EYE ON THE WORLD

The US: Bridge over troubled waters

The United States can help Japan and South Korea get back on the path of reconciliation.

THE United States will host a high-level trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea on Wednesday to discuss North Korea's nuclear issues. The discussions "reflect the close cooperation among our three countries", claimed Mr Glyn Davies who supervises US policy towards North Korea.

But Mr Davies only felt obliged to emphasise the commonality of views between South Korea and Japan precisely because he knew that few believe this to be true. For the reality is that the relationship between two of Asia's most important countries remains utterly dysfunctional.

If Japan and South Korea agree to set their differences aside and cooperate, they have it in their power to transform the security situation in northern Asia. However, that cannot happen without a serious push from the US, and there is no indication that, apart from convening coordination meetings like the one this week, Washington is ready to embark on such a delicate reconciliation mission. So, one of Asia's most urgent and important strategic conundrums remains unaddressed.

History of disputes

THERE is no silver bullet to tackle the complex tangle of historic, political, legal and emotional disputes between Japan and South Korea. The two have never managed to resolve the grievances arising from Japan's brutal colonial rule over the Korean peninsula until 1945, compensation for the victims of the system of forced labour the Japanese empire used during wartime including the so-called "comfort women", or the fierce territorial dispute over the Dokdo/Takeshima rocks located in, depending on who's doing the talking, either the Sea of Japan or the East Sea. On each one of these issues, the only thing on which Koreans and Japanese agree is that the ball is in the other one's court.

A good case can be made that disputes which have no solution are best ignored; as long as none come to blows, they ultimately matter only to historians and a few excitable journalists. South Korea is now a prosperous society; the old sense of inferiority which most Koreans had about Japan and which fuelled their historic resentment is no longer relevant for a new generation of Koreans.

Furthermore, it's unlikely that by the end of this decade any of the actual victims of Japan's wartime aggression will still be alive; while that does not mean that horrors are forgotten, it may mean that their pain is numbed. And despite all the passion, the reality is that South Korea is currently in possession of the Dokdo rocks and will remain so.

Still the silent, hidden cost of this Korean-Japanese confrontation is immense. For despite the passage of many years, the number of pinpricks which each country tries to inflict on the other is actually increasing, and the disdain which one nation feels for the other remains undiminished.

The leaders of the two countries have not sat down for any talks since May last year, and South Korean President Park Geun Hye even managed to avoid shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the various regional summits last month.

Claiming that it feared the risk of radiation contamination from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor, Seoul suddenly slapped an import ban on Japanese fisheries products just on the eve of the International Olympic Committee's decision of whether to award the 2020 Games to Tokyo.

Beyond that, there are a whole series of South Korean government-led attempts to hit at Japan's international reputation such as the installation last July of a 500kg statue of a "comfort woman" in a park in California, or the recent statement from President Park that "the dynamic of Japan being the aggressor and Korea being the victim will never change, even after the passage of 1,000 years". That was a terrific line for home consumption, but awful news for anyone hoping for reconciliation between the neighbours.

This constant set of blows does have practical consequences. South Korea's judicial system has begun handing down rulings which may compel Japanese companies to pay huge compensations for their alleged wartime use of slave labour; if they don't comply, they may face the confiscation of their assets on Korean soil, throttling bilateral trade.

Tit-for-tat response

MEANWHILE, a virulent anti- Korean campaign is unfolding in the Japanese media. The diatribes are now considered a distinct genre of journalism with a special name: they are the kenkan, or "Korea-haters". In short, although outsiders are bored by it, the dispute is constantly morphing, assuming dangerous proportions.

And nowhere is this clearer than in the two countries' strategic posture. Both South Korea and Japan face common challenges: the direct threat of a nuclear- armed North Korea and the more latent question of a powerful China. But instead of cooperating, the Japanese and the Koreans seem unable to even organise a joint naval exercise.

The waste of resources is considerable. Japan's naval forces have to monitor waters facing South Korea, a country which is no threat to the Japanese. Meanwhile the South Korean military is proposing to spend US$300 million (S$372 million) on upgrading installations on Dokdo, a complete waste of money.

North Korean crisis

THE result is that both countries lose their ability to handle the North Korean crisis. It is widely accepted that the surest method of putting pressure on the North Koreans is via China, a country on which the Pyongyang regime depends for its survival. But the Chinese have no interest in risking a North Korean collapse partly because they like the Korean peninsula to remain divided, but mostly because China does not believe it will ever have to pay a strategic price for propping up the North Koreans.

The only way that Chinese calculations would change is if it becomes clear to Beijing that the continued nuclear defiance of North Korea is bringing Japan and South Korea closer together; at a stroke, the Chinese will have to modify their tack, since a South Korean-Japanese military alliance will be a bigger potential threat to China than a unified Korean peninsula.

For the moment, however, the South Koreans are more interested in scoring points in Beijing rather than eliciting Japanese help. In an extraordinary recent statement, Mr Kwon Young Se, South Korea's envoy to Beijing, vowed to boost "closer cooperation" with China against Japan. That was music to Chinese ears, but absolutely counter-productive to South Korea's long-term interests. And, incidentally, it was also an indication that South Korea knows how to forget bits of history, and recalls only those which are convenient. Gone are any Korean claims that China holds historic Korean territory, and gone too is the memory of all the Koreans killed by Chinese "volunteers" in the early 1950s during the Korean war; only the Japanese atrocities remain worthy of commemoration.

The only power which can bring Japan and South Korea back on the path of reconciliation is the United States, on whom both depend for their security. And the task, although delicate, need not be arduous. For there is no point in extracting another apology from Japan about the war as long as the country's political class does not believe in such apologies, and as long as these are deemed insincere by Koreans. Nor is there much point in brokering a deal over Dokdo, if only because Japan is fearful of making concessions which may affect its legal position in other territorial disputes.

What can the US do?

BUT the US can certainly extract a financial compensation scheme for the Korean war victims who are still alive, and can push the militaries of the two countries closer together by conditioning future missile defence programmes and weapon sales on such cooperation.

The last time the US performed this service was exactly half a century ago when the administration of President John F.Kennedy determined that "a settlement between Seoul and Tokyo is a top priority". The strategy worked in pushing the two countries to normalise their diplomatic relations; now the job must be resumed.

And the aim must not be to contain China but, rather, to persuade the Chinese that it is North Korea which disturbs the security of the region, and that Beijing has an option between cooperating on North Korea, or facing a closer Korean-Japanese position.

Meanwhile, as they continue dwelling on their past, both South Korea and Japan are well advised to recall an old Russian proverb which predicts that those who forget the past lose one eye, but those who dwell on the past lose both eyes.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com