[Column] Washington’s paternal control over Seoul-Tokyo relations

Posted on : 2014-03-31 15:44 KST Modified on : 2014-03-31 15:44 KST
Recent meeting at The Hague was organized by the US and illustrates South Korea’s third-banana status

By Han Seung-dong, senior staff reporter

The meeting of the leaders of South Korea, the US, Japan at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague this week ended up exactly the kind of “performance” people were expecting, with the three countries reaffirming their coordination on security issues. Some have called it a “restoration” of a “broken framework,” with the lead actor, the US, playing go-between for the two East Asian extras. But were ties really broken enough to require a restoration? Gestures of a breakdown, maybe, or a lot of noise about failure, but there hasn’t been any real breakdown for them since Seoul and Tokyo established diplomatic ties in 1965. That was never a real possibility as long as the US was around. South Korea has never had the freedom to wreck its relationship with Japan.

Cho A-ra, a researcher who studies Chinese foreign policy, printed a report titled “The Role of the US in the South Korea-Japan Talks Process,” which appeared in Vol. 10 of the Korean Journal of Japanese Studies, published by the Seoul National University Institute for Japanese Studies. In it, she noted Washington’s decisive role in the 1965 conclusion of negotiations to establish diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan. The paper, part of a special issue on “Contemporary Japanese Conservativism and Right-Wing Politics,” notes that the US’s active intervention in the talks came not under the Lyndon Johnson administration, as is commonly believed, but under the preceding John F. Kennedy presidency. Facing a situation of active intervention in Vietnam, the crisis in Cuba, China’s successful nuclear test, and an intensifying Cold War, the US desperately needed its East Asian allies Japan and South Korea to patch things up - thereby bolstering its own anti-communist alliance in the region. And as overprinting of the dollar had its own economic conditions worsening, the US was also working to assign a greater role to Japan, whose strong growth was powering a large-scale economic comeback.

The pressure from the US to reach a deal quickly altered the very nature and scope of the compensation demands from South Korea, which was uncomfortable with the idea of dealing with Japan at all. The compensation fund ended up turning into an “independence celebration fund” and “economic cooperation fund”; Japan became not a war criminal compensating for the crimes of invasion and colonization, but a generous country offering charity to its unfortunate neighbor. Looking back, one can see the first glimmers of the US’s role in planning and orchestrating the two countries’ diplomatic talks back in the early 1950s, at the height of the Korean War.

Washington was also behind the closed-door agreement between Japanese Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira and Korean Central Intelligence Agency director Kim Jong-pil to decide the amount of funds.

It is very likely the case that the ambiguous handling of the Dokdo issue, which the US and Japan basically colluded on in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, was also discussed in terms that favored Japan even more in the secret Ohira-Kim talks. The chief player in the talks was always Japan, which was capable of adjusting the tempo as it read the demands coming from Washington. Kim Jong-pil is an old man today. Can we expect him to tell the truth before he passes away?

With its fence-mending role in The Hague and reaffirmation of coordination among the three countries, the US helped entrench its policy position on China with a stronger military alliance, hastening its efforts to build a missile defense system. The historical issues that had Tokyo on the defensive were once again hushed up, and the newly exonerated Shinzo Abe administration is free to continue treading the same path in triumph. South Korea, in contrast, “only gains from stronger coordination in response to the North Korea nuclear program,” which is a reaffirmation of hostility toward its fellow Koreans in the North.

It’s a bizarre sort of structure, one where South Korea always ends up playing third string. This history can be traced all the way back to the 1905 Taft-Katsura Agreement, where the US backed Japan’s takeover of Korea.

This strange system of US-led coordination, where Japan has always been the alpha dog in the relationship, and South Korea, or the Korean Peninsula, the beta dog, reached its peak in the Cold War era, but it remains in place today; the only difference is that China is the focus now. We can’t see things as they are if we succumb to a sense of victimization, but there is no future for us unless we confront this unsettling situation - and change it for good.


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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