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Hither and Yon

Harsh memories from the Northeast Asia cauldron of last century live on

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
The trilateral summit last weekend was long on promises but short on hard-and-fast commitments and planning.
Yes, the fact that leaders of Korea, China and Japan could meet at all was remarkable considering Japan’s ongoing occupation of the Senkaku Islands, Diaoyu to the Chinese, in the East China Sea and encounters with Chinese fishing vessels within the 20-kilometer limit patrolled by the Japanese coast guard.
Also, there’ve been overflights by Chinese planes to which Japan has responded by scrambling its own aircraft ― a dangerous game that risks open hostilities.
Then there’s the Japanese claim to two huge rocks, Dokdo to the Koreans, Takeshima to the Japanese, in the middle of the East Sea, a.k.a. the Sea of Japan. A Korean police garrison zealously guards the rocks, which the Japanese say are theirs. And, yes, one other territorial dispute seems equally insoluble ― that’s the Ieodo rocks, almost entirely under water, 150 kilometers southwest of the southernmost Korean island province of Jeju and 275 kilometers east of the Chinese mainland.
China claims the rocks, named Suyan by the Chinese, but the Koreans have fixed a helicopter landing pad, a weather station and communications gear to them and are not about to leave.
But hang on. Did the three leaders at the trilateral summit consider these conflicting claims ― or even mention them? No way.
A carefully contrived 55-point Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia breathes not a word about such contentious differences.
Rather, the statement is laden with promises of plans, hopes, a wish list for developing the “process of dialogue and cooperation.” There was, said the declaration, “common recognition that the situation in which economic interdependence and political/security tensions coexist must be overcome….”
In fact, probably the most substantive conversation of the weekend was the lengthy exchange between President Park Geun-Hye and China’s Premier Li Keqiang the day before the trilateral get-together.
Li of course ranks below China’s President Xi Jinping, but he had the authority to make economic deals and pitch for trade and investment ― the most pragmatic reason for burying festering differences. He and Park oversaw the signing of 17 agreements on matters ranging from trade and economy to people-to-people exchanges, and they talked about a Northeast Asia free trade agreement and free trade zone.
Then, in a wide-ranging speech at a luncheon just before his motorcade whisked him to the Blue House for the trilateral summit, at a head table beside the chieftains of Korea’s biggest chaebol, Li invited cooperation on enormous projects, among them a vast road and rail network across Asia. That vision of peace and prosperity may have been the most compelling aspect of three days of summitry in which all agreed to sublimate historical bitterness.
No, the talking in the trilateral summit and the next day when Park hosted Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was hardly a total waste. If there’s one takeaway from all the summitry over a long weekend, it’s that all agreed it’s better to keep on talking and talking than to exchange recriminations through the media and lower-level officials.
The real breakthrough between Park and Abe was that, yes, they would talk again about reaching an understanding on compensation for the tens of thousands of “comfort women” forced to serve Japanese soldiers in World War II. The chances of actually coming to terms are not good. Japan claims to have already granted compensation in the form of an aid package extended when Japan and South Korea opened diplomatic relations half a century ago. Korea’s position is that Japan owes much more compensation on an individual basis.
Still, the mere fact that Park and Abe managed to meet one-on-one at the Blue House and wind up agreeing to meet again represents a thaw in the icy relationship that’s existed since the last Japan-Korea summit held three years ago before her election as president. Now that they are on talking terms, perhaps they can see their way realistically to discussing other issues, notably military cooperation.
Both Japan and South Korea rank among the staunchest military allies of the United States. They are not, however, allied with one another. Their refusal to get along has represented a serious problem in planning for contingencies while North Korea spews forth bellicose rhetoric, threatens a fourth nuclear test and miniaturizes a warhead small enough to fit on the tip of a long-range missile.
Like the Park-Abe summit, the trilateral gathering also ended with a promise to meet again ― in this case on an annual basis as the leaders of Korea, China and Japan were doing for five years until the last trilateral in 2012.
The trilateral process broke down for the same reason Japan and Korea were no longer talking to each other ― residual antipathy toward Japan for the suffering inflicted during the conquest of much of China on top of harsh colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. No matter how hard they strive to overlook the past for the sake of the future, the memories of that era won’t go away.
Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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