Chances are diminishing that tension between Japan and South Korea over a vexing territorial dispute will ease anytime soon. At issue is sovereignty over a group of desolate islets, which Japan calls Takeshima and Korea calls Dokdo, that lie midway between the two countries. Korea now has administrative control.
Adding to the friction is a flare-up in a highly-charged conflict over “comfort women,” the Korean and other women from the region forcibly confined to brothels organized by the Japanese Imperial Army to service soldiers. This week marks the 1st anniversary of a ruling by South Korea’s Constitutional Court that the central government in Seoul should do more to win compensation for the women, truly sincere apologies from Tokyo, and more teaching of the issue in Japanese textbooks.
Lurking just below the diplomatic radar screen is the May 24, 2012 Court ruling that Koreans forcibly shipped to Japan to work in war-time factories for virtually no compensation can sue for restitution. Japanese courts have repeatedly rejected similar suits, a legal ruling that Korean jurists say rests in part on the dubious assumption that Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea was legal, and made the Korean laborers Japanese ‘nationals’ who were essentially engaged in wartime conscription under the terms of the National Mobilization Law adopted by the Diet in 1938.
Technically, these are separate legal and political issues, but they are, of course, inextricably linked to Japan’s era of colonial expansionism and wartime aggression.
Recently it has seemed as if a day barely goes by without some unproductive tit-for-tat being launched, making it difficult for even moderate on either side to resist a rising sea of nationalism.
The two sides have reached an emotional stalemate.
The likelihood of an actual military conflict is quite remote, though that did not stop the sensationalist magazine Asahi Geino from publishing lengthy scenarios of Japanese air force and naval units ‘liberating’ Takeshima from the current ROK administrative control. Officials in both Tokyo and Seoul insist they would not allow events to spin so out of control, though the mere raising of the issue is sufficient reason for concern.
The bigger problem, at this point, is lost opportunities for productive strategic and military cooperation between Japan and the ROK, on everything from nuclear power safety and North Korea policy, to the rapid rise of China as a regional and global power. A planned bilateral pact on intelligence sharing between the two governments, set to be signed last June has already been put on hold indefinitely, and a set of economic cooperation agreements could also fall by the wayside.
US officials are particularly disturbed by this turn of events. The much-publicized US plan to rebalance its global force posture toward East Asia is based in large part on promoting expanded bilateral and military cooperation among allies in the region as a kind of ‘force multiplier’ for American influence vis-and-vis a rising China.
WHY NOW? Why all of this turmoil now between Tokyo and Seoul? In some sense, this reflects tensions that have been present since the end of World War II. An August 14 column by Asahi Shimbun’s progressive editor Yoshibumi Wakamiya, while not absolving ROK president Lee Myung-bak for escalating tensions, tries to put Lee’s recently-assertive stance in some perspective.
Wakamiya argues that for South Korea, ‘Dokdo’ “has almost religious connotations.” Japanese authorities integrated Dokdo/Takeshima under Japanese jurisdiction in 1905, which many South Koreans view as a precursor of Japan’s total annexation of the Korean Peninsula five years later. Morever, Wakamiya says, many South Koreans are haunted by a gnawing feeling that the country failed to mount an effective opposition to Japanese colonialism, and were liberated only after the US defeated Japan in World War II. In 1952, South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee ordered the seizure of Dokdo, providing South Koreans with a sense of satisfaction that there was at least one place they liberated on their own.
In 1965, under a diplomatic normalization treaty, the two countries basically agreed to table the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute, and individual claims for compensation against Japan by individual Korean citizens were supposedly subsumed by a large-scale bilateral economic aid package provided by Japan.
But as military rule has given way to democracy in South Korea, both the territorial dispute and “comfort women” issues have resurfaced. Many liberals in Japan believe that South Koreans were short-sighted in their vociferous rejection of the 1995 Asian Women’s Fund, established at the initiative of then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to provide some measure of compensation, and official apologies, to women brutally coerced into Japanese-run brothels. The fund followed an official investigation, and subsequent statement by the cabinet of then-prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa (the 1993 ‘Kono statement’ issued by then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono), apologizing for Japan’s actions, and going so far as to acknowledge Japan’s military played a role in the organizing and running of the “comfort women” system.
While the Murayama efforts were far from perfect, they provided a good beginning. Instead, arch-nationalists and history-deniers in Japan launched a campaign to disavow Japan’s apologies, insisting there was no evidence that the Japanese military played any role in coercing Korean or other Asian women. Those efforts failed to win withdrawal of Japan’s apology, but greatly undercut Japan’s credibility and standing in East Asia. The situation was made worse by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and the especially hard-line stance of his successor, Shintaro Abe, that Japan did anything particularly wrong in Korea (or China) during World War II. Today, Abe is attempting a political comeback, in collaboration with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, with denial of the “comfort women” wrong-doing as a central component of his program.
THE DPJ AND HISTORY: When the Democratic Party of Japan knocked the long-entrenched Liberal Democrats (LDP) from power in 2009, dealing with history issues was not heavily emphasized, but it was certainly an implied part of the DPJ’s much-publicized desire to improve ties with Asian neighbors.
For decades during the Cold War, Washington had largely turned a blind-eye toward much of the neo-nationalism that often reared its ugly head inside the LDP. The LDP was anti-communist, especially anti-Soviet, and later wary of the rise of China. The LDP’s tolerance of neo-nationalism undercut Japan’s position in East Asia, but that was a relatively small problem compared with the benefit of having Japan in the US’s Cold War camp.
By contrast, the DPJ did a poor job of explaining its desire to enhance ties with East Asian nations, and was easily (sometimes willingly) miscast by officials in Washington as somehow anti-American.
In fact, it was largely the work of former DPJ prime minister Naoto Kan, and his chief cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku, who helped facilitate the greatly-improved ties between Tokyo and Seoul, including the prospect for serious strategic, intelligence, and military logistics cooperation, that was so evident until the recent tensions erupted.
In 2010, Kan visited Korea to commemorate the 100 anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, and strongly reiterated Tokyo’s previous apologies. While Tokyo avoided some sensitive issues that Seoul wanted to address, particularly the question of whether Japan’s 1910 annexation was “legal,” real progress was made. The two sides agreed to series of three summits.
The subsequent collapse of Kan’s cabinet, the coming to office of Yoshihiko Noda (who is not a knee-jerk nationalist but is less emotionally committed to historical reconciliation), and the August 2011 Constitutional Court ruling on comfort women set the stage for a less-than-smooth discussion when Lee visited Noda in Kyoto in December 2011.
Lee was compelled by the Court ruling and related domestic political pressure to push Noda on the comfort women issue. Noda, who was bogged down by domestic issues, proved insufficiently sympathetic to Lee’s dilemma, and somewhat rigidly repeated Japan’s official positions.
Lost in all of the subsequent emotion was Lee’s hint that the comfort women issue could be dealt with as a “humanitarian” issue, apparently outside of the 1965 bilateral treaty that Tokyo considers a closed matter. Noda agreed that the issue is “humanitarian,” but has not shown much inclination to forge a new framework for progress on the issue.
US MEDIATION? Though the possibility has been discussed inside the Obama administration, US officials are mostly reluctant to be pulled into any kind of mediating role between Tokyo and Seoul. The result could easily backfire by raising anger inside one or the other of the two key US allies in the Pacific.
Complicating any potential US role is that the US has shifted positions over the years, which both Tokyo and Seoul try to use to their respective advantage. In the early years after World War II, Washington backed Korea’s claim to sovereignty. But when the Cold War broke out in earnest, and some degree of rearmament began in Japan, Washington backed Japan’s claim. Today, the US takes no stance on sovereignty, but mediation might provide quite tricky given the historical record of a shift in US positions.
DISPUTE WITH CHINA DIFFERENT: Meanwhile, Japan’s territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in China) is of a very different geopolitical nature. China’s increasingly assertive stance is not simply bilateral vis-à-vis Japan, but part of a much broader campaign to assert power in East Asia.
Japan is wary of China’s rise, and has no desire for confrontation. But Japan has the upper hand on two front: Tokyo has administrative control, and any more by Beijing to break that status quo militarily would be widely disparaged. Moreover, the US is obligated to assist Japan in the event of Chinese aggression, and US officials certainly see it in the US national interest to prevent China from exercising inappropriate power in the region by trying to settle territorial disputes by force.
TWO BIG MYTHS: As the disputes with Korean and China (and to a lesser extent with Russia) have flared, much of the Japanese media, together with the LDP, has promoted a narrative that weakness on the part of the DPJ is at the root of the problem. The argument goes that the DPJ was so intent on demonstrating “diplomacy of consideration” (ie, excess apologies) toward Korea and China that the government wound up conveying weakness, which Seoul and Beijing have capitalized upon.
The second part of the myth, especially with regards to China, is that the DPJ so woefully mismanaged the US-Japan alliance (especially over Okinawa), that an infuriated Washington may not aid Japan in a conflict with China. Beijing, the argument goes, is highly-attuned to this dynamic, and is concluding it can act assertively toward Japan with impunity.
The myths fit with a growing, palpable sense in Japan that economic woes and political bungling have set the country on a course of decline, destined to be overshadowed by rising neighbors.
Much of the media – especially Yomiuri – and many within the LDP, have concluded that Tokyo must quickly move to mend ties with the US, especially by finally acquiescing to existing plans for construction of a new US Marine Corps facility on Okinawa. Ironically, this would probably have the opposite result, as opposition to that plan is so strong on Okinawa that few leaders of any stripe in Tokyo are actually willing to spend political capital to try to push the plan through. More promises to Washington that can’t be fulfilled is a recipe for truly harming the bilateral alliance.