A former U.S. intelligence chief called on South Korea and Japan earlier this week to exchange emissaries to help ease strained ties between the two countries, saying their leaders need “trusted channels” to convey their true intentions. During a seminar in Washington, Dennis Blair, the ex-director of national intelligence, said trusted emissaries need to be used to gauge whether overtures would be reciprocated.
In dealing with sensitive historical and territorial issues, both Seoul and Tokyo may need to pay heed to his advice that national leaders and their immediate staff should resist the temptation to leak everything they do to the press to give the appearance of action and mastery.
Yoo Heung-soo, the newly appointed South Korean ambassador to Japan, appears set to work as a trusted channel for President Park Geun-hye, who may not be inclined or ready to exchange emissaries with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The 77-year-old former four-term lawmaker is known to have a broad network of senior Japanese political leaders.
Yoo, who flies to Tokyo on Saturday, is tasked with building the atmosphere for resetting the strained relations between the two neighboring countries on a forward-looking course.
During a ceremony to present a letter of credence to him Thursday, President Park reiterated her hope that South Korea and Japan will make a new start next year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic ties. Park gave the message in her Liberation Day speech last week, toning down her criticism of the Abe administration’s revisionist moves.
It would not serve Seoul’s long-term strategic interests to leave ties with Tokyo frozen. Its improved relations with Japan would strengthen trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. against threats from North Korea’s unpredictable regime and provide more leeway in coping with possible geopolitical changes in Northeast Asia. Park, who has remained negative on holding talks with Abe, may be put in an awkward position if Chinese President Xi Jing-ping decides to have a bilateral meeting with him during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be held in Beijing in November.
South Korea appears ready to do more to prevent historical and territorial disputes from spilling over into the areas of practical cooperation with Japan if Tokyo shows more sincerity toward solving the issue of wartime sexual slavery. In a meeting with reporters this week, Yoo emphasized that the comfort women issue is a problem which “Japan should resolve, rather than South Korea.”
But it seems hardly possible that Tokyo will take active steps in that direction. A policy committee of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday decided to urge the cabinet to work out a replacement for the 1993 apology for the sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.
In an apparent allusion to Seoul’s stance, the former U.S. intelligence head said remembering too much history could restrict a country’s ability to make progress. He should also have noted remembering too little history could be just as detrimental.