Hard questions for Park and Abe

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Hard questions for Park and Abe


I was dissatisfied with Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Washington, but not for the same reasons as most Koreans. I watched the two leaders stand in the Rose Garden for a joint press conference after a historic summit, and the first question from the American media was whether the Japanese prime minister would offer an apology to the estimated 200,000 women enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army to serve in comfort stations.

Really? This was a watershed state visit. The United States and Japan released new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines that, among other benefits, will better deter North Korean aggression and reduce the chances for a Sino-Japanese flare-up in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands. Both of these outcomes are good for Korean security. The two leaders moved a step closer to consummating the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), also an outcome that would facilitate Korea’s eventual joining of the most important free trade pact since KORUS. But despite all of this, the only question that sets the metric for the entire summit is on the comfort women?

Of course, the comfort women issue is critical for Abe to address. But with his visit to Washington now concluded and President Park’s trip to the White House scheduled for this summer, I think there are much more pertinent questions to be asked of both leaders.

Abe’s response to the reporter’s question satisfied no one. Analysts and experts looked for three words in the Japanese prime minister’s various commentary on the issue in Washington, in Boston and at the Congress - a characterization of Japan’s wartime actions as “aggression”; a reference to “colonial rule”; and an expression of heartfelt “remorse.”

Instead, Abe referred to the comfort women as “victims,” who suffered from “human trafficking” and had their rights “infringed” upon during the war. The semantics of those statements have become so important largely because Tokyo’s responses reflect intricate and careful legalisms rather than heartfelt remorse.

But after rehashing this conversation so many times in the run-up to the summit, I believe the most difficult question on the issue is not one for Abe, but for the South Korean public: If a Japanese prime minister like Abe were to use those three words - “aggression,” “colonial rule,” and “remorse” - in the context of a statement about the comfort women, would South Korea be willing to accept such an apology and truly move on to a final solution? The all-too-easy answer is to reject any Japanese statements as tactical rather than genuine. Continuing to deny Japan any right of contrition is politically safe ground for most people, unfortunately.

The hard question for Abe is not about the comfort women but about his defense policies. All of the prime minister’s statements on national security during his time in the United States this past week were written in response to a dominant narrative in the media and expert community that questions the motives behind all of Tokyo’s activities. That is, with the expansion of its security profile, is Japan truly trying to resurrect the strength of its wartime imperial days? Abe’s answer to this narrative has been to speak of expanding Japan’s defenses in the context of Tokyo’s contribution to global citizenship.

In his own words, “Now, Japan wants to be a country that can respond to such [global] calls. Hand in hand, we want to work together with the United States to spread basic values throughout the world such as those of freedom, democracy, basic human rights. … And we want to be a country that can contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world.”

But the really hard question is not whether Abe talks the talk about global citizenry, but whether he is ready to walk the walk. Is the new Japan willing to put lives on the line, or is it all just soaring rhetoric camouflaging checkbook diplomacy? Is Japan willing to authorize the deployment of forces and assets in hostile environments? Is it willing to see Japanese lives lost to defend freedom of navigation, to fight for democracy, and to protect human rights?

These are much harder and more meaningful questions that need to be answered, rather than whether he has any closet nationalist dreams.

*The author is a professor of government at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Victor Cha

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