U.S. Expert on Korean Affairs Calls for Reframing of Tokyo-Seoul Relations By Means of Statesmanship

April 11, 2014

Video: Japanese Only

Scott A. SnyderScott A. Snyder,Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)

Ken JimboScott A. Snyder,Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University

Yasushi KudoYasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO

A senior American scholar on Korean affairs, in a recent debate in Tokyo, called on the top leaders of Japan and South Korea to exercise statesmanship in reframing the strained Tokyo-Seoul relationship in mutually positive terms.

"This is going to be an extraordinarily challenging and difficult process because both of these countries are democracies, and because public opinion is confused," admitted Scott Snyder, a senior scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the United States.

In this connection, he acknowledged that "civilian diplomacy" is absolutely essential as a component of reframing the relationship in order to support statesmanship-like initiatives by the two leaders - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

A Senior Korea Studies Fellow and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy of the Washington, D.C.-based CFR, Snyder made these remarks during a debate organized by The Genron NPO on the occasion of the international symposium on civil diplomacy held at a Tokyo hotel March 29.

Also present were Ken Jimbo, an associate professor at the Faculty of Policy Management, the Department of Policy Management, Keio University, and Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO, who served as moderator of the discussion.

Asked to comment on the trilateral summit, brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama to involve Abe and Park in The Hague on March 25, Snyder said that the framework for a good relationship between Japan and South Korea "appears to have been stabilized."

"We've seen the emergence of a kind of competition between Japan and South Korea for support from the United States on specific issues. And that puts the United States in a very uncomfortable position," observed Snyder.

"We don't want to be in a situation where Japan is lobbying us on the one hand and South Korea is lobbying us on the other. And we don't want to be in a situation where we call the alliance with Japan a cornerstone and we call the alliance with South Korea a linchpin, and Japanese and Korean diplomats are running to their dictionaries to see which one is more important," he said.

According to Snyder, it is a higher priority for the United States for allies to cooperate with each other in the context of Washington's policy of rebalancing U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific region.

Apparently, President Obama felt that it was very important for Prime Minister Abe and President Park to meet in advance of his trip to Asia, he acknowledges. "Otherwise, he would have ended up spending all of his time in Tokyo talking about Japan-Korea relations and all of his time in Seoul talking about Korea-Japan relations. Now I think he will be able to talk about important issues in the U.S.-Japan alliance in Tokyo and important issues in the U.S.-Korea alliance in Seoul as a result of the fact that this meeting has occurred," he said.

Jimbo shared the significance of the trilateral summit in The Hague with Snyder, noting that the level of military and security collaboration among the United States, Japan and South Korea has been lowered due to soured Tokyo-Seoul relations.

"The Hague meeting has finally returned the level of trilateral cooperation, which has been strengthened on a step-by-step basis since the late 1990s, just to zero from a minus figure," Jimbo commented.

In his observation, collaboration between the U.S. troops in Japan and in South Korea is of crucial importance for the U.S. forward deployment strategy, and so is the restoration of trusting relations between Japan and South Korea.

"It seems that the U.S. administration is apprehensive about the emergence of history issues in the new developments marked by the birth of the Abe government in Japan, the Park administration in South Korea and President Xi Jinping's leadership in China. As a first step in restoring stability in Northeast Asia, the United States zeroed in on the removal of the shackles created by historical issues between Japan and South Korea," Jimbo said.

Asked what are the root causes of strained Japan-South Korea ties, Snyder recalled that bilateral relations were at a high point when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung signed a joint declaration in 1998. "Certainly, that declaration had a big effect on public opinion in Japan, to the extent that South Korea began to be viewed very positively as a partner of Japan. I think that public opinion remained positive until 2012 when President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islands of Tokdo/Takeshima," he noted.

"But on the South Korean side, we didn't see a similar jump in support, and following that joint declaration we also saw the persistence of historical issues between Japan and South Korea. Problems on textbooks, problems with visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the continued dispute over Tokdo/Takeshima, challenges to the historical consensus about the past: All of those issues served to erode or corrode, or stick in the throat of South Koreans. I think that gives us a hint about what might be needed in order to establish a more stable relationship, possibly through a new declaration in the future," Snyder acknowledged.

Jimbo also recalled the days when President Lee was in office and the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. "Japan-South Korea relations were so close that both governments almost reached final accords on the exchange of confidential military information. Regrettably, bilateral relations abruptly turned sour over the rekindling of the so-called "comfort women" issue and the dispute over the sovereignty of the Tokdo/Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan," Jimbo noted.

On the question of China's influence on Japan-South Korea relations, Jimbo admitted that there persists a tendency that sees China and South Korea act in concert against Japan whenever there emerges an inclination for Japan to turn politically to the right. "Nonetheless, South Korea would shift its national priority to its alliance with the United States or with Japan, should the North Korean situation turn serious, or were North Korea to carry out a new nuclear test or take provocative action against South Korea. This is a natural consequence of reshuffling priorities in international politics," he added.

Commenting on Jimbo's remarks, Snyder said that 10 years ago, South Korea advocated a balancing policy, which involved distancing itself from Washington in order to be in the middle between the United States and China. "But I think the Park Geun-hye policy is to engage China from the position of strength that is afforded by a close alliance with the United States. There's a strong rationale for Seoul to do this because they know that any contingency related to North Korea is not going to be resolved in South Korea's favor without cooperation from China," he said.

Snyder also observed that it is clear the Obama administration has recognized that it has to take an active role in creating an enabling environment for good Japan-South Korea relations. "I think that part of that approach has involved trying to create boundaries for Japan and South Korea, respectively, that will help to ensure that actions in Japan don't have a negative impact on perceptions in Korea and that actions in Korea don't have a negative impact on perceptions in Japan. If they do step over those boundaries, it comes at a risk to U.S. interests as a result of the deterioration of the relations between South Korea and Japan," he said.

Jimbo responded to his comments and said, "When it comes to alliance relationships, I sense the possibility of a perception gap developing between Japan and the United States. For the United States, the reinforcement of alliance relations with Japan is intended to hold in check the rapid rise of China. While checking China's moves, the United States also aims at incorporating China into the world order as a constructive actor.

"For Japan, meanwhile, the alliance with the United States almost wholly aims at holding the rise of China in check. Eventually, there is a possibility that Japan is becoming uneasy about U.S. nagging over its inclination to move toward the right and its relations with neighboring countries, thereby increasing Japan's stress level. We must overcome such perception gaps so that debates on the desired modality of alliance relations will go smoother," he said.

Excerpts of other remarks by the three speakers are as follows:

(On the findings of the Japan-Korea Joint Opinion Poll)

Kudo: The Genron NPO and its South Korean partner, the East Asia Institute, conducted a joint opinion survey on bilateral relations, the results of which were released last May as part of the First Japan-Korea Future Dialogue, a round-table forum both institutions jointly launched last year. The second annual forum is to be convened this May in Seoul. According to the survey results, some 60 percent of the South Korean respondents said they could not tolerate a Japanese prime minister's visit to Yasukuni Shrine either in an official or a private capacity while less than 40 percent could either tolerate it or allow it on condition the visit was made in a private capacity. And more than 40 percent of the South Koreans believed thorny Japan-South Korea relations would not be improved unless Japan's historical perceptions were rectified.

The polled in both countries also saw North Korea as the largest military threat. North Korea was cited as a military threat by almost 80 percent of the Japanese and 86.7 percent of South Koreans. Of the Japanese polled, China was mentioned by 60.1 percent, the second most frequently cited alternative. China was also cited as a military threat by 47.8 percent of the South Koreans polled. But a nearly matching percentage of 43.9 percent cited Japan as a threat to them. Meanwhile, only 12.2 percent of the Japanese mentioned South Korea as a threat.

Jimbo: Most Japanese take it for granted that despite the territorial row over the Takeshima islands, South Korea is an ally of the United States like Japan and the two neighboring countries would never go to war. The Japanese also believe that the thorny relations with South Korea will eventually be bettered in the long run. However, the perception by the South Koreans toward Japan is quite different and they regard Japan with suspicion in the belief that bilateral relations will never move forward until the history issues are solved. The findings of the survey clearly demonstrate this perception gap.

Kudo: Some Japanese politicians insist that Japan and South Korea share the universal values of liberalism and democracy, and therefore both countries will eventually be able to get along. The survey findings indicate that the shared values do not constitute a foundation for a relationship of trust between Japan and South Korea, as the legacy of Japan's past deeds toward Korea is deeply ingrained in the mind-set of South Koreans.

Snyder: I have three primary observations based on the poll results. First, even if Yasukuni is primarily a domestic political issue in Japan, it clearly has significant foreign policy ramifications for the relationship with Korea. That level of concern on the part of Koreans shows that a visit to Yasukuni will almost inevitably have an impact on the relationship.

The second observation is related to the challenge of grappling with history as a prerequisite for improving the relationship. I believe that the results reflect the fact that over the course of the past 15 years, South Koreans have in fact tried to improve the relationship with Japan, but they've been frustrated basically by the emergence of history issues. We all know that President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Obuchi had a joint statement, but I think it's also notable that a progressive South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, started out his tenure with the idea that Korea and Japan should have a positive relationship. Despite that initial positive approach, the situation turned very negative. I also think that conservative President Lee Myung-bak had the idea that there should be a better Japan-Korea relationship and yet under his administration, we also ran into problems in the Japan-South Korea relationship. So in some respects, I think what the Park administration is saying is, "Well, let's grapple with these issues once and for all as the factor that has to be dealt with in order to have a better relationship." Granted that may be a positive spin on a situation with a lot of negative aspects, but I think that's one way of looking at it.

And third, I think that the Korean attitude toward the possibility of Japan being a military adversary is itself a historical legacy. Certainly on the U.S. side, we don't see that, and when we talk to South Koreans, it's probably an issue where Americans and Koreans have pretty dramatically differing views. But, given that the problems with the Japan-South Korea relationship are political problems and that the public carries this perception, I think that in order to find a lasting solution, there is going to have to be a set of gestures that attempt to address that particular political aspect of South Korean public perceptions toward Japan.

(On the past achievements and the prospects for Japan-South Korea relations)

Jimbo: Despite the negative perception of the South Koreans toward Japan, resulting from the historical background, Japan and South Korea have continued strenuous efforts for the past 20 years to improve bilateral relations. One of the major achievements was the Kim-Obuchi joint declaration in 1998. In the declaration, Japan expressed its apology to South Korea for its annexation of Korea in 1910 and the ensuing colonization of the Korean Peninsula till the end of the last war while South Korea officially accepted Japan's apology. Regrettably, these political statements and other measures have not been penetrating into the hearts and minds of the peoples of both countries. There prevails a so-called "apology fatigue" among the Japanese public or a sort of backlash against South Korea's repeated demands for apologies from Japan while the South Korean public senses that Japan is beating a dead horse by repeated visits to Yasukuni and attempting to reconsider the Kono Statement, or the apology for the "comfort women" system issued on behalf of the Japanese government in 1993 by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. This is a serious problem. By objectively reconfirming and re-evaluating the achievements that have been built up over the past 20 years, both countries will be able to create a good relationship for the joint construction of a forward-looking new order.

Kudo: There is no doubt that political leaders did their best to work out political statements or accords in the postwar diplomatic process. The problem is that such diplomatic endeavors by politicians did not fully penetrate public opinion, nor were they accepted by the general public.

Snyder: My colleague and I started to think of components of a joint declaration (between Japan and South Korea), and we listed several steps, but what I found very interesting was that after we wrote the article, I went back and read the joint declaration that was signed in 1998, and most of the elements that we suggested actually were included in that joint declaration. So now I'm thinking about how we can go back to the past as a basis for trying to move forward in the future.

But, in the long run, I'm very optimistic about the relationship because both governments have indicated in their national security strategy documents that they have a strategic interest in a good relationship with each other. I know that there have been expressions of "Korea fatigue" here in Japan, so I think the most important thing that I can say is, "Don't give up."

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