different countries across Europe. The 17th century Baroque painter Rubens was a secret messenger for the Spanish Hapsburg family. As he traveled all over Europe at the invitation of various royal houses, he was the perfect man to spy on foreign countries and send secret messages.

The confidentiality of European diplomacy was faced with a壹serious challenge in the early 20th century. In November, 1917, Vladimir Lenin toppled imperial Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution. When he came to power, he went about destroying taboos. He revealed secret diplomatic documents from the rule of the Tsar. They contained the Russian imperial family’s attempt to collude with Japan and Great Britain to take over and divide Persia and China.

Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s fellow revolutionary and foreign affairs commissioner, disclosed the secret treaties and said, “Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests.”

To the Soviets, back-door diplomacy might have been a tool of the exploiting class, but it too had to resort to it before long. It was later learned that the Soviet Union sent a delegation to Tibet and contacted the Dalai Lama in the early 1920s in order to prepare a foothold in Asia. After World War II, the Cold War intensified, and the Soviet Union continued to pursue secret diplomacy.

The United States is a country of ideals and much transparency. President Woodrow Wilson believed that World War I was caused by under-the-table deals between nations, and as the war was coming to an end, he announced Fourteen Points to establish peace. The first was to have “no private international understandings of any kind.”

However, even the United States couldn’t avoid the practice of secret diplomacy. The peace agreement with Vietnam in 1973 was a product of secret diplomacy between the United States and North Vietnam. It has also been revealed that the Iranian nuclear crisis came to a dramatic end last year thanks to the secret diplomacy of the Obama administration. In June 2013, centrist figure Hassan Rouhani was elected president, and Obama sent an envoy who had five secret meetings in Oman and other locations.

Why do countries need to keep secrets in diplomacy? Negotiators can be frank when they can trust that their conversation will not be made public. In a diplomatic negotiation, a diplomat may have to reveal challenges that a country is faced with and ask for concessions. Sometimes, he can tell lies for the national interest. British politician Henry Wotton said, “an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

Just as in all negotiations, the basic rule of diplomacy is give and take. You can get what you want by conceding other things. Sometimes, you may have nothing to offer but a promise to return the favor in the future. But in a complicated world with complex interests, any diplomatic policy could benefit one side more than the other. Therefore, if the negotiation process and contents are revealed, domestic interest groups would not let the deals be made.

Not every truth should be revealed. There are confidences that should be taken to the grave. Most notably, a confession made to a priest, the identity of an informant who provides information to reporters, a patient’s medical history and personal information exchanged between a client and his lawyer. These must remain confidential. So too with diplomatic secrets.

This is not the first time that a Japanese government has disclosed diplomatic secrets of a previous administration. In 2009, the Democratic Party government of Yukio Hatoyama disclosed a nuclear-related secret agreement made during the revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. It stated that the United States did not have to notify Tokyo in advance when taking nuclear weapons into Japan. When the Japanese government unexpectedly made that secret agreement public, Washington was infuriated.

This time, the Abe government mentioned the name of the Korean foreign minister and disclosed the conversations with Seoul during the drafting of the Kono Statement. A high-level foreign ministry official said, “Abe has just burned the last remaining bridge between Korea and Japan.”

Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong summoned Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho and said, “From now on, not just Korea but no other country will have diplomacy based on trust with Japan.” Even the Japanese media deplored the impact on Japanese diplomacy in the future. At this rate, people may think that Korea should not deal with Japan until Abe exits the political stage.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 27, Page 32

*The author is a senior writer on international affairs of JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Nam Jeong-ho


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