The complexity and intricacy of the situation in Northeast Asia (NEA) manifests itself, in particular, in the state of Japanese-South Korean relations. On the one hand, Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea) are the closest regional allies of the United States. The largest group of US troops in Asia, performing the function of forward based forces under the strategy of China’s (the main US geopolitical opponent) deterrence, is located in the territories of both countries.
At the same time, the state of political relations between the two US allies, to put it mildly, “leaves much to be desired.” This is still a major obstacle for realization of a long-time Washington intention to create a full triple alliance “US-Japan-South Korea” with anti-China focus.
However, so far these intentions remain a mere fancy, because the political spheres of relations of Seoul and Tokyo with Beijing look completely different. Separate glimpses appear to be seen only in recent months in the dark dense clouds overhanging Japanese-Chinese relations.
At the same time, China-South Korean relations look relatively rosy (if, of course, you forget about certain “incidents” such, for example, as those provoked in spring 2015 by leaks to the press of information about plans of the US and South Korean military to deploy American THAAD system in the territory of South Korea).
Sometimes a talented artistic image is better than extremely wise political frills shows a state of some political problem. In this regard, the photo by AP agency, made during a meeting of the leaders of the US, Japan and South Korea during the Nuclear Security Summit held in March 2014 in the Hague became a prominent example. Picture with a forced smile of Barack Obama and callous expressions of leaders of the two major US allies sitting on both sides of him, needs just the explanation that the first managed to put at the same table the last two (on“neutral territory” of the US Embassy in the Netherlands) only a year after Shinzō Abe and Park Geun-hye came to power.
It is unlikely that even the South Koreans themselves can explain why anti-Japanese moods have been growing in the last two decades. Publicly there will be only standard words of Japan’s claims on two rocks in the Sea of Japan (which the South Korea prefers to call “East Sea”), as well as on the issue of “comfort women,” which was repeatedly discussed in NEO.
It seems, however, that that’s not “it.” “It” could be found if one superimposes the currently seen “normalization” of Japan (which was also repeatedly discussed) over the history of bilateral relations, which should be viewed much deeper than the period of colonization of the Korean peninsula by Japan in the first half of the last century.
However, in order to assess the situation in Northeast Asia the mere fact of the tense political relations between Japan and the South Korea, real attempts to solve which began to be undertaken only in recent weeks, is important. A suitable occasion was found in the 50th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations in December 2015, for which reason Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan Fumio Kishida went to Seoul on December 28.
The main practical aim of his visit was to pull out for good (and at no significant material and reputational costs) the main current thorn in the flesh of the bilateral relations, namely the problem of “comfort women.” Publicly, Park Geun-hye also repeatedly stated the desire to close the specified issue on certain conditions, and the need to transfer the bilateral relations to a constructive format.
In this respect, the fact of acquittance of the former head of Seoul Bureau Chief of Sankei Shimbun Tatsuya Kato, accused of defaming the President of South Korea was noteworthy. We are talking about his article containing comments on some of the circumstances of the Sewol ferry crash in April 2014, which led to the death of about 300 people, mostly children. The Japanese journalist was acquitted at the request of the Foreign Ministry of South Korea 10 days prior to the visit of F. Kishida.
However, it must be understood that President Park Geun-hye is under pressure of the South Korean “social activists,” who do not allow shadowing the issue of “comfort women.” Their last major action was the initiation of the prosecutor’s pursuit of one of the professors of the South Korean Universities, Park Yu-ha, in connection with the release in 2013 of her book “Comfort Women of the Empire,” in which basic provisions of the issue were criticized.
F. Kishida arrived in the capital of South Korea for talks with his counterpart Yun Byung-se on the proposal to create a Japanese fund at the expense of which the necessities of several dozens of surviving former sex slaves would be satisfied. Before the trip of F. Kishida the Japanese press reported on the readiness of the Government to allocate 830 thousand USD from the state budget for these purposes.
But this was clearly a ridiculous amount of money, which was intended, apparently, as it is customary in the Eastern Bazaars, solely for tying a conversation between the two respected parties. And in the afternoon on December 28 these finally shook hands (quite literally, as evidenced by the photos in the Kyodo News report on the completion of the negotiations on the ten times higher amount.
During the negotiations, F. Kishida conveyed on behalf of the Prime Minister of Japan, the words of “sincere regret and remorse,” on which the leadership of the South Korea constantly insisted. In turn, Mr. Yun said at the final press-conference that the two sides reached a “decisive and irreversible” solution.
The latter, again, was the main purpose of the initiation of the talks by Japan. It is not too difficult to imagine the high Japanese official at the exit from the meeting room, mopping his brow with a handkerchief and thinking: “we got off light.”
Now, after the solution documented at the official level, the South Korean “activists” (standing with placards in front of the MFA of the South Korea, where the talks took place) will have to forward all further claims exclusively to their own government.
It could be expected that positive developments in bilateral relations could become the immediate consequence of the official solution of the problem of “comfort women.” However, it cannot be ruled out that as it has shadowed away, a far more serious issue can get to the foreground, i.e. the issue of ownership of the two rocks in the Sea of Japan.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.