President Barack Obama’s mission to corral President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a photo op in The Hague came off as planned on Tuesday this week.
Now comes the hard part. Diplomats from the US, Japan, and Korea do not expect the icy relations between Tokyo and Seoul to thaw any time soon.
Word about the necessarily minimalist agenda, guaranteed to convey some harmony, circulated widely in Washington well before the meeting. The focus was on the regional and global threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, leaving little room for blistering Japan-Korea tensions to come to the fore. The setting was appropriate: a global summit on nuclear security occurring on neutral territory. And with the chief of their respective nation’s top ally functioning as convener and mediator, both Park and Abe were under considerable pressure to adhere to the carefully crafted script.
Also widely anticipated was the agreement by the three leaders that their aides responsible for North Korea policy would meet soon to energize coordination. Even a modest ongoing trilateral dialogue should provide some underpinning for President Obama’s late-April trip to East Asia, which will include stops in Tokyo and Seoul.
Little else came from the 45-minute “summit,” which marked the first time that Park and Abe engaged in anything close to substantial talks since they each took office a bit over one year ago. A national security aide to Obama made no effort to embellish what amounted to a small first step. “The tone was very constructive,” he said. “There was not in any shape or fashion a discord there.”
No discord in the meeting itself, perhaps, but there was plenty in the surrounding air. Before the talks began, with cameras rolling and photographers clicking away, Abe leaned into Park and, speaking in Korean, said “I’m glad to see you.” Park gave Abe a stony glance and looked away, saying nothing. At a post-meeting press conference, Abe told reporters he hopes the meeting will be “the first step to develop our future-oriented relationship,” using a term designed to deflect what he thinks is Seoul’s obsession with history issues.
WHITE HOUSE DILEMMA: The US goal of having Japan-Korea tensions embedded in a dialogue framework by the time of Obama’s visit remains as elusive as ever, the upcoming North Korea consultations notwithstanding.
Analysts wary of appearing to take sides tend to place equal blame on Tokyo and Seoul for the troubled state of bilateral Japan-ROK relations. Tensions were on the rise before Park and Abe took office, and the pressures on Park to appear stalwart and uncompromising toward Japan are undeniably strong.
It doesn’t defy objectivity however to take note of the accelerated decline since Abe’s return for a second term as prime minister. Abe notably spurned recent precedent by failing to attend Park’s February 2013 inauguration. He sent instead the current finance minister, Taro Aso, who proceeded to mar a ceremonial sitting with Park with ill-considered comments on history issues.
It’s been downhill since, including the prime minister’s December 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, a location steeped in political symbolism for “historical revisionists” who deny the “aggression” and “colonialism” that Japan apologized for in the 1995 Murayama Statement.
It’s not entirely surprising that many in Seoul today continue to question the prime minister’s commitment to uphold the 1993 Kono Statement regarding “comfort women,” given the rich record of his opposition, and his Cabinet’s ongoing dedication to a review that can only cast aspersions on the process by which the Statement was compiled.
The White House continues to hope that nudging and cajoling will prove sufficient to bring Tokyo and Seoul closer together based on the powerful strategic interests they share. Washington is understandably wary of a rift with Tokyo that might prove easy for a highly-ambitious China to exploit.
Less certain, however, is whether the White House, if needed, will up the ante with Abe, and risk a period of heightened contentiousness in US-Japan relations, by pressing the prime minister to make the kinds of unequivocal, unambiguous personal statements about history issues that will prove convincing in Seoul.
DIPLOMATIC ONE-UPMANSHIP: The real story of this week’s summit in The Hague is not the talks themselves, but the dizzying rounds of diplomatic pressure, counter-pressure, and one-upmanship that took place before and around the talks.
While most attention focused on the troubles between Tokyo and Seoul, Abe’s desire to get out of the White House’s post-Yasukuni dog house was an important but less-noted factor in making this week’s meeting possible.
White House anger with Abe has been simmering since last December, when the prime minister’s Yasukuni visit amounted to a public rejection of the concerted effort by Vice President Joe Biden to bring Tokyo and Seoul together. Anger in Washington only deepened when the Abe cabinet did next to nothing to discipline some of its own appointees to executive positions at national broadcaster NHK for highly-charged comments on history issues. Abe did little to hide his disrespect for Biden’s diplomatic skills, nor his frustration with what he considers to be hectoring from Washington about Yasukuni and history.
Under the circumstances, it became untenable for Obama to omit a stop in Seoul during his April visit to the region, or risk creating the impression in Seoul that the US was turning a blind eye toward efforts by Abe to roll back previous apologies from Japan about the country’s wartime behavior.
On February 14, the White House announced that Obama would visit Seoul. The message to Tokyo of continued US unhappiness with Abe was unmistakable.
But the impending visit put pressure on both Park and Abe to at least appear to be trying to improve relations. The White House began to float the idea of a trilateral summit in The Hague, the first surfacing of which came in a March 6 speech in Washington by former national security advisor Tom Donilon, who remains very close with his former colleagues.
Park and Abe both knew that they had to accept. It was not realistic to expect Obama to visit, and promote his much-vaunted strategic rebalancing to the Pacific, with the top US allies in the region embroiled in seriously-corrosive disputes.
But how would Abe and Park agree to meet without one appearing to have ceded the diplomatic high ground by caving-in to the other?
The onus fell on Abe to make some minimal gesture to Seoul that could be sold as a credible effort to meet Park’s long-standing demand for a show of “sincerity.” At the same time, Abe did not want to abandon his deep commitment to ending what he considers to be Japan’s postwar “apology diplomacy” affliction.
On March 12, Japan’s vice foreign minister, Akitaka Saiki, visited Seoul for what was supposed to be two days of consultations. That morning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made a very controversial remark reiterating Abe’s support for a March 2007 statement that there was no proof Japan’s military forces engaged in “coercion” of women for sexual servitude during World War II. The 2007 view stands in stark opposition to the core of the 1993 Kono apology.
Saiki cut short his Seoul visit, in what many thought was a dispute with his Korean counterparts over Suga’s comments.
In now appears that Saiki reached some agreement in Seoul over the gesture to be made by Abe. Two days later, one of Abe’s closest supporters in the Diet asked a planted question during Upper House Budget Committee proceedings, to which Abe simply read a prepared response. The prime minister stated that his cabinet had no intention of revising the Kono Statement.
Substantially, Abe’s comment measured barely a verbal inch of change from numerous earlier remarks that his administration had “inherited” the Kono and Murayama statements, and would “abide” by them.
But it was a sign of just how far Abe had lowered expectations, and how much the US, Japan, and Korea needed the trilateral summit, that his March 14 remarks in the Diet took on the aura of a considerable concession.
President Park greeted Abe’s remarks positively, but the Blue House was very cautious about publicly embracing a trilateral summit. To the contrary, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul maintained its bitter criticism of Suga’s March 12 comments. And Suga, for his part, stated on March 14 – the same day that Abe spoke to the Diet – that the Abe government would proceed with a review of the procedures followed in 1993 to compile the Kono Statement.
Abe and Suga continued with what the Korean media has come to call their “forked-tongue” approach to the Kono Statement: half-hearted embracement and virtual repudiation at the same time.
SURROUNDING THE SUMMIT: The diplomatic maneuvering and one-upmanship continued as the days wound down to the summit, revealing a stunning lack of trust between Tokyo and Seoul.
On March 23 a close Abe confidante and special advisor, Koichi Hagiuda, said during a television news show discussion that the government should consider issuing a new statement if the ongoing review of compilation procedures finds the 1993 Kono Statement to be faulty. He said that the prime minister had “never denied” the possibility of issuing a new statement.
Suga mildly rebuked Hagiuda, but his status as a trusted special advisor to Abe remains intact.
Not surprisingly, the foreign ministry in Seoul vehemently denounced Hagiuda’s comments.
Meanwhile, President Park gave an interview to Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published on the day of the trilateral meeting, in which she called on Abe to do more to demonstrate sincerity. “The Japanese government should take sincere measures to rebuild mutual trust,” she said. She also revealed that she has proposed creation of a joint history textbook among the nations of Northeast Asia to help overcome disagreements, noting that Germany and its neighbors did this after World War II.
Perhaps most telling of the mood in Seoul was Park’s meeting on March 23 with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Two Korean and two Chinese “pool” reporters were allowed to listen to opening remarks made by Park and Xi. The Korean account reports that Xi emphasized that he personally had given instructions for the construction in Harbin of a memorial to An Jung-geun, a Korean independence activist who, in 1909, assassinated Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and a person revered among Japanese as a founder of the country’s modern era. Xi went on to say that a second monument is under construction in Xian to commemorate a military base set up in the city by Korean rebels fighting for the country’s independence from Japan during World War II.
President Park responded that the monument to An is a symbol of China-Korea friendship, and that she welcomed as “significant” the construction of the second monument in Xian.
Chinese officials subsequently went out of their way to highlight Park’s comments. But a lengthy statement about the Xi-Park meeting posted by Korea’s Blue House on its web site reported only on Xi’s comments, while omitting any reference to Park’s comments in response.
Korean officials want to emphasize that Seoul has options should Washington tilt too far toward Tokyo in the ongoing Japan-Korea disputes. But Seoul is also wary of China’s often clumsy efforts to utilize the ROK as a pawn in its own disputes with the US and Japan.
EYES ON WASHINGTON: This week’s trilateral summit in The Hague did little to bridge the enormous trust gap between Tokyo and Seoul. Efforts are ongoing on various fronts to improve the situation, including the promotion of a 2015 bilateral leadership summit by parliamentarians from the two countries. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic relations between the ROK and Japan.
Real progress will likely require strong leadership from the very top.
Prime Minister Abe has yet to embrace and verbalize as his own the precise wording of the Murayama Statement that Japan engaged in “aggression” and “colonial rule.” Nor has he done so with respect to the Kono Statement, which acknowledged Japan’s official responsibility for, and the military’s use of “coercion” in, the operation of the “comfort women” system.
President Park has repeatedly made clear in private that for her, these are not mere word games or legalistic maneuverings. Unambiguous embracement of the Murayama and Kono statements is for Seoul a critical sign of genuine intent on reconciliation. Moreover, Park wants to see substantial steps toward resolution of the comfort women issue. A sign, if not a public statement, that Abe will no longer visit Yasukuni, would also help. (Former foreign minister Seiji Maehara of the Democratic Party of Japan, who is widely respected by American officials, pointed out in a recent public speech in Washington that when the DPJ was in office, top cabinet officials purposely did not visit Yasukuni as a sign of “the value” the DPJ placed “on the relationship with South Korea.”)
The question remains just how much Washington is willing to lean on Abe to take such steps toward Seoul.