Interview

Trilateral Development in Northeast Asia
South Korea, Japan, and China

Interview with Evans Revere
December 15, 2015

Evans Revere, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior adviser with the Albright Stonebridge Group, provides insights into the recent trilateral summit. Mr. Revere assesses the current challenges confronting Northeast Asia and discusses the political and security implications for U.S. foreign policy.

An Interview with Evans Revere

By Julia Oh
December 15, 2015

On November 1, 2015, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, and the People’s Republic of China held their sixth trilateral summit after a hiatus of more than three years. Given the significance for both the U.S. rebalance to Asia and the stability of the region, Washington is closely monitoring the progress of this relationship among two of its closest allies, Japan and the ROK, and a rising power, China.

In this Q&A, Evans Revere, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior adviser with the Albright Stonebridge Group, provides insights into the recent trilateral summit. Mr. Revere assesses the current challenges confronting Northeast Asia and discusses the political and security implications for U.S. foreign policy.

How do you evaluate the outcomes of the recent trilateral summit?

The most important outcome was that the three countries agreed to restart high-level and regularized dialogues and not to allow politics, diplomatic differences, or differences over other concerns to come in the way of future meetings. The communiqué produced at the end of the meeting was rather bland and general, but all three parties seemed to recognize that the absence of trilateral dialogue had been a mistake. So the major takeaway of this summit is that Northeast Asia is back in business in terms of diplomacy at the highest levels.

For ROK-Japan relations, the issue of comfort women remains a major challenge, with little progress being made at this summit. What options are available for resolving this issue? Can the United States play a constructive role?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye had previously never held a formal bilateral summit, as relations had stalled over disagreements about addressing Japan’s treatment of comfort women during World War II. The South Korean side has made clear it will not regard the situation as closed until the Japanese side makes major changes in its position—and in a way that will not be reversed by a future administration. Japan holds that the issue was resolved in 1994 when it established the Asian Women’s Fund and arranged for surviving comfort women who accepted monetary compensation to receive a letter of apology from the Japanese prime minister. The Japanese side has also expressed frustration that, despite what it believes to be its flexibility and concessions, the South Korean side persists in pursuing and politicizing this issue.

Although the bilateral Japan-ROK meeting on this issue that was held on the margins of the trilateral summit did not produce a concrete game plan for resolution, the agreement to accelerate the ongoing director-level talks between the two ministries was significant. Even more importantly, having this issue discussed at the summit level means that the two leaders are now personally invested in reaching a bilateral resolution and have a stake in doing so. The current impasse over history can be resolved with leadership, flexibility, and courage on the part of both leaders.

The United States has a stake in the outcome of this dispute. However, Washington should not get in the middle of this history issue, much less serve as an arbitrator. Rather, Washington can be a facilitator to encourage and urge Seoul and Tokyo to move more quickly to resolve the situation. A resolution of the comfort women issue will open the door to further cooperation between the United States’ two key allies in Northeast Asia. Facing a belligerent North Korea and a rising China, the United States has a clear interest in trilateral engagement with Japan and the ROK.

The three powers pledged to “resume meaningful six-party talks at an early date to make substantial progress in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” Under what circumstances can you imagine a resumption of six-party talks, given the increasingly clear indications that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) never intends to denuclearize? Is it time to change the subject of the talks to other issues?

The language that you cited about the six-party talks is repeated at nearly every summit these days. Many people urge the resumption of talks and the need for denuclearization to reduce tensions in Northeast Asia, but what’s lacking is a specific game plan. The main roadblock is a lack of interest in denuclearization and in dialogue on the part of the North Korean side, not by the other five partners. As a result, the resumption of six-party talks is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely.

The North Koreans have continuously requested talks on nuclear disarmament and a peace treaty with the United States, but Washington has refused to hold bilateral discussions with Pyongyang on this issue. The ultimate path for a discussion of a peace treaty and a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is the six-party talks, and the central focus of these talks should remain denuclearization. Changing the focus to something other than denuclearization would fall into a trap set by North Korea. The goal and structure of the talks were clearly established under the September 19 agreement—the statement signed by the six parties in 2005—which includes the establishment of several working groups, including one to explore a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. In this connection, the central parties at the heart of a future peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula should be the two Koreas, not the United States and North Korea.

What do you think should be done to bring North Korea back to the table, and what role can China play on this issue?

Ambassador Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, recently spoke on Capitol Hill. During his remarks, he bluntly rejected North Korea’s U.S.-DPRK peace treaty proposal. It would have been better for him to also remind North Korea that, nevertheless, the subject of a peace treaty could be discussed in the appropriate working group of the six-party talks. President Obama’s remarks following the recent summit with President Park were a productive reminder that the eventual subject of any dialogue with North Korea should be denuclearization, and that the United States was prepared to talk with North Korea toward that end.

It’s important to keep in mind the language that North Korea uses—Pyongyang says it wants a peace treaty with the United States, which in North Korea’s view would be followed by the elimination of the U.S.-ROK alliance, removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, and the subsequent withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This is a very dangerous idea for both the ROK and the United States.

Some Chinese experts have raised an interesting point about Kim Jung-un’s speech at the 70th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea in October—that Kim redefined byungjin as economic development and the development of national defense, not nuclear defense, which could be a sign of the regime’s interest in resuming the six-party talks. This is an overly optimistic interpretation, but some Chinese scholars argue that international pressure on North Korea is beginning to work and that Pyongyang’s position is shifting.

Nevertheless, it still seems that the North Koreans are not ready to come back to the six-party talks. Pyongyang has made very clear that it is not prepared to discuss denuclearization, and North Korea still defines itself as a nuclear power in its constitution. Given the regime’s public statement that these weapons are essential to national security, there is not much wiggle room for North Korea to return to six-party talks.

At the summit, Prime Minister Abe appealed to the other two leaders for help on the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens. The Japanese government says that at least seventeen people have been abducted by North Korean operatives since the 1970s. Do you think this situation is likely to be resolved anytime soon? If not, should the United States and the ROK get involved?

This is an important and emotional issue for the Japanese. Before the Japan–North Korea dialogue on abductions, the United States engaged in dialogue with the North Korea on this issue in the late 1990s. Early on in these talks, the North Koreans asked how to get off the State Department’s terrorism list, and one of the United States’ requirements was further investigation into the Yodogo airliner hijacking and the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1990s. Unfortunately there has been no resolution to date.

At one point, there was hope that North Korea was serious about resolving the issue. Kim Jong-il authorized an investigation and undertook discussions with then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi as the two sides sought a good-faith resolution of this issue. The information that was turned over to Japan, however, was insufficient and rather deceptive, and talks fell apart rapidly after that. The United States and the ROK can encourage North Korea to cooperate with Japan, and they can and should continue to make this topic a part of the overall discussion in the context of the six-party talks.

The picture of President Park next to Xi Jinping at China’s World War II Victory Day parade made a strong impact on the media. What is the significance of this moment for U.S.-ROK relations?

President Park’s presence at the anniversary event with President Putin, North Korean officials, and President Xi was a bit uncomfortable to watch, especially as the Chinese paraded weapons systems that are probably aimed at the United States, U.S. bases, and U.S. allies in the region. However, it makes sense that the ROK is trying to forge a closer and more cooperative relationship with China in order to resolve the fundamental issues threatening peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia more broadly. Her presence at the parade does not necessarily constitute a “tilt” toward China, even if many Americans felt uncomfortable with it.

During her recent trip to Washington, President Park explained South Korea’s approach to China to President Obama in a very forthright way and dismissed this notion of a “tilt.” Additionally, President Obama rejected the idea that the ROK is tilting away from its alliance with the United States and clearly showed his understanding of the ROK’s desire to improve ties with Beijing. Importantly, however, he also made a point of reminding the ROK that when China is violating international norms and not behaving in a constructive fashion, the United States expects the ROK to voice its disapproval.

During his recent meeting with President Park, how did President Obama raise the United States’ concerns about Chinese actions in the South China Sea and Washington’s desire for the ROK to play a more active role in addressing this issue?

President Obama discussed a number of areas of concern regarding China. One of these areas was the South China Sea. Here, President Obama’s message underscored the need for the ROK to step up on this issue as an ally, just as Japan has made its voice on the situation very clear.

To the ROK’s credit, President Park has mentioned the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea several times, and the ROK minister of defense also mentioned it very specifically at his recent meeting with U.S. secretary of defense Ash Carter. There are nonetheless some obvious sensitivities in Seoul about speaking up against China. Occasionally, South Korean newspapers convey concerns about Seoul damaging its relationship with either the United States or China by taking a more active stance on disputes in maritime Asia.

It is helpful to keep in mind that not only does a significant amount of U.S. trade go through the South China Sea, but Japanese and ROK trade, particularly oil and gas, pass through the region as well. Accordingly, both countries have a major stake in freedom of navigation, and both should be sensitive to any actions that might impede unrestricted access through these waters. Thus, when any one country starts making claims that have serious implications for freedom of navigation in these critical waters, every stakeholder has an obligation to speak up. The more we hear the ROK’s voice regarding this common challenge, the more comfortable the United States will be.

What do you think the three leaders will discuss in future bilateral or trilateral meetings?

Now that the principle of regular trilateral cooperative dialogue has been re-established, South Korea, Japan, and China will certainly hold more summits. Even though the recent summit did not resolve any sensitive issues, it was an icebreaker. For example, on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue, there will be no immediate resolution, but bilateral discussions could provide a mechanism by which Japan and China forge an agreement to avoid military confrontation and keep their ships and aircraft away from each other to avoid miscalculations.

On ROK-Japan relations, the two sides have agreed to accelerate talks on the comfort women issue, and hopefully that may lead to a resolution. Perhaps at future summits South Korean and Japanese leaders can take stock of progress and agree to remain engaged at the summit level. For now, the main avenue for dialogue on this issue will remain working-level talks, while leaders will be able to periodically encourage their subordinates to push things forward. But at some point, this process will require the leadership, wisdom, and courage of national leaders to achieve a breakthrough.

Julia Oh is an Atlas Fellow at NBR.