The beginning of 2017 was marked by the aggravation of the situation in Northeast Asia. And this time the Republic of Korea (ROK) was in the center of this negative trend. We are talking about the consequences of the problem of “comfort women” (more than once discussed in the NEO, and also the flyby by a group of Chinese fighter jets on January 9, 2017 through the ROK’s “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ).
The problem of the “comfort women” is Seoul’s grievance against Tokyo in connection with the mass sexual exploitation of Korean women during the first half of the 1930’s and 40’s (inter alia), who resided in areas of the Japanese army deployment on the Korean peninsula as well as in China and other countries in the region.
Opinions of the parties differ considerably regarding the scope, recruitment format (voluntarily or by deception, and, possibly, violence), as well as the predominant age of the girls in these establishments. It is important, however, that the stated problem alone has made a significant contribution to the overall state of “unfriendliness” (to put it mildly) between Japan and the Republic of Korea over the past decades.
Meanwhile, both countries are US allies and a quarrel between them over “incidents of bygone days” is one of the obstacles to the implementation of US plans to build a trilateral anti-China alliance. Therefore, for a long time Washington has been putting pressure on both Tokyo and Seoul so that both allies would finally come to some agreement and take out the “historic” splinter from the “body” of the current policy.
On December 28, 2015, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea shook hands to agree that the former, by way of compensation, would allocate approximately $8 million to several dozen of Korean women (former “comfort women”) who have survived to this day.
An integral part of the agreement is represented by oral statements made on behalf of the Japanese Government expressing “sincere regret and remorse,” and also on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Korea about a “decisive and irreversible” solution of the problem. In all three capitals of the concerned parties (Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington), there was a sigh of relief apparently.
But, as it turned out, it was premature, as disagreements over the actual content of the agreement occurred almost immediately. Tokyo said that its integral part was the promise by the government of the Republic of Korea to remove the sculpture “Girl sitting on a chair” from the area adjacent to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, which, after its installation in 2011, became popular among the population as well as foreign tourists.
However, due to the rejection of the ROK’s agreement with Japan on 28.12.2015 by the majority of the public, the ROK’s leadership took an ostrich stance on the issue of removing the sculpture. All the last year, Seoul responded with silence to Tokyo’s repeated reminders of the need to fulfil this particular provision of the agreement, which is so important to Japan.
Moreover, under the conditions of turmoil within the power structure that has arisen in recent months in the ROK, it seems that “social activists” splashed a bucket of oil on the fire of Japanese-South Korean relations. We are talking about installing copies of that same “Seoul sculpture” near the Japanese consulate in the second largest city of Busan on January 6, 2017.
And, on the very next day this fire flared up in the literal sense, when in Seoul, a Buddhist monk attempted self-immolation in protest against President Park Geun-hye’s “betrayal,” who had already been subjected to impeachment proceedings in her own parliament.
There is bewilderment with respect to the substantive aspects of this action. What did the Seoul monk want to say in connection with the events of 80 years back? Does President Park Geun-hye’s “betrayal” consist of the fact that she considered it to be in the national interest to eliminate the (apparently, skillfully scratched) “historical sore” in relations with a powerful neighbour?
It seems that participants of the South Korean version of “revolution of dignity” to the same extent as their predecessors in Kiev “know not what they do” – because one cannot fail to comprehend that although the Japanese public is already in a state of apparent fatigue from being “guilty of everything” during the war period, Abe’s government made the maximum possible concessions in the cited agreement at the end of 2015.
After the event in Busan, more developments were to be expected. On January 8, 2017, the Japanese Ambassador and Consul in Busan “temporarily” left the territory of the Republic of Korea, and the Secretary General of the Japanese government, Yoshihide Suga, announced the “freezing” of all planned bilateral projects.
On January 10, already in the Tokyo, Prime Minister Abe received the ambassador and consul. The details of the conversation were not reported, but at the press conference, the same Yoshihide Suga said that it was too early to talk about the return date of the Japanese diplomats. Now, this is serious and it threatens to drive the entire system of international relations into a stalemate, since it is not clear what in the current conditions needs (and, more importantly, is possible) to be done to unblock them.
Two years earlier in a similar situation, it took Barack Obama a year just to gather Park Geun-hye and Abe at the same table on the “neutral territory” of the US Embassy in the Netherlands. The Chinese Global Times has already portrayed the current situation as a father – “Uncle Sam” – who has to listen to the respective accusations of the two acrimonious kids.
Now, it is absolutely impossible to rule out the prospect of the resumption of Japan’s attempts to normalize relations with North Korea despite all of its “nuclear missile” escapades. It should be recalled that the first attempt was made in the summer and autumn of 2014 and was suppressed only by decisive US intervention.
But, the current situation in the USA is fundamentally different from what it was until very recently. The world’s leading player has entered a period of unprecedented internal turbulence and it is unclear whether it will intervene as actively in the affairs of the NEA, which are threatening to “go to hell.”
Their current state is illustrated by the incident on January 9, when a group of six Chinese bombers accompanied by two support planes crossed the South Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and Sea of Japan in the Tsushima Strait area.
We remember that the country that introduces the ADIZ zone (usually extending for hundreds of kilometers from the national airspace) has no right to prevent the flight of a foreign aircraft, but may require a notice from the crew on the intention to enter it.
Military aircrafts often ignore this requirement (as obviously in this case), which nevertheless does not violate international law. But at the same time, as a rule, Air Defense fighters of ADIZ “hostess” country inspect the intruding “guest.”
On January 9, Japan’s Air Defense aircrafts were also lifted for an inspection mission, however what the Republic of Korea did was unprecedented. For the interception of the Chinese group, ten F-15 and F-16 fighter jets of the South Korean Air Force were lifted. Two weeks ago, in a similar incident over the Miyako Strait of the Ryukyu archipelago, to intercept a group of six Chinese bombers and support aircrafts, the Japanese Air Force lifted only two F-15’s.
So far, one of the major regional players, i.e. the US, has not participated in these “muscle-flexing games” and political “shows”, again due to being absorbed in solving complex internal problems. It is difficult to say, whether this is good or bad from the standpoint of maintaining stability in Northeast Asia.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“