[Column] Time to cede South Korea’s dogged insistence that Japan apologize for history

Posted on : 2015-05-05 14:00 KST Modified on : 2015-05-05 14:00 KST
South Korea’s diplomats need to find a detour around history to allow relations to improve

South Korea’s diplomats are ailing, caught in the icy blast from Japan. Even when the chilly wind blows, people with a tough constitution or who have taken adequate preparations are unlikely to catch a cold. The same goes for countries.

The new honeymoon period for the US and Japan - which was unveiled during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the US at the end of April - could have been predicted by anyone with some understanding of international relations. These two countries, which are both concerned about the rapid economic and military rise of China, had long been preparing for this summit, which was designed to check China.

The result of the summit is a new set of defense guidelines for the US and Japan and approximate agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). With the two countries concentrating on checking China both militarily and economically, it was inevitable that an apology from Japan about its historical misdeeds - the continuing objective of South Korean diplomats - would be put on the back burner. This is the diplomatic reality that South Korea is facing.

But South Korea’s diplomats still cannot get their act together. This became clear when President Park Geun-hye embarked on her flashy but insubstantial trip to Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, while she sent Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea, who is not even a diplomat, to the summit commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, which was attended by both Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. There is no telling whether President Park even knew that Peru - the country she was visiting while the commemorative summit was in full swing - was where South Korea lost a diplomatic battle with North Korea over admission to the Non-Aligned Movement in 1975.

While the country was reeling from the shock of Abe and President Obama’s summit, President Park disappeared from view for a week because of a sickness she had contracted on her trip to South America, while the guy in charge of South Korea’s foreign policy was putting on a song and dance about how the country’s diplomats were making an “effective and balanced response.”

The fact that detailed information was provided about Park’s sickness - which arguably should have been kept classified - was shocking in and of itself, even more so when compared with the great effort that was taken to conceal Park’s “missing seven hours” on the day of the Sewol ferry sinking, even labeling this a “state secret.” It’s no wonder that some speculated that Park was so beset by difficulties at home and abroad that she feigned an illness so that she could get out of the public eye.

The Japanese diplomatic crisis is not going to go away just because we ignore it or try to bluff our way through. The first thing that is needed is a cool appraisal of the situation. And, depending on the circumstances, we must be willing to boldly give ground on important causes if this will work to our advantage.

First, we need to discard our dogged insistence that improving relations with Japan must begin with resolving historical disagreements. As became clear in the summit between Obama and Abe, the US puts a greater priority on countering China than on making Japan apologize for its past.

Abe has also repeatedly shown that he has no intention of apologizing for the past, even if this is a precondition for improving relations with South Korea. During its two summits with Japan, China also demonstrated that it can bypass South Korea to deal with Japan whenever it wants to.

Under these circumstances, our only choices are to abandon all hope of improving relations with Japan for the duration of Abe’s time in office, or to stop insisting that historical issues must be resolved first. There is far too much work to do that is unrelated to history for us to forfeit our relations with Japan over our historical disagreements. We have to find a detour to history.

Japan’s right to collective self-defense and the new defense guidelines between the US and Japan are other issues on which we should give up the emotional commitment to opposing Japanese involvement on the Korean peninsula until it apologizes.

At present, South Korean security relies to a substantial degree on the US army, and in the event of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the US army is set up in such a way that US Forces Korea and US Forces Japan can make a unified and integrated response. The ground forces that largely compose US Forces Korea and the naval, air forces, and marines that largely compose US Forces Japan are supposed to work together in unison. In addition, the seven US army bases in Japan are designated as rear support bases for the UN command in the event of such an emergency.

Considering all this, there is a sense in which facilitating Japanese support for US forces would contribute to South Korea’s security. Furthermore, considering that the Park administration has granted wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces to the US on an effectively permanent basis, we could not even say no if the US wanted Japan to get involved on the Korean Peninsula. If we don’t want Japanese involvement, we must find a way to reduce our reliance on the US, or at the least regain wartime operational control.

If South Korean diplomats and generals are ignorant of this, they are inept; if they are aware but remain silent, they are cowardly. Whichever may be the case, both of these are equally perilous for South Korea.

By Oh Tae-kyu, editorial writer

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

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