The ICAS Lectures


Remarks at the Institute for Corean-American Studies Fall Seminar

Larry Niksch

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 11, 2012
United States House Rayburn Office Building Room B 318
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry Niksch

Remarks at the Institute for Corean-American Studies Seminar

Larry Niksch1
ICAS Fellow

        My comments will deal with both issues under discussion today: the U.S. "pivot to East Asia" and Korea-Japan relations.

On the U.S. "Pivot to East Asia"

        The Obama Administration's announcement of a U.S. "pivot to East Asia" is symbolic in most ways. The United States never left East Asia in the decade of the 2000s. It was involved heavily in a robust military presence, active diplomacy, and expanding economic relationships including free trade agreements. Japan, China, and the two Koreas never entertained beliefs or suspicions that the United States was lowering its involvement. Such beliefs, however, did emerge in Southeast Asia among the ASEAN states. The Bush Administration did lower the diplomatic status of delegations it sent to ASEAN meetings. Bush Administration officials emphasized to Southeast Asian officials the need for cooperation in combating Islamic terrorism and placing greater pressure on the Burmese government for political reforms. To some Southeast Asian leaders, this emphasis on these two issues was excessive and, in the case of Burma, misplaced. However, U.S. security and economic ties with Singapore grew. The U.S. relationship with the Philippines emerged from the stagnation of the 1990s into a renewed alliance.

        The Southeast Asian view also stemmed from the perception--accurate--that top U.S. leaders' attention in foreign policy concentrated on the Greater Middle East--that stretch of countries, mainly Islamic, that range from Pakistan in the east to Morocco in the West. Moreover, while Southeast Asian leaders would not acknowledge this publicly, they appear to have suffered an underlying concern that the United States was paying insufficient attention to the political and economic inroads into the region by China.

        Thus, much of the Obama Administration's "pivot" to East Asia is symbolic: higher level representation at ASEAN meetings and greater emphasis on economic and other non-terrorism issues. There are, however, more substantive elements in the Administration's approach. The scope and depth of these elements are not clear and will need to be watched in the future.

        One such element is the promise to devote greater U.S. military resources to East Asia. The Administration says it will shift more naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Defense Department is engaged in discussions with South Korea and Japan over steps to enhance deterrence against North Korea in view of the prospect that North Korea soon will produce nuclear warheads for its intermediate range missiles. The United States is expanding military assistance to the Philippines aimed at creating credible Filipino air and naval capabilities. Again, however, all of these are in initial stages. The extent of decisions and implementation remains to be seen. The Administration also will face continuing challenges and the need for sound decisions regarding the U.S. force structure and military bases in several allied countries.

        The same is true regarding the Obama Administration's more active diplomacy. Secretary of State Clinton has visited East Asia on numerous occasions and has spoken out on a number of key issues involving China, Burma, and North Korea. The Obama Administration has involved the United States in negotiations over proposals for new regional trade organizations. The Administration finally acted to secure congressional ratification of the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. The Administration has acted assertively in response to the political turn in Burma toward reform and liberalization. It has reduced U.S. sanctions, appointed a U.S. Ambassador to Burma (a post vacant since the early 1990s), and is working with other countries to fashion economic aid programs to Burma.

        Either the Obama or Romney administration will have to make future decisions on how far these new diplomatic initiatives will go and whether there are new opportunities for initiatives. There will be more U.S. pressure on China on trade and currency manipulation if Romney is elected; but a President Romney would have to weigh carefully the penalties he would impose on Beijing. The Obama Administration has taken a more open role in the maritime disputes and related history disputes involving China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. So far, much of this role has been rhetoric. On several of these disputes, U.S. leaders will have to decide the scope of the U.S. role or whether the United States should be involved at all. More decisions lie in the future regarding sanctions lifting and aid to Burma, and economic aid to the southern Philippines if a peace settlement is reached between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front.

        When North Korea produces and mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles, U.S. denuclearization policy toward North Korea will have no further credibility. Once the Pyongyang regime achieves this fundamental strategic-military goal, it never will give up such an achievement. The United States and South Korea will have to devise a new strategy toward North Korea that will have to encompass new or previously neglected issues (economic reforms, human rights, etc.), managing nuclear crises that North Korea likely will create, and enhancing deterrence against a real North Korean nuclear threat.

        East Asian leaders must keep in mind that the Greater Middle East will not recede as a U.S. priority. The pivot to East Asia is not an "either-or" proposition related to the Greater Middle East. Challenges to the United States in the Greater Middle East will continue as the September 11, 2012, protests and attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions demonstrated. There will be pressures for U.S. military intervention related to countries with political instability or upheaval, Iran's moves toward nuclear weapons, and the danger of a Middle East explosion if Israel attacks Iran. Creating an effective deterrence structure to counter a nuclear-armed Iran would require a substantial commitment of U.S. military resources and more direct U.S. security commitments to Israel, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf states.

On Korea-Japan Relations

        Disputes between South Korea and Japan over history and Dokdo-Takeshima resurface often. This time, the result has been a quick termination of two military agreements between Seoul and Tokyo that the Obama Administration had encouraged. American attitudes toward this situation can be summarized as follows:

---A desire that South Korea and Japan set these disputes aside when considering present- day security cooperation.

---A broader American view of these disputes as unimportant; a wish that they would "go away;" that the United States should stay non-involved.

---A fear among some Americans, including the author, that these disputes could grow more dangerous between South Korea and Japan and threaten a rupture of their relationship. This concern focuses on scenarios of South Korean hysteria if Japan rearms in response to a North Korean nuclear warhead capability or if oil and/or natural gas should be discovered near Dokdo-Takeshima.

---A sympathetic American view toward South Korea's substantive positions and claims on these issues, including Seoul's history-related claims to Dokdo and the grievances of former Korean "comfort women" forced to sexually serve the Japanese Army before and during World War II.

---A corresponding negative American view of South Korean tactics toward Japan; a view that South Koreans use these disputes more to humiliate Japan than to settle them; that South Korean demands on Japan are unlimited; and that South Koreans refuse to acknowledge and support actions by Japanese that Americans regard as positive (the 1993 Kono statement of the Japanese Government on comfort women, for example, which acknowledged the Japanese Army's role in creating and operating the comfort women system and apologized to former comfort women).

        Americans should realize this: these disputes, including the dispute over history, will not go away. Unless there is some movement toward moderation or settlement of them, U.S. efforts to promote South Korean-Japanese security cooperation will achieve little.

        A debate is emerging in Washington over whether the White House and the State Department should modify the traditional U.S. policy of non-involvement and neutrality. In fact, the Bush and Obama administrations have veered slightly into involvement. In 2006-2007, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan reportedly warned the Japanese Government not to modify or rescind the Kono statement. In 2012, the Obama Administration ruled that official U.S. maps would designate "Sea of Japan" for the body of water separating Korea and Japan instead of the Korean-preferred "East Sea." Also, Secretary of State Clinton reportedly told State Department officials that the term "sex slaves" was more accurate than "comfort women." Moreover, in 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution on comfort women in order to counter proposals in the Japanese Diet to downgrade the Kono statement.

        I would recommend the following to the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

        To Japan: Make no further attempts to downgrade the Kono statement; pass a resolution of the Japanese Diet reaffirming the Kono statement as the policy of the Japanese Government. Reference the Kono statement in all history textbooks. Consider resuming operation of the Asian Women's Fund if the South Korean Government and activist groups would guarantee a positive reception to the Asian Women's Fund. Consider proposing to South Korea a negotiation of the multiple maritime issues between South Korea and Japan, including Dokdo-Takeshima. Consider proposing to China that the dispute over the Senkaku islands be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ); this would strengthen Japan's diplomatic position on that issue as well as on Japan's existing proposal to South Korea that they take Dokdo-Takeshima to the ICJ.

        To South Korea: Produce an official government "White Paper" detailing the historic evidence supporting South Korea's claim to Dokdo-Takeshima. Consider a negotiation of multiple maritime issues with Japan.

        Change South Korea's negative attitude toward the Kono statement and Japan's Asian Women's Fund, which the Japanese Government and private groups set up in the 1990s to provide aid to former comfort women in several countries, including South Korea (South Korea rejected the Asian Women's Fund in 1997). Suggest to the Japanese Government that a Diet resolution endorsing the Kono statement would be significant progress toward resolving the comfort women issue and would be received positively by the South Korean Government.

        The irony is that both hard-liners in South Korea and the history revisionists in Japan reject the Kono statement and the Asian Women's Fund, albeit for different reasons. A smart South Korean strategy should aim at isolating the Japanese history revisionists, whose aim is to absolve the Japanese Army from any war guilt during World War II. Support for Japanese who support the Kono statement and the Asian Women's Fund should be a prime South Korean tactic. South Koreans should praise future positive Japanese actions on the history issue instead of remaining silent on them.

        The South Korean Government should terminate demands that the Japanese Government pay "official financial compensation" to Korean comfort women. Japanese moderates and anti-history revisionists labored against difficult opposition in establishing the Asian Women's Fund and securing letters of apology from Japanese Prime Ministers to comfort women who accepted aid from the Asian Women's Fund. Current demands for "official financial compensation" weaken the position of these Japanese; they will not repudiate the Asian Women's Fund. This, in turn, strengthens the arguments of the Japanese history revisionists that South Korean demands are limitless.

        South Korea should broaden its involvement in Japanese history disputes beyond Korea-centered issues. There are Japanese history issues involving China and other East Asian countries, the United States, and even Okinawans on which South Korea would be justified in taking positions. This would increase attention from other governments to the Korea-Japan disputes.

        South Koreans should not over-react to Japanese consideration of a military buildup in response to North Korea mounting nuclear warheads on its Nodong missiles targeted at Japan. The United States likely would support Japanese decisions to develop long-range strike forces capable of hitting North Korea. A negative South Korean over- reaction could produce damaging frictions between Seoul and Washington. South Korea, itself, is expanding the range of its missiles in reaction to a likely expanded North Korean nuclear threat. It should not try to impose a double standard on Japan if Pyongyang places nuclear warheads on its Nodongs.

        To the United States: On Dokdo-Takeshima, the United States would make a positive contribution to the competing historic claims by clarifying the U.S. historic role. Specifically, the Secretary of State should order the State Department Historical Office to prepare a study of U.S. policy toward the islets from 1946 to the signing of the Japanese Peace Treaty in September 1951. The study should have three objectives: (1) to lay out the views of U.S. military occupation authorities in Japan and South Korea toward ownership of the islets; (2) to describe consideration of the islets' status in the preparation of the Japanese Peace Treaty by John Foster Dulles and his staff in the State Department; (3) to answer the question why the final Peace Treaty omitted reference to Dokdo- Takeshima despite Dulles being aware of the dispute and the Peace Treaty itself designating ownership of a number of other islands that Japan had controlled prior to its surrender. There are at least three theories about this question; clarification would be helpful in moving the dispute toward resolution.

        The U.S. Government could praise Japan for proposing that the Dokdo- Takeshima dispute be taken to the International Court of Justice in conjunction with suggesting that Japan propose to China that they take the Senkakus dispute to the ICJ.

        As in 2006 and 2007, the U.S. Government should warn Japanese officials against downgrading the Kono statement. U.S. officials could suggest that a Japanese Diet resolution reaffirming the Kono statement would be welcomed in the United States.

        American officials could be more assertive with South Koreans in defending the Obama Administration's decision to use "Sea of Japan" on U.S. maps. It seems to me that the geographic argument is compelling. That body of water has a distinct characteristic because of the Japanese archipelago.

        In conclusion, American strategy should have three objectives: (1) isolate the Japanese history revisionists by supporting those Japanese who seek to acknowledge historical wrongs; (2) influence South Korea to adopt a "smart" strategy toward Japan on these issues rather than an ultra-confrontational approach; and (3) helping to clarify the historic record.

1 Larry Niksch was a Specialist in Asian Affairs at the Congressional Research Service from 1966 to 2010. In addition to his position as Fellow at ICAS, he is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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