With the ushering of the year 2017, global politics is heading for interesting times in which East Asia finds a special flavor.
President-elect Donald Trump assumes office on January 20. His articulation on some foreign policy issues, which smacks of political immaturity, has already started causing flutter. The US-China relations are destined to traverse through uncertain course following statements by Trump on his likely China policy. Taiwan issue has again taken the centre stage, which provides the fodder to be the caucus belli for what is feared a regional conflagration in the making, which could spill over and assume a global dimension.
Inter-state relations in East Asia remain bogged down on historical issues. Both China and South Korea do not hesitate to whip up passion against Japan as and when that suits their interests by racking up historical issues, which ideally should have remained buried long ago.
Though political understanding on other issues seems to have been achieved, there always remains an undercurrent of past incidents that periodically surfaces, threatening to nullify all the gains achieved in the economic realm. This is, unfortunately, the sad story of Japan, South Korea and China. North Korea is another country that keeps all countries in the region, including the US, on their toes by its nuclear and missile programs.
The latest in this unfolding saga of troubling times is the “comfort women” issue that bedevils ties between Japan and South Korea. The latest source of friction between the two countries is the installation of a girl’s statue, featuring a barefooted young girl sitting on a chair, representing females “procured” for the Imperial Japanese military’s wartime brothels, euphemistically referred to as “comfort women”, in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan. Before and during the World War II, thousands of Korean women were alleged to have been recruited by the Japanese military and forced into sexual service for Japanese soldiers in military brothels in the warfront. Historians say that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the War.
A similar statute was put outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011, which caused considerable disquiet and frictions between the two countries. After protracted talks, the two nations agreed on 23 December 2015, to what they described as a final and irrevocable settlement of issues involving wartime “comfort women”.
Prodded by the US and initiated by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the accord was reached in 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. Abe offered apologies to South Korea with a view to put an end to the unfortunate historical incidents.
That time, Abe had telephoned President Park Guen-hye and said: “I once again offer my sincere apology and remorse”. As per the accord, the Japanese government unveiled a plan through a foundation set up by the Korean government and agreed to provide 1 billion yen ($8.62 million) in funds to support former comfort women. Though Abe faced criticism from the conservative at home, he was ready to accept it in order to end a sad chapter in history.
As agreed in the accord, Japan paid in 2016 the committed government fund to support the handful of surviving women. Out of the surviving 46 “comfort women”, 34 agreed to accept the financial support. Japan believed the provision of 1 billion yen fund was premised on the removal of a girl’s statue representing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul although no official document was exchanged over the matter. Japan regrets that the statue is yet to be removed and now another has come up in Busan, making the relations look again ugly. The situation gets messy after President Park was impeached following domestic scandal, putting limits to any early prospect of solution. In principle, however, South Korea maintains commitment to implement the December 2015 accord.
Japan reacted by a series of countermeasures. It included recalling its ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine. This is going to aggravate the friction on the bilateral pact and prolong challenges. Japan also called back Yasuhiro Morimoto, its Consul General in Busan. Before returning to Japan, Nagamine said in Seoul that the erection of the girl statue, which symbolises Korean “comfort women”, as “extremely regrettable”.
It is believed that Busan authorities once removed the statue from the place but later approved its installation at the same site. Japan sees this as being inconsistent with the spirit of the accord reached in December 2015 to fully resolve the issue.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, warned South Korea that, besides negative impact on bilateral relations, the statue violates the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that defines a framework for diplomacy and obliges the host country to protect the “dignity” of a consulate.
Besides recalling the top diplomats, Japan took further retaliatory measures such as suspension of negotiations on a currency swap agreement and the postponement of high-level economic policy talks between the two countries. The talks on currency swap arrangement were to oblige the two countries to offer US dollars or other currencies to each other during a financial crisis. The larger impact of these countermeasures is likely to soon be reflected in the overall economic ties between the two countries.
As two of the strongest allies of the US in the Pacific, this acrimonious relation might pose another challenge to Trump. It is premature to hazard a guess if Trump shall be willing to play the role of a peacemaker between the two allies in order to pursue his “revised” China policy.
Earlier, a South Korean civic group, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, installed the “comfort woman” statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, which led to the 2015 accord. Even before the statue was to be removed, another civic group, Committee of Youth for Erecting a Peace Monument, came up with another one in Busan in protest against the deal.
Another dimension to this vexing issue that fuelled anti-Japan sentiment when a day before the new statue’s erection, Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on 29 December. This shrine honours Japan’s war dead, including convicted Class-A war criminals such as General Hideki Tojo, where official appearances anger South Korea and China. No wonder, South Korea’s foreign ministry called Inada’s visit “deplorable”.
These frosty relations between the two US allies have not come on the way of the trilateral effort to deal with the North Korean issue. As allies of the US, both host tens of thousands of US troops and all three share interest in halting North Korea’s development of nuclear and missile programs. During the latest Japan-South Korea-US trilateral at Vice Ministers’ level held in Washington on 5 December, US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken urged his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Shinsuke Sugiyama and Lim Sung-nam, to exercise restraint. This facilitated exchange of warm words between Sugiyama and Lim as North Korea presented a bigger challenge than the statue issue.
In particular, Blinken urged Japan with the advantage of having a stable government to exercise restraint and resist the pressure coming from right-wing nationalists at home that could inflame ties with Japan’s neighbours.
Though President-elect Trump is yet to articulate what his policy would be towards the two Asian allies, his tweet on Pyongyang’s claim to be in final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US that “It won’t happen!” indicates that he would adopt a tough stance on North Korea. Such a stance could help draw the allies to a common cause closely and foster understanding on other issues as well.
Suga has said that the recalling of the envoy is an “interim measure” and that Japan is judging the situation in a comprehensive manner. For a while, Japan is likely to wait and see how Seoul would respond and what action it takes to remove the statue. Abe even told US Vice President Joe Biden that Seoul is expected to carry out the agreement of December 2015 in a “responsible manner”. He observed: “It is not constructive to run counter to the accord.” Japan is likely to do its best to prevent escalation of the conflict by pressing Seoul to abide by the accord because maintaining security cooperation with South Korea amid concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs is too important to overlook.
As expected, South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed Japan’s countermeasures “very regrettable” and urged Japan to keep the dialogue alive “no matters what difficult problems we may face”. Before Ambassador Nagamine returned, Foreign Minister Yun Byung summoned the envoy to discuss the matter. Separately, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance also expressed regret on Japan’s suspension of talks to resume bilateral currency swap arrangements. The ministry expressed the view that economic issues should be kept aside of political and diplomatic issues.
Unless early resolution to the differences is reached, the friction between Japan and South Korea run risk of snowballing to major diplomatic crisis and can push the 2015 accord to the brink of collapse, further straining bilateral ties. Both then might find difficulty in exchanging military intelligence in dealing with the North Korean threat.
The “comfort women” continues to remain a major thorn in bilateral relations because of its emotive nature. Despite the governments of both Japan and South Korea reached the accord in December 2015 on the “comfort women” issue, a majority of South Koreans oppose the agreement. However, it would be politically difficult for the South Korean government to rescind the agreement as 34 of the 46 surviving “comfort women” have agreed to accept money provided by Japan. Having already apologised and paid atonement money, there is little left on the part of Japan to do more to satisfy the South Koreans.
Park being impeached, South Korea is expected to have a new administration soon and Japan expects the 2015 accord would be honoured as the government’s credibility is involved. But Korean nationalists and diehard critics say that the accord does not exonerate Japan fully as the Japanese excesses during its 1910-45 colonial rules over the Korean peninsula are far greater than the “comfort women” issue. It seems unlikely that following Park Geun-hye’s impeachment over a scandal involving an acquaintance’s intervention in state affairs, Prime Minister and acting president Hwang Kyo Ahn can go against public sentiment and take bold measures to restore order in ties with Japan, thereby maintain some semblance of diplomatic order. But if there is no reversal of policy in Seoul, anti-South Korean sentiment among Japanese people will increase and heightened hatred will be unpreventable. Such a situation would be unfortunate in the interest of peace in Asia.
The author is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.