Tensions in Northeast Asia are at an all-time high, particularly between South Korea and Japan. North Korean belligerence and Chinese aggression contribute to rising tensions in the region, while animosity from historical issues, recent insensitive commentary, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasakuni shrine in December 2013 have exacerbated tensions between Japan and Korea.
An event Tuesday at The Heritage Foundation brought together a group of Asia experts, including Admiral Dennis Blair and South Korean Ambassador Ahn Ho-Young, to outline the way forward.
Since both South Korea and Japan are allies of the United States, the fate of their relations have significant implications for U.S. policy in the region. There was agreement among the panelists that Seoul and Tokyo were equally to blame for their faltering relations, but panelists also noted that there were clear steps that each party could take to address ongoing issues.
“History is important, and historical ignorance can cause a country to repeat the same mistake twice,” stated Blair. “However, remembering too much history, and understanding too little of the difference between the past and the present can conjure up false historical analogies, restrict a country’s ability to make progress, and cause it to miss opportunities for positive change.”
Concerned that South Korea and Japan are missing an opportunity for positive change, Bruce Klingner, senior fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation, noted particular steps the two countries could take to achieve reconciliation.
For Japan, Klingner recommended establishing a workable reconciliation process, issuing new statements (similar to the Kono and Murayama statements), admitting responsibility for past transgressions, and pledging that Japanese prime ministers will not revisit Yasakuni. For South Korea, he recommended a policy of trustpolitik, a policy that recognizes impending security concerns and initiates reconciliation between the two countries. He also recommended that South Korea host a bilateral summit if the previous objectives are met.
Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that high-level diplomatic exchanges between Japan and Korea should not be put on hold due to history issues. He further asserted that Korean officials should be willing to meet with Prime Minister Abe on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in September.
“Those who dwell solely on the past are condemned to stay there.” said Evans Revere, senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group. His warning rings true. If Japan and Korea are unable to establish reasonable standards for reconciliation, their relations are destined to stagnate, damaging both Japan and South Korea’s shared security and economic interests in the long-run.