South Korea's diplomatic vacuum becoming reality
By Shin Hyon-hee
09 January 2017

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Seoul officials are seen struggling to strike a balance between foreign policy interests and ever-growing people’s voices on sensitive diplomatic and security issues.

South Korea’s leadership vacuum is precipitating a diplomatic crisis, as Japan and China press their respective cases over a new “comfort women” statue and a US missile shield in an apparent bid to capitalise on Seoul’s political uncertainties for their own interests. 

With President Park Geun-hye’s duties in abeyance, Seoul officials are seen struggling to strike a balance between foreign policy interests and ever-growing people’s voices on sensitive diplomatic and security issues. 

After a respite, tension is flaring up again amid Tokyo’s stringent reaction to a “comfort women” statue newly installed by civic groups near the Japanese Consulate in Busan late last month.

Presents from citizens are piled up on Sunday at the feet of the comfort women statue located in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan. Yonhap

The Shinzo Abe administration on Friday recalled its Ambassador to Seoul Yasumasa Nagamine and Busan Consul-general Yasuhiro Morimoto. It also declared a moratorium in negotiations over a bilateral currency swap deal designed to stabilise the Korean currency in time of financial crisis.  

On Sunday, the hawkish premier ratcheted up pressure urging South Korea to “make clear, earnest efforts” not only over the Busan memorial but also the one in front of the Japanese Embassy here. 

He argued that the statue’s launch runs counter to a Dec 28, 2015 settlement under which Seoul said it will work to “properly resolve” the statue issue via consultations with related organisations. 

“The ‘comfort women’ agreement was reached in 2015. The sides mutually confirmed that the issue was finally and irreversibly resolved,” Abe said in an interview with NHK broadcaster. 

“As we are fulfilling our obligations, Korea should implement its own ... even though the government changes. It’s a matter of state credibility,” he added, referring to the completed transfer of 1 billion yen ($8.5 million) for a fund for the sex slavery victims. 

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also expressed “extreme regret” over the Busan statue during a visit to Paris on Friday, while saying South Korea remains the “most important neighbor sharing strategic interests.” 

Seoul, however, is trapped in a double bind. 

As Tokyo relays complaints, a rising flow of Busan residents are visiting the monument, especially after four banners put up around the consulate in opposition to the settlement were found damaged on Friday. The memorial was funded by public donations totaling some 85 million won ($70,600). 

The district office, which initially took it down citing the organizers’ failure to secure approval, backed down two days later in the face of public backlash, allowing its reinstatement. 

The bewildered Foreign Ministry, which wants the monument to be moved to a nearby park or other place away from the consulate, shifts the blame to the local authorities. 

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se called in Nagamine on Friday to display regret over Tokyo’s decision. Wary of possible further repercussions, however, the ministry refrained from labeling the move as a summons, calling it a meeting. 

“The minister and ambassador reaffirmed that they will steadily enforce the agreement and should continue to develop the relations based on trust between the two governments,” the ministry said in a statement. 

“Honestly, it’s a really thorny issue,” a ministry official said on anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter. “The district office is primarily responsible for the monument’s handling and we’ve conveyed our position for our part, but the office is steadfast it can no longer withstand the public pressure.” 

Tokyo’s stronger-than-expected reaction appears to be intended to soothe souring sentiment at home toward the statue issue for the time being, observers say. Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party who is known as a Korea-friendly figure, even said in an interview with BS Fuji broadcaster that South Korea is “important but a rather troublesome country to negotiate with.”

Yet even some Seoul officials resent that the situation would have not quickly worsened or may have possibly been prevented if the top leadership had remained in place. 

“The unbridled public resistance toward the sex slavery accord essentially resulted from the government’s failure to promote understanding both in advance and after its conclusion given the explosiveness of the issue,” said a diplomat who was not directly involved in the negotiation but previously worked on Japan affairs. 

“But now the dilemma is deepening with a leadership vacuum and more people speaking up against it.” 

Another official said the next president would have “few options but to break or renegotiate the agreement if any problematic content is discovered” when the ministry releases negotiation records in line with a court’s verdict on Friday. 

The diplomatic crisis is also intensifying amid China’s ongoing offensive on Seoul’s decision to station the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system here, which also carries its intent to stoke debate here and ultimately bring about an about-face when the government changes.

With the sex slavery settlement and THAAD decision deemed a centerpiece of Park’s legacy, many presidential contenders, both from the conservative and progressive camps, have vowed to upend or renegotiate it if elected. 

In a December 28 poll by Realmeter, about 59 percent of the 525 respondents said the comfort women deal should be annulled, whereas 25.5 percent said it needs to be sustained.

In the pollster’s separate December 29 survey, 51.5 percent of the 505 respondents said the THAAD battery should not be installed here or the next administration should decide. Around 34 percent said they were in favor of its stationing. 

Reiterating Beijing’s opposition to a THAAD deployment, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said Friday that to foster economic cooperation and people-to-people and cultural exchanges, the sides need “popular support.” 

“State management needs to be put back on track as soon as possible. If the current absence of leadership and halt in summit diplomacy is protracted, the country’s strategic, national interests are likely to be damaged,” said Lee Won-deok, a Japanese studies professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. 

“It’s not desirable for diplomacy to get entangled in the election or political strife. For now it’s crucial for technocrats to take the lead in maintaining stability and consistency in foreign policy.”

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