By Ashley Chappo
Small gestures can make a world of difference in the otherwise declining diplomacy between two nations. In the case of South Korea and Japan, it has taken delicate statesmanship to reach a path toward a more hopeful future following an otherwise worsening of relations within recent years.
Significant progress over the past several months, brokered mainly by the countries’ political representatives, has signaled a thaw in tensions, beginning in December with the historic bilateral meeting between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The meeting of the two leaders sent signals to the world of a new era of diplomacy in the region, even as tensions remain over the settlement regarding South Korean “comfort women,” forced into prostitution by the Imperial Army of Japan during World War II.
Last week, in a smaller but still significant way, Seoul and Tokyo again united briefly in New York City when the Korea and Japan Societies of the United States held their first-ever joint event in honor of the two nations that share common history and key interests in East Asia.
The event, held at The Korea Society’s New York headquarters, brought the two American-based Japanese and Korean communities together. Even Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi, Consul General of Japan in New York, and Ambassador Gheewhan Kim, Consul General of South Korea in New York, came together in the same room to hear the talk. The moderator of the conversation, Ambassador Hubbard, has nearly 40 years of foreign service experience and currently serves as chairman of The Korea Society and senior director at McLarty Associates, having previously served as Ambassador to the Philippines from 1996 to 2000 and Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2001 to 2004.
The rising tensions between the two Asian neighbors, more than 70 years after the end of World War II, had key policy experts notably concerned about what lay ahead for the region.
“To be frank, I think many of us interested in the future of Asia were very worried in the deterioration of the relationship in these four years between these two longtime neighbors and friends,” said Dr. Sheila Smith, one of the two main speakers on the panel at the event.
Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, had spoken at the Korea Society four years ago, but she noted much had changed in East Asia since then: “Over time, the diplomatic estrangement allowed the opportunity for some really unpleasant domestic policies in both countries. I think it was heartbreaking for those of us who care about the relationship. Explainable, but heartbreaking.”
The United States, in particular, has been torn by the strained relationship of its allies during a time of rising threats in Asia, including the nuclear escalation of North Korea and increased military action by China. In 2014, President Obama made initial efforts to facilitate conversation between South Korea and Japan, bringing both countries’ leaders together at a three-way meeting at The Hague.
At the recent, sold-out event at the Korea Society, there was a clear message of unity during the hour-long panel conversation, with much discussion of the shared interests and need for trilateral collaboration between the United States, Japan, and Korea.
“Much like the interaction between the ambassadors and the consul generals here at The Korea Society, I think that we are at a moment for the two governments. They have worked very, very hard. What has impressed me most is the complexity of the issues in the two countries,” said Smith. “Part of the story in the last four years is not just about the diplomatic problem that needed to be solved, but really about the breadth of social, economic, and political change happening. There are new generations coming to the floor in north East Asia, and they treat these issues rather differently.”
Smith noted that past agreements and understandings of reconciliation are being rewritten by the new generations of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese people. “Diplomats can’t always satisfy these changing aspirations. And I think that we should not see an agreement as taking care of the full extent of the way that people see these issues.”
Ambassador Hubbard called attention to the inherited baggage and tensions faced by both countries and their leaders, including the inherited strains in diplomacy that have made statesmanship so difficult.
“You and I sat here four years ago and discussed these issues, and somehow I think we were more optimistic four years ago in discussing these issues or more upbeat than we are today,” said Ambassador Hubbard to Smith. “Despite the fact that we have seen these very recent positive developments.”
Both speakers made it clear that a new phase of diplomatic relations, brought about by young leadership and a changing generation, has resulted in some early misunderstandings.
“I think that there were some serious disconnects at the beginning and some opportunities lost. There was a stalemate in the leadership and frustration in both countries,” said Smith. “But when North Korea begins to become a shared point of consternation, like at the end of last year, I think it has always encouraged the Japanese and the South Korean governments to talk more openly about their strategic cooperation.”
“I think the worrisome point to Americans is that we have two allies. Neighbors who largely share a common culture, but divided by a common history,” added Ambassador Hubbard. “It seems natural for them to cooperate with us. It is technically and strategically very important that we have very similar concepts as we try to deal with the changing regional environment with the rise of China, economic challenges, and North Korea.”
But the question and answer portion of the event revealed the ongoing and often very personal challenges faced by the Korean and Japanese people. The first question came from a Japanese man who said he currently works for a grassroots movement to protect Japan’s pride and dignity against the comfort woman issue and statutes. He wanted to know how the Japanese and Koreans could begin to talk to one another and maintain peace when wartime grievances are still being discussed 70 years after the end of the war.
Smith offered the audience calm words, saying that the issue of comfort women needs to be worked out through conversations in civil society.
“I am not sure it is a diplomat’s job is to heal the spirit,” she said. “Efforts at the level of civil society need to be embraced.” Smith noted that South Korea has yet to have its own reconciliation dialogue and that, perhaps, more efforts need to be made to encourage such dialogues.
“You can look around the globe and look at various ways in which reconciliation dialogues are organized. They are to get out the stories, to reveal the hurt and the pain, and to identify what happened and who was there. They are often to move forward,” she said. “There are many Japanese who feel that this continued conversation has deeply wounded Japanese pride and dignity. On the South Korean side, you have victims who also feel deeply about their own healing.”
Smith and Ambassador Hubbard also both addressed questions about the perceived fears caused by changes in Japanese domestic politics, including new efforts to amend the constitution to give more autonomy and elective self-defense power to Japanese forces, a move that has particularly alarmed some Koreans.
“In my view, the trends that you are discussing now should not be of concern to Koreans provided that we are all going in the same strategic direction,” said Ambassador Hubbard. “It makes it even more imperative that Japan and Korea have bilateral discussions about the change that is happening in Japan. It is not directed at Korea. It need not be directed at Korea. Japan and Korea have very common challenges like North Korea and the rise of China that call for us to stay closer together.”
Ashley Chappo is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea]