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When U.S. President Barack Obama touches down in Asia later this month for a long-overdue trip, he will have a daunting challenge ahead of him. At the granular level, he will try to speed progress on various trade negotiations and security pacts. At the strategic level, he will aim to reassure U.S. allies and partners that Washington remains committed to its pivot east. The trip, however, is about much more than treaties and reassurance. It is primarily meant to signal U.S. resolve in the face of those who would forcibly alter the current regional order, namely, China and North Korea.
The first leg of the trip will include stops in Japan and South Korea, and one of Obama’s biggest challenges will be to bring Washington’s two major regional allies closer together. Washington has already made some laudable progress on this front, organizing a trilateral summit in The Hague last month that brought together Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Photographs of Abe and Park, smiling and shaking hands, represented a major departure from their usually frigid exchanges. Although some observers heralded the meeting as a breakthrough, others took a more critical view, arguing that Abe and Park were simply responding to intense U.S. pressure.
The reality probably lies closer to the latter interpretation, but the meeting did bring about some tangible progress. For one, it presented a united front toward an increasingly volatile Kim Jong Un regime and triggered a new round of high-level consultations aimed at deterring Pyongyang. The meeting also provided an important public relations victory for all three countries, generating political capital that can be spent on future diplomatic initiatives. Abe even introduced himself to Park in Korean -- a positive sign of Japan’s sincerity in repairing ties.
But this progress remains tenuous. The past year has seen little respite from the constant sniping and bitterness that has long characterized Japan-Korea relations. South Korea protests Japan’s resurgent nationalism and its lack of contrition for the crimes Japan committed during its colonization of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. Tokyo, meanwhile, complains of “Korea fatigue,” noting that its repeated apologies and efforts to repair relations have met with sharp elbows and harsh rhetoric from Seoul.
This mutual frustration has resulted in a series of diplomatic barbs from both sides, including Abe’s opaque remarks about revising the so-called Kono Statement, which admits Japan’s guilt in coercing “comfort women” in Korea. Abe further stoked the fire by visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine last December. For her part, Park has railed against Japanese nationalism and said publicly that a meeting with Abe would be “pointless.” Seoul has also prodded Tokyo through controversial judicial decisions demanding that Japanese companies compensate South Korean citizens for conscripting their labor during the colonial period. In response, Japan has argued that these issues were legally resolved with the signing of the Japan-Korea treaty, which normalized ties in 1965.
So far, of course, the feuding has not approached anything resembling Tokyo’s standoff with Beijing in the East China Sea. Japan and Korea continue to manage their territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, a group of islets claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo, using formal diplomatic channels. And the relationship has also not yet reached the point where both sides are on a complete public diplomacy offensive, as with China’s approach to discrediting the Abe government overseas.
Even before the summit, the Obama administration had seemingly abandoned any hope of playing mediator on more sensitive issues, such as the rifts over “comfort women” or the Liancourt Rocks. Although improved ties between Tokyo and Seoul remain a long-term goal, Washington has essentially tailored its foreign policy to focus narrowly on mutual security issues rather than a broader rapprochement.
Washington seems most immediately concerned about its ability to work with both allies to stave off provocations from North Korea. But it should not neglect the deeper and longer-term issues that go beyond deterring Pyongyang. For example, tensions between Japan and Korea have opened the door to stronger ties between Seoul and Beijing. This reinvigorated relationship was on full display when Park made a landmark four-day trip to China last spring, while snubbing Abe’s request for a meeting. Abe’s stance on Japanese history, combined with other factors such as Beijing’s disenchantment with North Korea, has also pushed South Korea closer to China. Meanwhile, China has taken a harder stance against Japan, as Seoul has done little to resist Beijing’s provocations in the East China Sea.
Perhaps most troubling is South Korea’s concern that Tokyo’s security and defense reforms signal a resurgent militarism. Seoul has openly questioned Japan’s move to reinterpret its right to collective self-defense and its reversal of a decades-long ban on exporting weapons. Seoul’s criticism is not only baseless but could also create a significant rift with Washington, which sees such reforms as essential to modernizing its alliance with Tokyo. The United States, in other words, cannot afford to watch such sparring from afar.
That is not to say that the Obama administration should attempt to play the role of referee in such complicated and long-standing disputes. As Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote, the best approach is to continue working as a facilitator rather than a mediator. The Hague summit exemplifies this strategy, as it spurred Seoul and Tokyo to make measurable progress without ineffectively forcing détente on either side.
A more comprehensive rapprochement between Japan and South Korea will require a sustained effort on the part of Washington, but also a light touch. In the coming months, it will be vital for both sides to recognize that incremental change is better than no change at all. Even worse than the current status quo would be a deterioration of current relations, which could disrupt existing areas of cooperation, especially trade. Indeed, there have already been signs that important economic arrangements -- such as the trilateral free-trade agreement with China -- could get stuck in the mud. And although a bilateral summit between Park and Abe might still be a ways off, it is important to remember that Park is currently in a rare position to take some political risks. As the experts Karl Friedhoff and Kang Chungku noted last fall in a report published by South Korea’s Asan Institute, “While the time to spend that political capital may not be now, it should not be significantly delayed. When President Park’s approval ratings begin to decline -- as they have for every president -- engagement with Japan will be a more difficult sell.”
Japan and South Korea also need to cooperate on other important security matters. In this vein, the two countries should look to collaborate on less sensitive issues. They could benefit from conducting joint counter-piracy exercises outside of the region, for example, since both nations have key interests in the Horn of Africa. The South Korean and Japanese parliaments already cooperate on a host of issues, including trade and the treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan, through existing inter-parliamentary groups. And most urgent, Tokyo and Seoul need to cooperate when it comes to dealing with the Kim regime and engage in joint contingency planning for its possible collapse.
During his visit, Obama should push Abe and Park to explore all of these avenues. They offer the best hope of prodding both sides to overcome their historical demons -- and of strengthening the regional order as it comes under further threat.