Bruce Klingner is the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center. He joined Heritage in 2007, and has become well-known in Washington as a commentator and analyst on regional affairs. He recently helped coordinate a Heritage conference on history disputes in Northeast Asia.
Before joining Heritage, Klingner spent 20 years in the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, analyzing North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. From 1996 to 2001, Klingner was the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea, responsible for the analysis of political, military, economic and leadership issues. During 1993-1994, he analyzed military developments during the nuclear crisis with North Korea.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is at the root of the current diplomatic freeze in Northeast Asia? And why have history issues become so prominent?
KLINGNER: From the US perspective, the present day security threat environment is separate from issues of history. But in Asia, the two seem much more integrated. That is certainly the case from the South Korean point of view.
The US looks at Asia and sees vital national interests, which include strong relations with fellow democracies and fellow free market economies. That certainly includes South Korea and Japan.
The threats to those come particularly from North Korea, and then the uncertainty about China’s intentions.
We see the need for Japan, South Korea, and the US to be working closely together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to address these threats to our common interests. In that sense, the US is very disturbed about the poor relations between our two critical allies in Northeast Asia.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Should the US try to mediate?
KLINGNER: The US had tried to remain aloof from a fight between our two close friends, until about a year ago, when both outside experts and the government realized the US had to get involved. There was uncertainty as to what role the US should take, but I think the Obama Administration had done the right thing in sending very private, but very strong messages to both of our allies.
There is frustration in Washington with both Korea and Japan. I have been critical of both. I have found especially over the last year that the media, legislators, and executive branch officials from both countries have come to Washington and essentially asked the US to take its side 100 percent.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you suggest be done?
KLINGNER: I have a two-part message that starts with Japan. I don’t think Japan has suitably atoned for its past. The Kono and Murayama statements are minimalist. They seem designed to evade rather embrace responsibility. It would be far better for Japan, if it wants to move forward and put the past behind it, to initiate or reinvigorate a reconciliation process with South Korea.
I am less concerned about China, because Beijing seems determined to use history for its own ends.
Korea has a more sincere, heart-felt reaction to history. China is much more calculating for political purposes.
Japan needs to more firmly embrace the Kono and Murayama statements, with repeated, unequivocal affirmations. Perhaps Japan should even issue a new statement that goes beyond the components of those two statements.
Tokyo should reach out to Seoul, as it recently has been doing a bit more. A lot of things could be resolved quietly, out of the spot light of the media and elected officials.
Some people look at the drafting process of the Kono Statement, where Korean and Japanese diplomats interacted with each other, and see fundamental flaws. I think they are mistaken. I think it actually could be a model of what should be going on now.
South Korea made requests. Japan acceded to some – not all. There was give-and-take over the wording, over the concepts of the Kono Statement. But in the recent review of the drafting process, the investigating panel very clearly stated that Japan, based on its own evidence, was going to issue a statement around 1993 even before Japan had interacted with Korean counterparts, or had conducted interviews with comfort women.
Had I been South Korean, I would have declared victory over the recent process report, rather than seeing it as an effort to undermine the Kono Statement of 1993.
Seoul needs to find ways to curtail the emotional nationalism that is impeding better security ties with Japan.
It would be good for Seoul to articulate a framework for resolving the contentious issues by defining specific steps or language that would allow the two countries to move forward, rather than expressing amorphous demands for “sincerity.” These demands for “sincerity” are often used as an excuse to reject any positive steps Japan may take. Seoul needs to privately assure Tokyo that it will respond positively to helpful steps from Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about “revisionism” in Japan?
KLINGNER: Tokyo needs to distance itself from any revisionist statements made by any elected officials.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is your message to Seoul?
KLINGNER: South Korea needs to stop looking at every current event through the lens of history, and needs to compartmentalize and prioritize its foreign policy. When polls show that South Koreans see Japan as a larger military threat than North Korea, we know there is a real big problem. Those sentiments clearly show a flawed perception of the security environment, and clearly show a skewed perception of the realities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.
DISPATCH JAPAN: But President Park and Prime Minister Abe have personal backgrounds that seem to exacerbate the situation.
KLINGNER: It is important to point that the current tensions predate the current administrations in Tokyo and Seoul. There are a number of misperceptions, or deliberate mischaracterizations by the Korean media. One is that the current problems started with Abe, and reflect his right-of-center views. Anyone who follows events in Northeast Asia clearly remembers the earlier downturns in relations. In 2002 there were disputes over the World Cup. In 2005-2006 there were difficult issues under President Roh. And there have been more recent tensions. These are long-standing issues. At times, significant progress has occurred, and then something happens to undue it.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How should the comfort women issue be approached?
KLINGNER: I think Tokyo needs to go beyond a minimalist, legalistic approach, and work out with Seoul a mutually-agreed upon method of compensation. It is clearly an issue of great concern to the Korean government and the Korean people. There needs to be compensation for the women if bilateral relations are going to move forward. It would need to be done in a way that would indemnify Japan against lawsuits from descendents of victims of Japanese oppression from 1910-1945.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about Yasukuni Shrine?
KLINGNER: I would favor a pledge by the prime minister to not visit Yasukuni. I think this is important. Abe’s statement issued after his visit to Yasukuni late last year was actually quite good. But Yasukuni has become so controversial that no matter what is said after a visit, or how a visit is couched, the consequences of the negative symbolism clearly outweigh any benefits that might accrue to any prime minister. So I think there needs to be a pledge to not visit Yasukuni, and instead go to another shrine.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you foresee Park and Abe meeting any time soon.
KLINGNER: I think it would be helpful if President Park were to make clear that she would agree to a bilateral summit if Abe were to take positive initial steps. In essence, I think she should adopt a “trustpolitik” approach to Tokyo of the sort she has adopted toward North Korea: step-by-step reciprocal actions.