by Rust M. Deming

I appreciate the opportunity to offer commentary on Bong Youngshik’s excellent article. His chronology and analysis of the mutual mistrust between the ROK and Japan, particularly under the Abe administration, are very close to my own observations, albeit that I look more closely at the Japanese position, given that Japan was the primary focus of my diplomatic career and is the center of my academic research. From that perspective, I do believe that the article understates the sense of disappointment and frustration among Japanese at what is seen as the increased politicization of history and territorial issues by recent South Korean leaders and the Korean press, but I will leave that issue to commentators from Japan. Instead, I would like to comment on two US-related issues raised in the article.

First, I am very cautious about suggestions that the United States actively intervene to mediate Japan-ROK relations. It is true that we have a strong interest in a cooperative relationship between our two key allies in East Asia, both of whom share many of our strategic, political, and economic interests, but I believe an active US role would risk straining our relations with both countries and be unlikely to improve the situation. Moreover, the US view on Japan-Korean issues is mixed and complex. On the territorial dispute, like almost all such third-country disputes, we take no position, and we have no security obligation to either side. On history issues, the “comfort women” problem is the only element that resonates broadly in American society, particularly because of its relationship to the dignity of women and current concerns about human trafficking. On Japan’s colonial rule itself, the US position is more ambiguous. Japan’s occupation of Korea was not part of the list of major pre-war American grievances with Japan; indeed some (but not all) historians argue that the United States was complicit in this occupation by virtue of the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum of Conversation that appeared to trade US acceptance of Japan’s control of Korea for Japan’s recognition of American control of the Philippines. Since the end of the war, the United States has not intervened in the substance of the issues raised by the colonial period, and I do not think we should begin now. This would not preclude the United States from playing a quiet background role, as in the establishment of the “German Fund for the Future,” to assist Japan and the ROK in setting up a public-private partnership to reimburse victims of forced labor, an idea recently put forward by Stanford’s Daniel Sneider. However, our primary role should continue to be to urge both sides to deal with whatever issues remain from this period in a manner that does not undermine the opportunities for cooperation on the broad range of interests that the ROK and Japan, and the United States, share.

Second, I want to comment on the suggestion that Prime Minister Abe’s more active defense policy poses a threat to the ROK. I fully understand Korean sensitivities on this issue, but I think the changes that the government of Japan is considering need to be kept in perspective. Reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense has been on the agenda for years, both in the context of Japan’s increasing role in international peace keeping and in providing more support to the US-Japan alliance. The Yanai Commission, which is deliberating the issue, is scheduled to issue a report in a few months with recommendations. From my perspective, this is a legitimate issue for Japan to consider. The UN Charter authorizes collective self-defense and calls on members to contribute to collective security; there is no reason that Japan should not play a more active role in this area. Indeed, it may open opportunities for Japan-ROK collaboration on peacekeeping operations (PKO). With respect to the US-Japan alliance, any recommendations by the Yanai Commission that allow American and Japanese forces to work together more effectively, including on missile defense, are, in my view, supportive of regional stability and security and, therefore, should also be in the interest of the ROK.

With respect to Japan’s forthcoming Defense Program Outline that sets forth Japan’s mid-term defense objectives, I believe there are elements that are of legitimate interest and potential concern to the ROK. According to the interim report issued in July, as part of Japan’s efforts to enhance its missile defense system, the government plans to study the acquisition of “strike capability,” presumably to give Japan the potential to take out a North Korean missile site that may be about to launch toward Japan. I believe that such a decision is one for Japan to make; indeed, last year the ROK decided to extend the range of its own medium range missiles. However, acquiring strike capability could be seen as a departure from Japan’s “defense only” postwar posture, and raises question about its intent and about how it will be coordinated with interested parties, including the United States and the ROK. If this recommendation is included in the final report, Japan and the ROK should engage in full and candid consultations to ensure that it is implemented in a manner that is not contrary to ROK interests.

Given the evolving situation in the region and shifting global balances of power and influence, it is natural, in my view, that Japan enhance its defense capabilities. There is no indication that these enhanced capabilities will be used outside the framework of international cooperation (PKO) or the US-Japan alliance. The Japan of the 21st century is not the Japan of the early 20th century. The best way to ensure that ROK interests are taken into account is to expand the dialogue on security issues between Japanese and South Korean military and civilian officials and political leaders. Both sides need to make continuing efforts to reach a better understanding of the colonial period, but allowing disagreements about the past to block a dialogue about the future is in no one’s interest.

, Gilbert Rozman

This is the final rejoinder in an exchange through the second half of 2013. Standing as bookmarks for this exchange were the Asan Washington Forum of June 24-25, which was covered in a two-part synopsis, and the Asan Beijing Forum of November 14-15, which prioritized Sino-Korean relations but still served as an update and important angle for assessing the ROK-US alliance. In this posting, we carry a synopsis of the November forum. Casting a dark shadow on this alliance was the downspin in Japan-South Korea relations, which was highlighted in articles and rejoinders this fall and will be the subject of one of the three new Topics of the Month beginning in January. Reinvigorating ties was Biden’s visit to Seoul on December 6, although it cast doubt on Sino-ROK relations, given the cloud hanging over Sino-US relations seen in his prior stop in Beijing.

What overall conclusions would a reader likely take away from the journal’s coverage of the ROK-US alliance? First, the postings reaffirm the importance of this alliance for both countries. Scrutinized from many angles, it warrants the closest attention at a time of flux in the Asia-Pacific region. Second, these postings point to increased challenges facing the alliance. If some may have been complacent because North Korean nuclear weapons are a shared danger that keeps the alliance strong, then the developments over recent months should have alerted them to a diverse set of challenges that are proving rather difficult to resolve. Third, triangularity is influencing the alliance more than before, coming from multiple directions. Whereas in the early summer one might have anticipated that North Korea’s “soft line” after a “hard line” in the spring would have become the main source of triangularity, Japan filled that role in the fall and China looms as the key player in the triangle with South Korea and the United States that has the potential to impact the ROK-US alliance. Fourth, the basic message of the Asan Washington Forum has been further reinforced that 60-years of successful alliance offer no reassurance for the complicated times that we are entering. There are forces straining alliance relations, which require a new vision with clarity on strategic, economic, and even cultural dimensions of relations.

At the end of 2013 strains in the alliance center on two worrisome reactions increasingly found in Seoul and Washington. South Koreans are clearly nervous about what they see as US preference for the US-Japan alliance, which bolsters what many regard as Japan’s revival of militarism and emboldens its historical revisionism. Given the recent obsession with Japan, these are serious accusations that threaten trust in the United States. Biden in Seoul left no doubt about US encouragement for overcoming this divide. On the US side, there is nervousness not only about the extreme emotionalism toward Japan, as if national interests are being eclipsed by nationalist hysteria, but also about the apparent drift toward China. The reaction to the late June summit of Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping was supportive; trustpolitik appeared to be a promising starting point for encouraging the recent Chinese shift toward applying more pressure on North Korea. Months later it looks different to many US observers, who see China striving to restart the Six-Party Talks on terms favorable to North Korea without preconditions and to isolate Japan by linking its historical grievances and territorial issues with South Korea’s. The tenser Sino-Japanese relations become and the more the United States is seen supporting Japan, the greater the potential for strain in ROK-US relations, which China, arguably, is eager to see. Yet, in Biden’s visit, the new strains between Seoul and Beijing over China’s ADIZ appear to work in favor of closer Sino-US relations, as do reemphasis on universal values.

At the beginning of December 2013 ROK-US relations were being tested in two ways. First, the newly declared ADIZ by China not only is damaging ROK-Chinese relations, but it also is making the United States more insistent in a dangerous environment on the need to strengthen the alliance. Straddling the fence in Sino-US relations was easier in the relatively warm glow of the Sunnylands summit, but it is becoming harder in the tense struggle over maritime and aerial space. Second, as seen in Joe Biden’s stop in Tokyo on December 2, US pressure on Seoul is mounting to accept the strengthened US-Japan alliance and to improve relations with Japan for the sake of regional security. This seemed more likely given South Korean responses to the pressure China was applying on it. Thus, the ADIZ shock of late 2013 joins the Koguryo shock of 2004, the culture clash of 2007-2008, and the Cheonan shock of 2010, as the latest sign that China does not put much value on its relationship with South Korea and on the role of soft power when it had appeared to be improving.

After stopping in Beijing, Biden was en route to Seoul, where expectations were high that the alliance would be strongly reaffirmed, quieting recent doubts. Opting to join TPP, agreeing to more triangular military cooperation, and taking a stronger line against Chinese aggressive moves, Park would be signaling closer coordination with the United States, no doubt aware that she would be seen as more Lee Myung-bak than Roh Moo-hyun. It is Chinese behavior that leaves little room for straddling Sino-US relations.

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