Seoul Needs a Strategy for Dealing with Tokyo

      June 26, 2014 13:44

      The Japanese government has shown itself exceptionally insensitive to the interests of its neighbors in recent days. Late last month, Japan held talks with North Korea in Sweden and agreed to scrap sanctions against the North if it begins fresh investigations into the fate of Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970s and 80s, which could fatally undermine international sanctions against the regime.

      And last week, the Abe administration announced a commissioned report stating that a 1993 apology for the country's World War II atrocities only took its present form under pressure from Seoul. Next week, Tokyo plans to challenge its postwar pacifist constitution and assert its right to so-called collective self-defense, which could once again allow Japanese troops to be deployed abroad.

      These steps threaten peace and security in Northeast Asia, yet the Abe administration did not consult Seoul even once prior to making those moves. Japan has repeatedly stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo in thwarting North Korea's nuclear ambitions. But Japan is now even considering a visit to the North by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even though North Korea shows no sign of scrapping its nuclear weapons program.

      But what has the government here done about it? The Foreign Ministry called in Japan's ambassador to Korea to lodge a protest after the revisionist report was issued; Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong, who is in Washington, discussed the matter with his hosts; and some efforts are planned in conjunction with China to prove that imperial Japan forced women to serve as sex slaves for its troops during World War II.

      That is more or less the same kind of thing Seoul has done to counter Japan's colonial claim to Korea’s Dokdo islets and attempt to distort historic fact in its school textbooks, and the effect has been the same: none. No wonder Japan feels emboldened.

      A close look at how Korea's diplomatic acumen has become so limited is needed. Seoul-Tokyo relations have been virtually severed since the Park Geun-hye administration came to power. The biggest reason is the Abe administration's relentless lurch to the far right. Park probably refused to hold a summit with Abe in order to drive home the need for Tokyo to change course.

      But Seoul still needs to know that it is another matter to deal with Japan diplomatically. Perhaps the Foreign Ministry is too worried about Choeng Wa Dae to respond effectively.

      The wishy-washy approach is due to an obvious absence of any comprehensive strategy. Under pressure from Washington, Seoul agreed to a trilateral summit with the leaders of the U.S. and Japan, and went into talks with mid-ranking Japanese officials on compensating the former sex slaves, even as the Abe administration started reviewing the wartime apology. Now, officials here are saying the talks with Japan were pointless.

      Seoul must look closely at areas where it is willing to compromise and where it can concede nothing in relations with Japan. Without a comprehensive diplomatic strategy, it is flapping like a beached fish.

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