Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.06.30

North East Asia's Geopolitical Delicacy

JBpress on June 27, 2014

While reiterating that it has no plans to change the Kono Statement of 1993, on June 20 the Abe administration released the results of a government panel's re-examination of the "making" of the statement. The silent majority of Japanese, and especially those who consider it appropriate to uphold the statement, were puzzled when the South Koreans openly protested the review.

Nothing was altered in the Kono Statement, which expresses Japan's "sincere apologies and remorse" to all former comfort women. However, the South Korean Foreign Ministry urges Japan "to clearly acknowledge its responsibility" and "present as soon as possible a solution to the issue that is acceptable to the victims, based on sincere remorse for its past wrongdoings."

"Wait a minute! What do they really want us to do?" many wondered in Tokyo, because they vividly remember the October 1998 state visit by then South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung to Japan. At the summit meeting, he and then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi issued a Joint Korea-Japan Declaration of a New Partnership for the 21st Century.

The Korean President also delivered a speech at the Japanese Diet, stating that, "Through the joint declaration, Japan expressed deep regret and apologies for the past, and I accepted it as an earnest expression of the Japanese Government's desire for reconciliation between our two peoples and for good neighborly and friendly relations."

President Kim went on to say that "I firmly believe that this declaration will settle the issue of recognizing the past history between the Governments of our countries and will become the foundation for joint endeavors for future peace and prosperity." The silent majority of Japanese including myself were literally moved and truly believed that a new era had started.

President Kim further said in a press conference that, "The expression of apology made at the summit meeting this time is different from previous apologies in that (a) it was made in writing, and (b) in the seriousness of the apology. Especially when security and the economy are of tremendous importance, it is time for the two nations to cooperate instead of being fettered by the past."

Afterwards, the issue of comfort women was not raised in bilateral summit meetings until late 2011 after the Constitutional Court of Korea found that the Korean government's "failure to resolve the dispute over the damage claims filed by the complainants against Japan, in the capacity of comfort women," was unconstitutional.

The most puzzling of all is the South Korean claim that Japan's attitude is the very reason why the bilateral relations will not improve. The silent majority of Japanese, however, have enough reasons to suspect that Japan's position may not be the reason for the bilateral difficulties, but rather that it must be the result of the South Korean domestic and international political environment.

On one hand, it is a result of Seoul's weak presidency. Internationally, on the other hand, it is a result of Seoul's re-prioritization of its foreign policy objectives. During the Cold War years, it was in South Korea's best interest to maintain the U.S.-South Korea-Japan tripartite coordination. However, this is no longer the case in the Korean Peninsula of the 21st century.

China rises as a potential regional hegemon again. Unfortunately, over the past 2000 years, the Korean nation has suffered from it. Since China is too big, too close and too cruel to them, historically the Koreans, like many other neighbors of China, have needed to know how to survive as a nation living next door to the Chinese dynasties in the traditional Sinocentric tributary international order.

Therefore, many South Koreans naturally believe that the Cold War-style U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance only works for dealing with North Korea, not with China. They know almost instinctively that it is the Koreans who know best in dealing with China. That's why they have started to modify their foreign policy priorities in order to make a deal with the growing Chinese empire.

Make no mistake, please. This is not to criticize the Koreans. This is South Korea's geopolitical decision for survival. It is not because they trust the Chinese. Rather, it is because they fear and distrust the Chinese in their historical DNA and therefore must find a way to coexist with China without losing Korean independence and their national identity.

In order to do so, they think South Korea has to woo and please Beijing while trying to "mediate" between China and the United States. In this regional foreign policy "new thinking," Seoul finds no place for Tokyo. That's why the Koreans need an excuse not to improve bilateral relations with Japan. Few in Washington D.C. seem to comprehend the geopolitical delicacy in North East Asia.