WASHINGTON – In late December, South Korean activists stationed a statue of a young woman across from the Japanese consulate in Busan. Seated upright in a chair with her hands clasped in her lap, she stares intently, solemnly toward the consulate.
The statue offended Japan’s government so much that this month it recalled its ambassador in Seoul and the consul general in Busan, and put major economic cooperation discussions on hold. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself urged the removal of the statue and called U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to complain. The statue represents a long-standing point of tension between Japan and South Korea — Korean women, often referred to euphemistically as “comfort women,” who were trafficked into sexual slavery for the Japanese military before and during World War II. Japan and South Korea concluded a historic agreement at the end of 2015 that led the two governments to declare that, if the agreement was fully implemented, it would be considered a “final and irreversible” resolution to the comfort women issue.
Japan sees the statue as a taunt that violates the spirit of the agreement. But Japan’s high-level response to an action by a civic group outside of Seoul’s control makes a mountain out of a mole hill. It’s an appalling error in strategic judgment that will endanger Japan-South Korea ties at a time when unity among U.S. allies is critical to deterring regional aggression. The United States must steer Japan toward a stance that reduces tensions and advances Japan-South Korea relations.
Japan could have limited its response to diplomatic channels or lodged a public protest. Instead, by recalling its ambassador and cutting cooperation, it dramatically elevated the profile of the dispute and linked unrelated government cooperation to the actions of a civic group outside of Seoul. These actions stoke South Korean doubts about Japan’s sincerity in addressing its wartime wrongs, and empower critics of Japan.
For perspective on the depth of anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea, consider that Japan in a 2015 Pew survey received 80 percent or better approval ratings in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia but a dismal 25 percent in South Korea. The Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, found that Koreans ranked U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin far above Abe, whose ratings in South Korea from 2014-2016 tracked more closely with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The relationship is especially vulnerable in South Korea this year because President Park Geun-hye, whose administration negotiated the comfort women agreement, has been impeached on corruption charges. Contenders are lining up for a new presidential election. Japan is an easy mark in South Korean politics, and the comfort women agreement’s association with the unpopular Park makes it even more likely to become a campaign issue. Leading candidate Moon Jae-in has already called for renegotiation of the agreement.
Japan should have kept South Korea-Japan relations stable to limit the issue’s potency in a turbulent election. Japan should also have actively expanded cooperation efforts that benefit South Korea, demonstrating to the South Korean public that good South Korea-Japan relations are indispensable. Instead, Japan has empowered its critics in South Korea over a statue.
The downturn in relations comes as South Korea-Japan unity becomes more important than ever for deterring and punishing regional aggression. Kim claimed in his New Year’s address that North Korea is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. China continues to build military fortifications on the South China Sea outposts it has occupied, allowing it to project force across the region. Cross-strait tensions between China and Taiwan simmer. If others can divide and conquer the U.S. alliance system over a statue, we are in trouble.
Japan must let symbolic irritants lie for the broader cause of a strong South Korea-Japan relationship that serves shared strategic interests. Moreover, Japanese officials should know better than to expect that a governmental agreement would quickly do away with deep-seated resentments dating back to Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. If Japan is serious about the relationship, it should demonstrate it by going above and beyond the letter of the comfort women agreement to explore additional reconciliation gestures and facilitate real reflection on Japan’s history among scholars and in textbooks. At the very least, Japan should avoid stoking tensions during a South Korean electoral cycle. The Abe government should reverse course and work to expand cooperation while keeping discussion of the statue in diplomatic channels.
The U.S. must be frank with its allies: whichever ally bears the blame in Washington for unraveling the Japan-South Korea relationship will find that there will be costs for the bilateral alliance. The next U.S. ambassador to Japan should make the case to conservative members of Abe’s party that further historical reconciliation serves Japan’s security interests. Effective U.S. gaiatsu (Japanese for “external pressure”) — is critical to move Japan and South Korea beyond where they would otherwise go on reconciliation and cooperation.
It was Abe’s great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, who as prime minister in 1965 normalized relations with South Korea. The negotiations had sputtered for 14 years until the most conservative factions within the Liberal Democratic Party, motivated by hard-line anti-communism, concluded that a strong, stable South Korea and good Japan-South Korea ties were strategic necessities in the face of Soviet and Chinese threats.
Today, too, it falls to Japan’s most conservative elements to put Japan’s long-term interests first. As Chinese aggressiveness increases, and as countries in the Asia-Pacific hedge against an unpredictable U.S. commitment, Japan has a unique opportunity to assert itself as a strategic player.
Japan has a commendable record of global contributions and a bright future. But if Japan fails to effectively handle its past, it will become a captive of it. That would be a shame.
Mintaro Oba is a former U.S. Department of State diplomat with responsibilities for South Korea-Japan relations. © 2017 The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency
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