Finding a Way Out from the Japan-Korea Crisis
August 6, 2019
* Adapted from "Five Steps Backward" published in the Chosun Ilbo on August 6, 2019.
I have two observations about diplomacy. First, diplomacy is not about achieving all of your goals on every single occasion. You may want to win it all in a business negotiation, but if that is not achievable, then you accept a partial success, rather than walk away. In other words, you satisfice rather than optimize. Sometimes, satisficing means achieving only 50 percent of what you want, but pragmatically speaking, this is still better than nothing.
Second, diplomacy always experiences setbacks but in the aggregate, it must be progressing forward. This is sometimes referred to as "two steps forward/one step back." The one step backward is unfortunate, but should be acknowledged as part of a negotiation that is still making incremental progress.
However, if diplomacy is consistently experiencing "one step forward/two steps backward," then the policy must be acknowledged as failing and in need of adjustment. These are two simple principles but they are critical to understanding and evaluating any negotiation. Diplomats must be pragmatic and satisfice rather than optimize. And they must self-assess constantly whether the diplomacy is making progress in aggregate despite occasional setbacks.
By these criteria, it is fair to say that South Korea-Japan diplomacy is an utter failure. Each side is seeking maximalist goals with an unwillingness to compromise. South Korea's decision to renege on the 2015 comfort women agreement; the court's ruling on Japanese businesses compensating Korean workers; Japan's delisting of South Korea from the export whitelist; and South Korea's retaliatory de-listing on Friday have taken relations not one step backward but five steps backward.
Each side says that its actions are not linked to each other, but they are all tied together. Moreover, while the disputes are nominally about specific issues -- historical grievances and unauthorized diversion of materials to sanctioned countries -- they are entirely political. For example, no comfort women victim has benefited from the government's reneging on the 2015 agreement. No forced labor victim has benefited thus far from the court ruling. And national security experts do not feel any safer from trade diversion of key materials to sanctioned countries as a result of the parallel "whitelist" delistings.
For the U.S., the crisis between our two key allies in Asia is detrimental in multiple respects. It is detrimental to the bilateral alliance with South Korea, the bilateral alliance with Japan, trilateral allied policy coordination, and deterrence postures against North Korea and China. It weakens the overall U.S. position in Asia in the face of a rising China. The Trump administration has been very slow to respond because they have been wholly focused on the fledgling diplomacy with North Korea. This lack of attention by the common ally has contributed to the current downturn.
There are no easy ways out of the current crisis. But first, all sides need to recognize the gravity of the situation and start to search for satisficing or pragmatic compromises rather than absolute victories. The U.S. should not mediate between the two allies, but it should publicly and at high levels call for its two allies to cease and desist with no further escalation. Washington should call on both sides to suspend the delisting actions for six months at a minimum to allow for each side to investigate any questions of trade diversion. Privately, it should appoint a special envoy who would call on Japan to engage with South Koreans and who would discourage Seoul from more public maximalists statements like "We will not lose to Japan again," which leaves no room for compromise.
Most important, the two sides should not let the current dispute bleed into critical security issues. In this regard, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which is in danger of being cancelled as a result of this crisis, should be preserved. Despite historical, legal, and political factors swirling in the current crisis, it is in the national security interests of Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. to preserve this agreement. At a time when Russia is traversing South Korean airspace, China is entering South Korea and Japan's Air Defense Identification Zone, and North Korea fired again last night for the fourth time in 13 days short-range missiles and projectiles aimed at South Korea and Japan, these adversaries are testing the competence of allied defense monitoring and response capabilities. It is critically important for the three allies to be able to respond to these activities by sharing information seamlessly.
There are many historical injustices in Japan-Korea relations that remain unresolved despite agreements reached between the parties from 1965 to 2015. This is undeniable. However, the expectation that the resolution to the current crisis hinges on a genuine solution to this deeply complex history is a self-defeating proposition for diplomacy. Trying to manage pragmatic cooperation despite these differences is in the nation's interest. Declaring that "we will never lose" (Korea) or refusing to talk (Japan) while neither party utters a response to four UN Security Council-violating missile tests by North Korea is detrimental to deterrence, defense readiness, and the national security of both countries and the U.S.