By Ralph Cossa, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The views expressed are his own.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s unprecedented trip earlier this month to Dokdo Island has unnecessarily raised tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, which also claims the South Korea-occupied islets (which it calls Takeshima). Describing Dokdo as “genuinely our territory,” Lee insisted the isolated rocks were “a place worth sacrificing our lives to defend.”
Defend against what? While Tokyo periodically restates it claim, it has never threatened to use force to recover Takeshima/Dokdo. Nor has it sent warships into nearby waters or turned a blind eye to (if not encouraged) activists to land there, as China does periodically in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (which Tokyo administers and Beijing claims in the East China Sea). At least, not yet!
Tokyo’s response to date has been limited to strong statements of protest and an idle threat to take the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – idle because the Court will only take the case if both sides agree to use its dispute resolution services. However, Seoul has made it clear it will not; from South Korea’s perspective, there’s no dispute. And why take the chance of losing something you already possess, regardless of how certain you are of your claim?
Why? Because the dispute and other issues leftover from history are increasing tensions to a level that could potentially get out of control and are already damaging South Korea’s – and Japan’s and even America’s – national security interests.
For example, Korean public opinion – inflamed by the media and assisted by the ham-handed approach the Lee government took toward the issue – has forced Seoul to walk away from the recently negotiated General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) and the equally sensitive (but sensible) military Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). GSOMIA is a fairly routine agreement outlining procedures that would help facilitate the sharing of classified defense-related threat information dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and other common challenges. It would also make trilateral defense cooperation with Washington easier for both. Seoul has similar agreements with some two dozen other countries. An ACSA allows for logistical cooperation when Japan and Korea are engaged in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and peacekeeping operations.
Both pacts, long overdue, were scheduled to be signed in May. Unfortunately, the announcement of the impending signing provided opposition politicians – especially those who pander to citizens with lingering anti-Japanese feelings – with a political windfall they’ve chosen to shamelessly exploit. Ruling party politicians have been equally shameful in their response. The real loser: South Korea, which would rely heavily on Japanese support (and U.S. access to Japanese bases) if it was ever forced to deal with its real enemy, North Korea.
The most sensitive historical issues involves the so-called “comfort women” – Korean (and Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, and other, including even Japanese) women forced to become sexual slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Koreans complain that Japan has never acknowledged or apologized for this “crime against humanity.” In truth, it has. The Statement on the Result of the Study on the Issue of “Comfort Women” issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 acknowledged the involvement of the Japanese military in the “establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women,” who were “recruited against their own will” and “lived in misery…under a coercive atmosphere.”
The Kono Statement included both an acknowledgment of guilt and an apology: “Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” What the Statement did not do was satisfy the South Korean people. Those who recall or acknowledge it – and most do not until reminded – dismiss it as “insincere.” Making matters worse, Tokyo didn’t offer official compensation, an action which would have helped counter the “insincerity” charge.
Japanese frustration is growing. How much longer, many Japanese ask, are we to be punished for the sins of our great-grandfathers (even as other Japanese can’t seem to resist fanning the flames, claiming the past never occurred or, more frequently, that it wasn’t as bad as critics claim). Official Japanese government protests against comfort women statues, which are springing up in the U.S. as well as in South Korea, further inflame the situation and prompt even more statues to be commissioned.
I’ve long argued that the most sensible U.S. response to the debate is to say and do as little as possible. When faced with a lose-lose situation between two allies, it’s normally more sensible not to play the game. But U.S. territory has now become part of the extended battlefield and U.S. security interests are being affected. Seldom has a situation seemed more appropriate for a preventive diplomacy intervention.
As an ally and trusted friend of both Japan and South Korea, the United States is well situated to play the mediator role. As I’ve argued before, President Obama should privately offer to provide an impartial mediator to help craft a statement that both sides can accept, in order to finally settle or at least depoliticize this issue. Meanwhile, Tokyo, to demonstrate sincerity, should reissue the Kono Statement, this time with a huge check attached.
For its part, Seoul must give some credible assurance that any future statement (and offer of compensation) will be accepted and appreciated. History didn’t end in 1945. Japan has been a great and supportive neighbor since that time and was instrumental in Korea’s rise as a rich and prosperous democratic nation today. If Seoul was really interested in “solving” the Dokdo problem, it would accept ICJ mediation, even in the highly unlikely event that it would lose its claim (possession being 9/10ths of the law).
There is an old Russian proverb that seems to very much apply: “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes!” The Japanese, it seems, are keen to forget the past, while Koreans can’t seem to see beyond it. Isn’t it time for America’s two key Northeast Asian allies to work toward a better future with both eyes open?