Time for U.S. to help Japan, South Korea to get along
August 21st, 2012
10:51 AM ET

Time for U.S. to help Japan, South Korea to get along

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?

Post by:
Topics: Asia • Japan • South Korea • United States

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. teohwp85

    Sink the rocks. Problem solved.

    August 21, 2012 at 11:22 am | Reply
    • koreanajusshi

      Right, let's blow up the disputed lands claimed by the Native Americans and European-Americans. also, since that should solve the territorial disputes, also, jerk!

      August 21, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  2. mira5700

    What an one-sided resolution! Genius!

    August 21, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, it's one-sided. The author failed to understand the feelings of the Koreans, Chinese or other Asians who had suffered under Nippon's occupation in the first third of the 20th century. He regretted the Koreans didn't seem to "see beyond the past", while Tokyo were willing to do so. Time heels wounds but people don't forget history. The Jews still hold onto the Holocaust past and other people do the same.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:55 am | Reply
  3. Kor

    Dislike Russian Proverb, Don’t need to forget past.
    Scientifically, past is not only history and but also record which means useful data for future. If you don't remember your past note, you will not be progressed.

    Please remember that the present human kinds are still don't know how ancient Egyptian built Pyramid.

    August 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  4. Aokage

    There is an order high up there. US can help resolve all the territorial claims in Asia. If it succeed, relation with China will be smoother, and potentially be on good terms with China, having China as an ally instead of an enemy. THAT would help neighboring Asian countries a lot more than all those common defense treaties.

    US can bring in Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, etc, all these countries that had colonized Asia; bring in all the countries with territorial dispute in Asia. Revisit colonial history on territories, war treaties on territories, then ask each side to take a step back, and compromise for peace and territorial resolution.

    It may involve giving up lands under current control, giving up historic claims. But territorial claims need to be settled. Otherwise there will be frictions, and rules of the jungle.

    The question is if US is on the moral high ground to call for such high order? Does US has the international credibility to call for such sincere talks? I certainly hope so.

    August 21, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  5. papafoote

    Just another example from "Humanity"!
    It's taken centuries to get "as far as this" – and, I suppose it will take "us" a few more centuries, to understand that everyone living on the Earth Planet, needs to cooperated with each other, if "we" are to "survive", and enjoy the "tastes" of our "labor"!
    -The Old Goat-

    August 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  6. Marine5484

    Actually, it's high time that the U.S. quit telling both J apan and South Korea what to do. Let these countries formulate their own policies for a change!

    August 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  7. Pak

    Careful, Americans. I advise that you should keep away from Koreans.
    Koreans as well as Chinese do not have a culture of forgiveness. If you make a mistake to handle this case, Koreans will become your enemy forever.

    August 21, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Reply
    • KIM

      Koreans are not that bad as you think. You seem to have bad memory about Koreans,
      but you need to know exact truth and tell everybody, not a fake story.

      September 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  8. right

    This is a very poorly written, one-sided article. It is very clear Mr. Cossa simply does not understand the enormity of what is at stake here between the two countries. This is a cllassical exmample showing that writing about a subject does not quailify one to be an expert.

    August 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  9. Ryan

    Why do people write articles on subjects they know absolute nothing about? What an incredibly foolish piece.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Reply
    • KIM

      You are right. Why is this reporter so much tells the fake story about which territory Dokdo is?
      Sometimes, reporters write a fake stories to get attentions. They also write fake stories about their opinion.
      That is why you should not believe internet so much or depend.

      September 16, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  10. Kor

    America's history is very short compare the Korea and other countries. That's the reason why the authoer said for the past.

    August 21, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  11. ICJ

    How about going to International Court of Justice to solve this problem? It seems to me democratic way to solve this kind of problem peacefully.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
  12. Dandystyle

    The U.S. should butt out. We are partly to blame for creating this problem in the first place.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  13. J Lee

    Why comment disappeared CNN?

    August 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • WarEthics

      my comment also dissapeared...

      August 22, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        I had some of mine blocked too. I'm just a moderate and never use any of that filthy Tea Party lingo in any of my posts as others do! And some of their posts get displayed too!

        August 23, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  14. Hyomin42

    My very long and critical comments disappeared too...

    August 23, 2012 at 12:23 am | Reply
  15. Dandystyle

    Oh mine too! I wrote longer comments about Cossa's lack of objectivity twice. None of my comments on this article survived CNN censorship. This is shocking as some of the comments on CNN are blatantly racist or belligerent. How come those make the cut?

    August 23, 2012 at 9:56 am | Reply
  16. Freedom

    Basically, every time I write something blasting Cossa's lack of insight, my comments don't get posted. I would love to counter his arguments but CNN is censoring my comments.

    August 23, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
  17. Aaron Chaney

    Romney vs. Frankenstein (Obama)

    Put simply, better the devil you don't know. Vote Romney.

    August 23, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • Dick Will Lard

      Um, Aaron Chaney dear, you seem lost?
      Put simply, your frankenpost doesn't belong here.

      August 23, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  18. Cossa Fan Tutte

    CNN is FOX-lite. Not much of a standard. Mr. Fareed Zakaria recently committed plagiarism, a serious offense. Why should we expect more of Cossa? What a blundering bumblebutt of a hack.

    August 23, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
  19. JosephMcCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J.Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  20. Matt A.

    Amazing, is the number of foreign policy writers who think the U.S. is responsible for bringing two or more parties
    together to negotiate their problems.

    Do we really want U.S. influence and its intended or unintended consequences everywhere?

    What role would the UN play here?

    August 24, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
  21. Pak

    Watch these videos:
    Do you know the reason why Dokdo is Not Korea Land?
    : http://youtu.be/zeoH8-bVhPw
    Does there exist any old Korean map which depicted Takeshima/Dokdo?
    : http://youtu.be/H91QN6ho8jU

    August 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply
    • KIM

      Don't be such a fool with wrong information, fellow.

      September 16, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Reply
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    April 15, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  23. KIM

    Reporter didn't even think about how to write, exact information.

    September 16, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Reply

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