Advice to Abe
Opportunities to improve Korea-China-Japan relations are starting to emerge. The first was the trilateral foreign ministerial meeting on March 21. In the first such meeting since 2012, the foreign ministers agreed to work on holding the three-way summit meetings more regularly and more often.
A week later, President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met at the funeral of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Abe expressed his appreciation for President Park’s commitment to the foreign ministerial meeting and said he hoped for a leadership summit as well.
It’s entirely up to Abe as to whether that summit will happen or not. In the past three years, trilateral relations backtracked substantially as Abe tried to deny Japan’s aggression in the past. A year ago, Abe made a remark suggesting that he had no intention of inheriting the historic Murayama statement from 1995 and said he may make his own statement this summer on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He infuriated former victims of Japanese aggression by arguing that there was no agreed upon definition for “aggression.”
On the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe will mark the occasion with three important speeches. The first will be in Bandung in Indonesia on April 21. The Asian-African Conference, which began there in 1955, has special significance as the first event at which former colonies in Asia and Africa voiced their stances. The second is an April 29 address to the U.S. Congress. It will be the first such honor for a Japanese prime minister.
But both are mere rehearsals for the speech Abe will give on August 15, the anniversary itself.
Abe has received plenty of advice on his August 15 speech, and most of it stressed the same point. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Japan last month, she explicitly told Abe that he should look to the German model and face the past directly and honestly. She said Germany squarely confronted its dreadful wartime past and when Germany made heartfelt apologies, neighbors - especially France - showed tolerance.
On the wartime sexual slavery issue in particular, Merkel told Abe to reconcile with Korea.
“Japan and South Korea share values,” she said. “It’s better to resolve the issue properly.”
If Abe finds such advice from a foreigner uncomfortable, then he should listen to Japanese opinions, some from on high. On April 2, Crown Prince Naruhito made a statement on his birthday. He urged Japan to “look back humbly on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history.” Abe’s close aid Shinichi Kitaoka, former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations and deputy chairman of the August 15 speech preparation committee, also had blunt words for Abe in March.
“Japan fought a war of aggression,” he said. “It did really dreadful things. It’s clear. I want Mr. Abe to say, ‘Japan committed aggression.’”
Will Abe embrace this advice? His words will determine many things. The United States needs to pressure Abe to repent for past misdeeds more clearly. After World War II, the United States did not hold the emperor accountable for the war in order to keep stability in East Asia. The emperor did not abdicate either. Due to that misjudgment, Japan did not have to go through the painful reconciliation process that Germany did. For the sake of the U.S. as well, reconciliation between its two East Asian allies, Korea and Japan, is essential. Therefore, President Barack Obama should press Abe on the comfort women issue just as Merkel did. If Abe is given a warm reception in Washington without any pressure, the United States will face backlash from Asia.
Abe’s three speeches should be future-oriented. The August 15 speech could be a heaven-sent gift. He will lose a precious opportunity for improved relations with Japan and China if he dodges his responsibility. If Abe is worried about resistance from his conservative political supporters at home, he should find courage from two historic precedents.
Charles de Gaulle was a great patriot of France. When he became president in 1958, the French right wing rejoiced. However, they soon attacked de Gaulle for approving the independence of Algeria. But believing the Algerian war was ruining the French economy, he pulled out and began building a new France. Abe needs to overcome the demands of revisionists who maliciously deny the ugly truths of the past.
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also left a lesson. Ten years ago, when Japan had friction with Korea and China over Yasukuni shrine visits, he attended another commemorative conference in Bandung. Chinese President Hu Jintao gave him the cold shoulder. But he made a speech of sincere repentance for the past and changed Hu’s mind. The two men met. That is what true political talent can achieve. Instead of struggling to deny undeniable facts, Abe must use the three speeches to atone for the past.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 16, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie