Korea-Japan relations: An interview with Katharine Moon and Sheila Smith

Editor’s note: This joint interview with Sheila A. Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations and Katharine H.S. Moon of the Brookings Institution took place on June 5, 2015. The interview was supplemented with additional comments after the postponement of President Park Geun-hye’s scheduled trip to Washington in June 2015. The interview was translated into Korean by Jemin Son and published by The Kyunghyang Shinmun on June 22, 2015.

Assessment of Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Washington

Kyunghyang (KH): Let’s start by reviewing Prime Minister Abe’s visit in April. What is your assessment of his words or overall visit?

Smith: I think it’s important to look at the visit in two ways. One as it reflects the U.S.-Japan alliance and also in the broader context of the 70th anniversary and the many commemorations that are underway this year in Asia.

I think it was the first public statement by a Japanese leader on the history question. I think the Japanese government was very aware of the fact that his speech to the U.S. Congress had to not only satisfy the alliance requirements, but also had to effectively deal with this question of reconciliation.

My personal sense was that—I was in the gallery so I watched him on the floor, I didn’t have the text in my hand, so I just listened—he was very effective in many ways, surprisingly so. Although his cadences were a little dramatic at times. “Democracy!” But for 45 minutes to about an hour, he, in English, which is not his strong suit. Clearly, he had spent a lot of time practicing the delivery of that speech.

I didn’t think the speech was going to be a place for apologizing or speaking to especially the South Korean desire for him to address, for example, the issue of trafficking for sexual slavery. I didn’t think he was going to do that.

But he did use a language that no Japanese Prime Minister has used—talking about “our” war, the U.S.-Japan Pacific War. He talked about repentance—I was taken a little aback by the choice of that word. Not because I thought it was a bad choice, but it’s a very strong word in English. I don’t think we’ve ever really had a Japanese leader that’s even addressed the past, the war, the events that led to the war, and the post-war memory of that. We never had that kind of conversation in the diplomacy of the United States and Japan. So clearly he was trying to speak to our memory of that war. Thirty percent of Americans today still think of World War II when they think of Japan. And that’s the data that the Pew Research just revealed. It’s still part of our memory, not a large part, but still a significant part of our memory of Japan.

Beyond that though, he has a bigger hurdle ahead. That speech in Congress was really also being listened to largely to get some sense of what might come in August, even in the United States, I think. This was the opening salvo; it wasn’t the last moment or opportunity to hear how Mr. Abe is going to look backwards. So that’s the historical piece.

The broader agenda and the alliance, I thought in the speech he did something else very useful for the U.S. and Japan alliance and that is, he introduced himself in a rather different way than he’s portrayed in the media. He talked about his homestay in California. He talked about his time working for a steel company in New York. He gave a much more personal sense of what the United States was to Shinzo Abe.

But I also thought he did a pretty excellent job on TPP. Clearly, if you had any contemporary issue that that speech was geared to address beyond the history question and commemoration [of the end of WWII], it was the TPP issue. He very artfully addressed the senators that had some doubts about Japan’s capacity for change, especially in the agricultural realm, etc.

Again, the visit, inside the beltway, was broadly seen as a success. One final footnote is, outside the beltway, not so much, by one particular community. And that was by American academics, who as you know, historians had begun to speak out after the Japanese Consulate General had gone to McGraw-Hill to protest the discussion of comfort women in the [American] textbook. That had then blossomed into a broader conversation about what American academics of Japan could say about the history issue and urging Mr. Abe’s government to be a little bit more forthright about that issue. I went up to Harvard the weekend right after the visit and there were some strong sentiments still. Some very strong concerns about the way in which the Japanese historians are being treated…in Japan, about the treatment of journalists, and so we had a fairly critical conversation about the Abe visit, within that community.

Moon: I think it was a very successful visit from the Japanese perspective and also from the U.S. perspective. I think it was a very smart, strategic move for Mr. Abe to focus on U.S.-Japan relations because there was a lot of expectation that his speech to the joint session of Congress would be the most important international platform, rather than his address later for Asia or Australia, etc. Strategically, he and his advisers made a very good move and I agree with Sheila about how struck I was by the word, ‘repentance.’ I think it was a really bold move even though the Japanese don’t make a big deal out of tooting their own horn about how bold or brave they are in this regard, but I think in terms of word choice, it was a bold move because ‘repent’ in the United States has a religious overtone and also in the sense that there was a sin committed. When you repent, it’s usually in regard to religious sin or something terrible that had been done that one must atone for, and as Sheila said, it’s never been used before. The way that he used it, both at the World War II monument and in his speech [to Congress], I think it was a very smart move for trying to get an empathetic audience from the American public, and from the Congress, etc.

I think from the Japanese perspective, it went really well. From the Korean perspective, I think the Korean political elites felt, “Holy cow, he’s done such a great job! This makes the Japan-U.S. relationship seem so strong.” Koreans are in this strange competition with the Japanese—it’s like two people fighting for a lover. The U.S. has separate, but serious, substantive committed relationships with both Japan and Korea. And sometimes they just cannot be compared because they’re different relationships even though at times, we know, they’re linked because of the military-strategic, geopolitical ties. I think Koreans really need to reflect and have some self-control and self-discipline about not looking at U.S.-Korea relations through a U.S.-Japan lens. It’s not productive for Korea at all and it’s not productive for the United States. For the United States, the government and people who care about this, they want both alliances to improve, not one at the expense of the other. And that’s clear. Plus, the U.S. government has worked really hard. The White House, the National Security Council members, as well as members of the State Department, worked really hard to press upon Japanese diplomats and political elites, the importance of striking a positive [tone], improving the relationship between Japan and Korea. And Koreans, no matter what the Americans have been doing, in a sense, want more and it’s not clear what that more can be.

Earlier on, maybe a year ago, I, too felt the U.S. wasn’t doing enough, but now after talking to people, I’ve learned that the U.S. has been doing a lot to try to impress upon the Japanese political elites, this issue of improving relations and trying to be a good mediator, although not an official mediator. In that sense, I think Koreans putting more pressure on the U.S. is not going to be productive.

Also, I thought about this a lot. I think Koreans have to think about—both at the governmental and civil society level, issues about comfort women and Dokdo/Takeshima, but especially comfort women—at what point will Koreans be satisfied? What is the ultimate action or gesture the Japanese could do in order to satisfy the Korean sense of being wronged, being victimized, and having that wrong righted? We know on specific issues, what comfort women activists and the government want; a formal apology and a formal compensation, not the Asian Women’s Fund.

My sense is, even if Japan met some of these—some of them they cannot meet politically—if Japan were to hypothetically meet some of these demands, the question is, would the Korean criticism of Japan stop? I think it wouldn’t because criticizing Japan has become such an integral part of Korean daily mentality. It’s moved from the realm of politics and policy to something very personal in people’s work life, home life—it’s a regular topic of discussion. I think it has to move out of that domain. Otherwise, there’s no reconciliation or healing that can take place for South Koreans to get over the past history. Also, there’s no way that the Japanese and Koreans, government-wise, can do anything constructive to satisfy Koreans’ sense of being wronged and having it redressed.

Role of the U.S. in Korea-Japan relations

KH: One year ago, you thought that the U.S. government still has more to do to push Japan and Korea. Now you don’t think so. Could you specify what you have learned from the U.S. government and what they are doing?

Moon: I learned from government officials that they do bring this up with the Japanese. They do try to convey the Korean sense of urgency and passion on this issue. They do try to make it clear that the U.S. wants to see an improved Japan-Korea bilateral relationship which helps the U.S.’ position and friendship with both countries. I’ve been told that there have been very—I would say—clear, explicit, message for Japan to try hard. And of course, being sovereign states, you cannot have any government telling another government what to do and how to do it, and when and why. I think short of that, the U.S. officials have been trying. Plus, when President Obama went to Asia and visited Korea last year, that he used a term—it’s the first time—describing comfort women as [both] a historic issue and as an “egregious human rights violation.” This upset the Japanese, but he said it. It was the first time that the U.S. President has come out that strongly. You can’t get any stronger than that, calling it an “egregious human rights violation” in the international public sphere. And you had Hilary Clinton, a year before in Korea, saying similarly by referring to it as sexual slavery. 

I think the Obama administration has come out further than any other U.S. administration to make the comfort women issue in particular, but as part of the history problem, something that the U.S. government cares deeply about. Again, every government has limitations in terms of how much you can beat up on another government or criticize another government, and that’s not the role of the U.S.

Japanese are very frustrated because no matter what they do, they’re criticized. There’s no incentive. You have to provide an incentive for the other side to meet you part way. If the Japanese feel there’s no real incentive because the more they engage in this, it’s just an endless battle of criticism and recrimination, that’s not going to be productive.

…People wonder if this history problem is something very salient or prominent because of Mr. Abe and his political conservative orientation, a sort of desire for nationalist resurgence? Or if it is the general policy orientation of the “Japanese society.” That can be debated, but I do think we need to make a distinction between the Japanese government under Mr. Abe’s leadership and the Japanese people because the majority of the Japanese people do not want to see a re-militarized Japan. They don’t want to see a Japan that does not get along with its neighbors.

But I think if Koreans and Chinese push Japan in this way, then it’s possible that the Japanese public opinion can also change [to favor PM Abe] out of frustration and a sense of giving up [that engaging with China and Korea on history issues is a lost cause]. They may think that that no matter what they do, no matter what kind of positive sentiments they might want to hold, it’s not useful or effective.

Presidents and prime ministers come and go, but people stay. So it’s very important for Koreans and Chinese to take serious regard of Japanese people as people who are not [by nature, anti-Korean]—a Korean I spoke with referred to Japanese people as having militarism in their DNA. It’s pretty shocking. Scientifically, it’s just not possible. If people hold that view, that anyone born of Japanese descent is born to be militaristic, that’s a non-starter for any kind of reconciliation on historical issues. 

The East Asia Institute, a think tank in Seoul, and a Japanese organization, Genron, [together] put out a Japan-Korea public opinion survey every year, for the last three or so years. I just looked at the recent one from 2015. What’s really interesting is that on the question of what is causing—in Japanese and Korean publics—this tension between Japan and Korea and how do Japanese and Koreans view one another, Koreans come out saying that militarism is part of the way they view the Japanese. Militaristic. This is about 57% of the public in the report released this spring, which is even larger than 53% from last year. Then, when it comes to the question of what’s hindering the development of bilateral relations, only 7.6% of the Koreans say the reason is Japanese military buildup. There is a disconnect between people’s image, a psychological image, versus the reality of assessing what would cause militarism. Japan is one of the least militarized societies in the world. South Korea is one of the most militarized societies in the world. Yet, South Koreans, because of their historical experiences, regard Japanese as militaristic, but when they’re asked about the cause of the bilateral tension, only 7.6 percent responded that it was the Japanese military buildup. People need to reflect and analyze and disaggregate their lump sum emotional, psychological feelings and see if there is an actual empirical basis for their worries or concerns.

KH: You mentioned in the beginning about the U.S. role. There is still debate over what role the U.S. should play in this. For example, individuals, like the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, still believe the U.S. has more of an active mediator role to take between the two countries, for the sake of U.S national interest. What are your thoughts?

Smith: I’m more comfortable with the term ‘facilitator’ over the term ‘mediator’ and largely because I think a lot of these war legacy issues, in particular, the emotions that Kathy has described, can only be resolved by the Japanese and Korean people themselves. The United States can’t change the way you feel about each other or change the way you perceive each other. I think that work really has to be done by Koreans and Japanese together.

Kathy went through some of the issues of how the United States government has attempted to try to help the problem. I think you can point to several moments where I think that role was very effective. After Abe went to Yasukuni Shrine, the White House, the Blue House, and the Kantei, came together at the insistence, I would say, of the United States that this has gone too far and that there was a need to bring the two leaders together. So we saw the meeting at the Nuclear Summit at The Hague, and it was the first time, officially at any rate, President Park, Prime Minister Abe, and the President [Obama] sat down. That opened the way, not only for an improvement in trilateral cooperation on North Korea—which also had begun to be affected by the politics between Japan and South Korea—but for defense talks to continue and be a lot more productive in the months that followed. And it also opened the way for Japanese and Koreans to sit down. At the deputy Director-General level at first and then at the Director-General level and now of course, we got the vice-ministerial talks that ended up with Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, your Vice Foreign Minister Cho [Tae-yong] and Vice Foreign Minister [Akitaka] Saiki. But the reconciliation piece is really a bilateral piece. Whatever we say about it, it’s really the Korean people who have to think about how to proceed and the Japanese people about how to transform their thinking in a much more constructive way. We [Americans] can do things at certain moments and I think our diplomats have very effectively tried to seek out feedback, both from the Blue House and also from Korean diplomats to see where and how and when certain actions, convening of meetings, for example, might help that bilateral process a little bit more.

I think there’s another piece that we haven’t talked about regarding PM Abe, specifically, on the comfort women and trafficking issue. The President’s [Obama] statement [about human rights violation] was very powerful. It clearly resonated deeply in Tokyo. Outside the President’s statement, many of the people who talk often to the Japanese government and politicians really have brought home the fact that you can’t use a nineteenth century language to talk about what we in the twenty-first century see as fundamentally different in terms of human rights. So the very first thing [Japan] ought to do is change the language about how you think about the problem, but also how you talk about the problem, not only to Koreans, but in the global community. Before Abe came here, he had an interview in the Washington Post with David Ignatius in which he used the ‘trafficking’ word for the first time. It may not seem like a huge thing, but it is, in terms of, I think, the mindset of the way that the Japanese leaders have approached this problem, it is a huge shift [in the right direction].

KH: But it was not appreciated by Korean readers.

Smith: I know and these may seem like small steps to Korean audiences, and I’m not trying to say therefore, you should forgive him. But I think on my side, where I view the conversation over time, that’s one way in which we have had a fairly active debate with our Japanese colleagues, about the way they conceptualize the problem. Conceptually, …you did see a shift. Now, not everybody in Japan buys that shift, but the fact that the Japanese government has shifted the way it uses the lens to look at the problem, I think we shouldn’t overlook it.

The second issue, and again this was not deeply appreciated in Seoul, I understand, but President Obama’s own statement and then the fact that Prime Minister Abe and he stood together in Washington, and Prime Minister Abe said he would not revise the Kono Statement and he had no intention of revising the Kono Statement. Again, that global audience matters. He was on the record and he had said similar things in Tokyo, but they don’t translate the same way as standing next to the U.S. President and saying it out loud in a press briefing. In lots of ways, I think the Japanese government is saying, “Well, we’ve already said these things.” But the global audience has not heard them in the same way so I think that was an effective piece of the puzzle. But let me go back to where we’re all trying to head, which is, what’s ahead of us here.

Background on tensions in Korea-Japan relations

KH: I think as the days go on, it’s becoming harder to find a solution in South Korea-Japan relations. How did it come to this?

Smith: I think one of the things we ought to point out is that from 2012, which is roughly where I’d say the worst deterioration in the bilateral Japan-Korea started at the highest level, to now is 3 years. And in those 3 years, the costs of this diplomatic estrangement have become very apparent to me and to Kathy and others as well. You’ve now got discriminatory hate speech. You’ve antipathy of the highest order, as Kathy described, penetrating the mindset of South Koreans in their daily lives, but also the Japanese. If you spend any time in Tokyo, the extent to which the Koreans, and the ‘bad’ influence of the Koreans, become a topic of conversation is very quick. That popular antipathy on both sides has been allowed to go on.

Yes, the hate speech has been responded to and I’m grateful to watch that happen in Japan. Yes, the Japanese leadership had pointedly said there’s no place in Japanese political life for that kind of behavior. But diplomatic estrangement—when people don’t meet each other, it gives a lot of political space for nationalistic, discriminatory behaviors, and in fact the kinds of behaviors that become very hard to gain redress going forward. When—I hope it’s when and not if—President Park and Prime Minister Abe actually do meet, I think this is going to be a little harder to recover from than just the strategic diplomacy of Japan-China relations, for example. Because it has now gotten into the popular, public space, in both countries (Korea and Japan) in ways that never has before. Now I’m not saying discrimination against Koreans didn’t exist in Japan before, certainly it did. But now the political room for articulating that sentiment is much bigger than it’s been before. The repair of that is going to take not just one leaders’ meeting. Not just one compromise, perhaps, on the trafficking and comfort women issue. It’s going to take, I think, a pretty sustained effort on the part of both governments and civil society in both countries to repair the damage.

What does that mean? Well, we’re all looking at [a Japan-Korea] summit as the magic moment. I’m getting a little bit less convinced over the months that I’ve been watching this, that leaders’ statements in and of themselves, will cure the problem. We need to think conceptually a little bit bigger and perhaps a little bit broader. This is where maybe those outside of government have a little bit more latitude to be creative. But thinking bigger, the Japanese don’t want to rewrite the treaty, and the South Korean government doesn’t want to upend the 1965 Peace Treaty. Maybe there’s a bigger political ambition that ought to be considered, which is really, do the two countries want reconciliation to move forward in a much more holistic way? Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister [Keizō] Obuchi did, at the time (1998), but they didn’t really engage the broader civil society in either country. Maybe the time now is to think about going bigger and not just a political handshake and meeting, but thinking about what “big” would look like. I don’t have an answer right now, but we can talk about it at a different time.

The other is to go broader and that is I think one of the things I sense about the war memory and the war legacy issues. Not just bilaterally, but in the Asia-Pacific, more broadly, is that you’ve got a moment now, pretty much across Northeast Asia, serious new generations are coming to the fore. They’re challenging the post-war settlement in new ways. Each country has a different viewpoint on that post-war settlement, be it islands or comfort women, forced labor, or the Japanese Constitution. For China, of course, the post-war settlement is really all about its future aspirations in the region. I think we ought to be a little bit more engaged in talking about whether the post-war settlement is up for grabs. If so, what is the ultimate outcome of that? Our policymakers are not armed to talk about those issues because in large part, reconciliation between Japan and its neighbors has been a function of their bilateral relations, but clearly the United States also is now being influenced. Our policies are being affected, but also we are seen as kind of a place to argue what the right interpretation of history ought to be, and I think there is a place, for academics, to think more about some kind of broader initiative to talk about the twenty-first century in Asia. Not necessarily as who’s right and who’s wrong, and whose facts align this way and whose facts align that way, but to talk about what it means for the future of the region. And that’s a nongovernmental piece of the puzzle, something we ought to think carefully about.

KH: The reason why I keep bringing up the role of the U.S. here is not only because the U.S. is the venue of this debate, but it also has historical responsibility. Historians like John Dower raised a fundamental view about the San Francisco [Peace Treaty] system.

Smith: To be realistic about who in the U.S. we’re talking about—the U.S. government, I don’t think can proclaim the right answer. They can’t say this is the right order, therefore you should accept it. [We need to take a ] broader and deeper look at the constitution of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the constitution of the post-war order [in Asia] and what it’s meant to the countries and societies of the region. This questioning of post-war order, it’s going on differently in all of the societies of Northeast Asia, but it is also coming out of a particular geostrategic moment.

China’s rise, really, does frame this history debate in a rather different way. It’s not just about reconciliation all by itself, although that’s a huge, tremendous task. It’s also now about what kind of order is legitimate for Asia going forward. That’s why the normative dimension of this coming at a time when China’s influence is rising, when the Chinese themselves are beginning to act in ways that seem to challenge the post-war order in new ways, I think we’re going to have to be very careful to disaggregate, as much as we can, the roles of the government versus the roles of the academic community, for example, or other civil society participants. We ought to recognize that this is no longer just a conversation about the past. It’s really a conversation about reconstituting the post-war order going forward in the Asia-Pacific. I’m not sure if the United States can dictate the terms of that, but I absolutely agree that we [Americans] should be involved in trying to have the discussion about it.

Moon: I share Sheila’s views in many ways. I also think about the Japan-Korea issues, in terms of contemporary history. When were the periods when some of these issues were not issues? For example, Dokdo/Takeshima, until the mid-1990s, it was handled and very well managed in a quiet, non-politicized way through the fisheries agreement. It’s really the whole debate in the United Nations about the U.N. Law of the Seas and also post-democratization in South Korea with President Kim Young-sam and his counterpart, Ryutaro Hashimoto—they took this Dokdo-Takeshima issue as it became unanchored from just, what we would call, a commercial fisheries agreement. As the Law of the Sea debate unanchored it, the two leaders of both societies took this and politicized it for their own political purposes, for domestic political consumption.

In my view, sometimes Koreans and Japanese take on this essentialist view that things were always like that. “Japanese are always like that.” “Koreans are always like that.” Especially Koreans feel this way. First of all, it’s historically incorrect. It’s an inaccurate view, and also it is a psychologically self-defeating view because it just becomes your own narrative, rather than basing it on changes within society and historical moments. When I look at Dokdo/Takeshima, it’s very much about a particular moment in time in the early 1990s for international and domestic political reasons that this issue became a free-floating politicized issue. It then became a symbol for all sorts of historical issues. I think people just don’t think about that, but they just assume. The San Francisco Treaty, it didn’t touch Dokdo/Takeshima, but what I’m emphasizing is that it wasn’t an issue, even if it hadn’t addressed it. In that sense, we need to think about why at which moments these issues become politicized. Then, take lessons from the way it had been managed before or if there is a precedent for having managed them in more administrative, non-politicized ways. I think people need to know that historical truth.

Regardless of what a post-war peace treaty or system might have looked like for Japan and Korea, the reality is that a lot of this tension, especially from the Korean side, comes from, in my view, the fact that Korea is no longer being tutored by Japan, in terms of the path toward industrialization, learning about the export market, etc. It’s not behind Japan the way that it was for so many decades, from the 1950s until the 2000s or so. I don’t mean the GDP or the largeness of the economy — of course, Japan is way ahead, but I’m saying that in people’s mindsets, Koreans see themselves, as freely competing with Japan on various levels, in areas where Korea consciously knew it was going to take second place behind Japan.

I think some of this tension is being driven by Korea’s own successes and Koreans’ own sense of being a more important player in the region and in the world, and Korean products and Korean pop culture becoming serious contenders in the region and in the world, as [forces] of influence. At the same time, I think Japan’s sensitivities also are related to the simultaneous development or evolution of Japan from the superstar economy of the 1980s, when even the United States feared Japan, to this ongoing economic downturn from the 1990s on. Unfortunately, the two societies have been going in opposite directions in terms of national sense about economic strengths and future power and influence. It makes Koreans more aggressive because in a way, they’re capitalizing on Japan’s downturn, and it makes the Japanese more defensive. Even if we had a different kind of treaty system in the post-WWII era, if these economic political trends had occurred the way that they’ve occurred, then we still would see this kind of tension.

I want to be clear that when I look at this history issue, I think most scholars and analysts know that Japanese public and the government have a very difficult time grappling and wrestling with its war past for a variety of reasons. Japan, being the only society that was attacked by an atomic bomb, has its own sense of victimhood toward the United States, and I think it’s an embedded part of the national psyche. At the same time, I think the textbook issue, the government continues to raise this as an issue, is highly problematic. The fact that, even as Japan has been trying to extend a friendlier hand to Korea in recent months—I think it was two months ago—when the Japanese middle-school textbooks came out. I think the Japanese have to do a better job at sending a clearer, consistent message. For example, even though Prime Minister Abe had promised, given his word, that the Kono Statement and the Murayama apology would not be changed, because his administration had gotten [criticized] in 2007 as well as more recently, the [Suga] exercise of questioning whether the origin of the statements were legitimate, that kind of behavior actually exacerbated the tension. Because then, the Koreans feel they can’t trust the apology or trust what’s going on in terms of the Japanese sentiment regarding history and the war past.

Consistency, on the part of the Japanese government regarding for example, the comfort women issue or other historical issues, is really important. If they’re going to try to make amends by clearly stating that this was a wrongful act, and that it was bad, they need to stick with that. Because when the leader or his cabinet members start saying something else, the sensitivity on the Korean part is high, but also, it’s just confusing. I think that’s one area where the Japanese do need to put in more effort, in keeping a consistent message.

Smith: On the consistency argument, I can hear the Japanese saying the same exact thing about South Korea. “Why can’t the South Korean governments be more consistent and every time we have a new president, it changes again.”  “We keep trying and the goal posts are changing.” That’s what I hear from the Japanese governmental side.

The broader Japanese debate inside Japan, of course, has always been divided on war memory. That’s not to say that everybody is divided over the comfort women. That was a particular political football that began to gain momentum from the Kono Statement onward. Some conservatives, some of them are not even in the LDP, some now are out in other political parties, really took issue and they didn’t know the facts. I know that the policy review that Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga initiated on the Kono Statement was largely in response to Yamada Hiroshi, who is Ishin, a Japan Innovation Party member, who was insistent that you get Kono into the Diet to testify “why he lied to the Japanese people,” etc. From the right, there was a lot of pushback on the Kono Statement and a lot of misunderstanding, frankly, about the policy itself, about the review that was done under the Japanese government to produce the Kono statement, where the empirical materials sustaining that statement came from. There was a lot of misinformation that this all came from the testimonies of the women themselves; that was not the case. There was a lot of disinformation among the Japanese domestic political elites themselves, and they took it on. They thought they had a prime minister who was sympathetic to overturning it, frankly; politically, that was their calculation too. And he wasn’t, in the end.

Suga conducted this policy review and got the head of the Asian Women’s Fund to come in, the right-left spectrum of participants, very carefully managed; it wasn’t publicized at all [in order] to protect them from political pressure. And they came up with what you then saw in that document on the review of the Kono Statement, which allowed Abe the political space to endorse it. Those are the narrow politics.

It’s interesting to me that both sides see the other side as not trustworthy. The Japanese point to successive Korean leaders who make some kind of assessment of what needs to be done, the Japanese then do it, and then the next [South Korean] politician comes along and it’s overturned. There is, I think on both sides, mistrust on this issue. You can hear from both sides the idea that there’s no sincerity.

When I talk to Korean diplomats and scholars, I ask them, what should Japan do? Not the final resolution or conclusion, but what would it take for this to be seen as a sincere and in some ways, a full acknowledgement. I think that is where we are at the moment, trying to figure out what it is that can end this problem.

This is something that will take us far beyond this interview to talk about, but let me just put it out there. History is not one story, nor is it always static. It’s not like we come to an understanding of ‘this’ and we move and never think about it again.  It’s in our human lives; we go back and revisit our childhood or our relationship with our parents and spouses. We think about it and come back at it with a different perspective. I don’t think we should expect societies to do any less. I think it’s always going to be a conversation between the Japanese and the Koreans, between the Japanese and the Chinese, Koreans and the Chinese. It’s always going to be part of the fabric of the relationships in Northeast Asia, in particular.

Right now, we have this particular look at it, as the post-war settlement and not just the treaty,  the imagination of where it started and why it started and who was left out. But in ten or twenty years we can come back to this conversation with a slightly different lens. So I don’t think we can end it, but we’ve got to find the place…. Diplomats and political leaders have to find that place where both publics feel honestly that they can support it. And that’s where I worry. I worry that we’re at a point where we’ve had such an estrangement between the leadership. And it’s not President Park only. It’s President Lee Myung-bak as well, and Prime Minister Noda and Abe—[they] inherited it. So the two leaders today, in some ways, inherited an already deteriorated relationship. But the steps to a better constructive relationship [requires thinking] about what both publics can endorse and find common cause in. Not that the war issue or war memory will be erased or forgotten or resolved, but where is it that you can find that common place of acknowledgement and continued effort.

I don’t have a magic wand of a solution here, but clearly there are 51 women now [former comfort women] who need this to be managed with dignity. And then their lifetimes which are coming to a close, they need some kind of closure for themselves and their families. I think we’ve lost track in some ways of those women themselves in the discussions and I think somehow—again Kathy has done more work on these issues, more than I have—that needs to get back up into the priority here. I think Kathy’s very right to point out that it’s episodic. There’s been a lot of success in the past of managing the relationship, even managing legacy issues. Clearly Kim-Obuchi [statement], that was a highlight in 1998 that the Japanese like to go back to, but I’m sure there are other highlights that would be equally impressive.

I worry a little bit though about the fact that you’re looking at an Asia-Pacific today that is moving away from all of the constructed venues for dialogue. Bilaterally, clearly. Trilaterally, I think one of Korea’s great successes was being the main catalyst for the trilateral Japan-Korea-China relationship. China managed to stop that when the islands dispute broke out. I’m hoping that Korea will continue to be an advocate for that [trilateral dialogue] because again, that’s another venue for the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, where maybe not all of these issues can be resolved, but clearly a mechanism for reconciliation on war memory issues themselves. Somehow that will be a platform that will be very valuable. The other is the broader ASEAN-based multilateralism. The fact is right now, that is also seen to be coming apart a little bit, because of the rise of China. This is not specific to Japan-Korea relations, but institutionally, we’re seeing a lot of accomplishments become quite shaky. I think Japan and Korea both have to invest in thinking about making sure they don’t allow it to become too shaky. These issues, maybe there’s a platform within those venues for broader conversations with other partners in the region, but simply making sure that the venues of, if not dispute resolution, at least dialogue in the region, are not dismantled. Stopping [the dismantlement] and trying to find common cause beyond the war legacy issue in the region, I think is another priority that I hope President Park and Prime Minister Abe spend some time thinking about.

Moon: Aside from government, civil society, and academics, business relationships are probably stronger than any other aspect of Japan-Korea relations, at least in a continuing sustained way. Business leaders need to step up. This is in line with Sheila’s comments, that we have to move beyond just the historical—Japan and Korea’s relationship is not glued together just by the history issues. It’s really glued together by economic and security issues. But in recent years, the history issue has overtaken everything else. We can’t let the history issue divide what are very strong good aspects of the bilateral relationship. The reality is that Japan and Korea need each other very much, especially facing an economically and militarily strong China. This is just a practical observation. Two smaller powers, each would be stronger if the two have tighter relations.

I think recently, the president of Keidanren [Sadayuki Sakakibara] had come out and publicly stated that the Japanese government should work hard to consider the sentiments of the Chinese and Koreans and that he himself and his organization will work toward improving business ties with both Korea and China. I think that’s a very positive thing. I think we need more of that from Japanese and Koreans. On the civil society level, [more] student exchanges, starting not at college, but at a younger age, because the people-to-people aspect is very important. Even if government elites wanted to change their direction, it will be difficult to do within a democratic society where the public’s view of the other side has become so hardened. At the same time, even if the leaders could, the people would have to be able to support that. I think we need to focus on how people-to-people relations, exchanges, education, and also civil society exchanges, organizational exchanges, could help in that process. The private sector, academics, educators, artists, etc. and I don’t just mean K-pop, but various artists also need to be enlisted in any effort to improve the general relationship. Especially because these history issues have become so personalized and moved into the living room on television, the radio, and iPods. I think we should point out that the step by Keidanren was a very positive one and that we need more such gestures on both sides.

Expectations for a Korea-Japan summit

KH: To Sheila, what do you want to hear from President Park Geun-hye with regards to Korea-Japan relations? And to Kathy, what do you want to hear from Prime Minister Abe in August, with regards to Korea-Japan relations?

Smith: I don’t have very high expectations that President Park is going to come to Washington to talk about Japan. I think in the same way that we shouldn’t expect her visit to be a place to solve the relationship with Japan—the same way with Mr. Abe, we should give her the grace and respect that she deserves in the U.S.-ROK relationship.

That being said, I think it’s also a moment where there will be a lot of ears listening carefully to how she talks about her relationship with her neighbors and Korea’s long-term interests. I think she’s got a lot of latitude for communicating, especially on whether she uses the word “post-war settlement” or not, I’m agnostic on that. But on those kinds of questions about really where she wants this “correct understanding of history”—that’s the language she uses—what that really means for her in terms of the long-run and what kind of Asia-Pacific she wants to see.

To me, frankly, I worry a little bit. I don’t mind whether you’re on the right or the left, or whether you’re Korean, Japanese, American or whatever. When people start talking to me about the ‘correct understanding’ of history, I get a little bit uncomfortable. It’s dogmatic. I’m an American; nobody tells me what my correct understanding of history is. She doesn’t need to say this out loud, but I would like her to avoid that kind of dogmatic statement, frankly. She’s been making statements since the Abe visit that I think have been very positive, which is, “history is not the only aspect of our relationship with Japan.” She’s clearly walked away from that as being kind of a myopic focus when she talks about Japan. I think she has a lot of latitude also, to influence Abe’s statement. Remember, she’s going to be speaking before he has finally formulated that statement. Therefore, she has some shaping of her own that she can do. So if she uses her Washington visit as a venue to talk about Korean grievances, she will not have a positive shaping outcome. I think it will be a step back. If she uses the visit to provide some latitude and optimism about where Japan-Korea can go, then I think she’ll have a much better reception. There will be a little bit more receptivity to that… Not only Abe’s statement, but the Chinese commemoration in early September, and ultimately, Xi’s visit to Washington. If she sees that she’s in the context of setting up this larger geostrategic conversation about post-war order and about the future of the Asia-Pacific, that will be a very positive thing to do.

Moon: What I’ve heard on this issue is that President Park wants to emphasize the NAPCI, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative. That’s something that is her own regional policy idea and she announced it in the beginning of her presidency and there hasn’t been much development of it. I think she and her advisers want to make that, perhaps, a legacy for her. If that’s the case, that is the right kind of emphasis to have—to focus on peacebuilding measures, confidence-building measures not only toward North Korea, which is in my view, what NAPCI is primarily about. A way to bring in North Korea by talking about relationships in the region but, in general, to focus on confidence-building measures with Japan and with China too, because Korea has its own issues with China. Emphasize regional cooperation, peace building. This would be the kind of message that Americans want to hear, and as Sheila said, she would be much more effective in helping shape Japan’s response in the summer if the leader of Korea also focuses on positive aspects of a desirable future. Abe wanted so much to emphasize during his visit, the future. Japan’s future and its future with the rest of the region and the world, and I think that focusing on a desirable future is something that would also be very effective for President Park.

I think the Korean public, and the media, in particular, often hamstrings, ties up and constrains political leaders’ ability to be more innovative or creative, and actually be more productive in their work with other nations, by constantly demanding that Korea talk about the usual history issues. In this case, I know even now the media is doing that. It’s really counter-productive. It’s really counter-productive when a president, or any leader, is going for a whole variety of issues to discuss, to highlight one or two particular things as being the determiner of a successful or an unsuccessful trip. I think the public has to cooperate with her in a sense.

KH: Thank you, I wish I heard some more differences from you.

Moon: You’re talking to two Americans. Sheila and I are close friends, we respect each other, we like each other, and we have worked very closely together on research projects in the past.

No reason why we should necessarily have differences. We are, first and foremost, scholars and analysts. We are not advocates of either country. I think if you can make that clear that would be helpful, because sometimes both Japan and Korea have these expectations of people in Washington, and it’s just unrealistic.

Bottom line, we’re Americans and first and foremost, we’re analysts and scholars. That’s our primary identity. We are well-trained in being objective even if we have political opinions, and both of us, by nature, are inclined to listen to all sides and then make judgements and assessment on our own. Like she [Sheila] said, I would never accept anyone telling me what kind of history I’m supposed to believe in. That’s just absolutely unacceptable. I want to read, study, and figure it out.

KH: I’m sure this conversation will be helpful for Korean readers and what productive outcome we have to come up with in the end. Thank you very much.

The following are comments made after President Park’s decision to postpone her visit to Washington

50th anniversary of the Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty and Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of WWII

KH: Your thoughts on President Park’s decision to postpone her trip to Washington?

Smith: First, I was disappointed that President Park had to postpone her visit as there seemed to be some significant diplomatic momentum. The President’s presence here in Washington offered the opportunity for a Korean voice on regional dynamics during this difficult 70th anniversary year. 

Moon: I think the she made a very practical decision and I don’t think you’ll find many Americans surprised or upset at her decision. I just hope this will serve as an opportunity for all to realize the importance of South Korea’s role in terms of international cooperation in public health.

KH: As the 50th anniversary of normalization of relations between Korea and Japan approaches, there have been some behind-the-scenes discussions. In her interview with the Washington Post, President Park stated that both countries have made ‘considerable progress’ on negotiations over the comfort women issue and that it is in the ‘final stage.’ What did you think of her remarks? Do you expect something “meaningful” to happen?

Smith: The 50th anniversary of the Japan-ROK normalization treaty also creates opportunity, however, and I will be looking forward to the commemoration by President Park and Prime Minister Abe. I took the President’s interview in the Washington Post to heart, and look forward to understanding what she has accomplished.  

Moon: President Park’s comment about the final stages of negotiations on the comfort women issue and current talk about the possibility of ROK Foreign Minister Yun [Byung-se] visiting Tokyo on June 21 and attending a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of ROK-Japan normalization the next day, signal that some kind of progress might be happening. But sensitivities on both sides run high, and the stakes are high for both sides, so, both sides will remain cautious. South Korea will not want to look like it’s being too conciliatory toward Japan before Prime Minister Abe offers an address that appeases Koreans and other Asians. Also, the Park government is burdened with serious distrust and loss of faith by the Korean public over domestic issues such as Sewol, corruption in government, and MERS at this time.  A positive foreign relations gesture could help her and her party, but any sign of “giving in” to Japan will damage her government dramatically. It’s a tough balancing act.  

KH: What do you expect in Abe’s August statement?

Smith: I believe that his words in Congress should be carried over to express Japan’s commitment to reconciliation in Asia. The 70th anniversary is a time to remember the tumultuous region-wide conflicts that shaped contemporary Asia. Not only for those who lived through that horrendous restructure or even for those responsible for rebuilding Asia, but also Prime Minister Abe must educate this and future generations about their responsibility to ensure war does not become an option again. Prime Minister Abe must be clear-eyed and honest about what happened so that all of the people of the region can prevent the horrors of that war from being repeated.  

Moon: I think the most reasonable thing we can expect is that he will not make tensions between Japan and Korea/China/other Asian nations worse and hopefully will make things better. Given that he established a positive note in Washington, it would be sensible to build on that and move toward conciliatory remarks when he addresses Asians. Otherwise, he might lose some of the good will he gained while visiting DC. So, consistent messages of commitment to reconcile with Asian neighbors while moving Japan and Asia into a common future of peace and prosperity would be welcome.