Background Briefing - Developments on the Relationship between Japan and the Republic of Korea

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
via Teleconference
December 28, 2015


MODERATOR: Thanks so much, and thanks, everyone, for joining us this morning. Well, just wanted to hold this background call – and it is on background. And I would also state up front that this is actually – this call will be embargoed until the release, we hope very soon, of a statement from Secretary Kerry on this very issue. But we’re very fortunate to have with us this morning [Senior State Department Official] for the purposes of this call and then for the purposes of your reporting is with us to discuss the – today’s announcement by the governments of Japan and the Republic of Korea on the sensitive historical legacy issue of so-called comfort women. Again, this is embargoed until the release of the Secretary of State’s statement on this very issue that we expect to come very soon.

So without further ado, I’ll hand it over to our senior State Department official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you very much, [Moderator]. Secretary Kerry in the statement that he will release shortly will warmly welcome the agreement reached and express America’s strong support. We think it’s a very powerful, landmark agreement. We want the agreement to speak for itself, which it does very powerfully. It makes very clear the intention of each side to implement it and to ensure the finality and irreversibility, to use their word, of the agreement.

Let me just run quickly through what appear to us to be the high points. From the Japanese side, the foreign minister made very clear that Prime Minister Abe expresses apologies, expresses remorse, and the statement refers to Japan’s awareness of its responsibility from the perspective of the treatment of these comfort women. These are important landmarks that remove any ambiguity about Prime Minister Abe’s position or Japan’s commitment to those responsibilities and its apology.

Another aspect of the Japanese statement is the commitment by the government through its budget to contribute funds to address the healing of the comfort women in cooperation with the Republic of Korea. In the past, many Koreans objected to the fact that previous funds were not official. The use of a direct budget contribution clearly to put $8 million into this fund addresses and resolves those concerns.

On the Korean side, the statement by Foreign Minister Yun confirms very powerfully that the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement on the premise that the governments will steadily implement the measures in the agreement – specifically, that Japan will move ahead with the contribution through its budget for the fund that’s being set up by the two governments.

Secondly, the statement commits the Government of the ROK to addressing the issue of the statue built in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul through appropriate measures, such as consultation, which is an important signal from the Japanese perspective. And the two governments commit to refrain from taking this dispute into the international platforms of the United Nations or elsewhere through accusations and criticism.

These are hugely important points. We believe that this agreement in its own way is as strategically consequential as perhaps the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is in the sense that it opens the door to, as both Prime Minister Abe and President Park put it, a new era. And a new era in which these two major economies, two major democracies in Northeast Asia, are cooperating fully without the encumbrance of these sensitive issues and are competing in a friendly way is a stable, prospering, and happy East Asia.

Now, the credit goes to the Japanese and the Korean leaders and their governments. These are two strong leaders, two conservative leaders who are making their own decisions based on the interests of their own nations, not because the United States asked them to.

The U.S. has played an appropriate and constructive role. The Obama Administration strongly supported all gestures of reconciliation. We have shared our best advice; we’ve underscored the benefits to us and to everybody in reaching an agreement; and we’ve worked quietly to, where possible, prevent or to resolve misunderstandings between the two. President Obama, you’ll recall, hosted a very important trilateral summit in 2014 in The Hague. Secretary Kerry has hosted numerous trilateral meetings with his foreign minister counterparts. The Secretary of Defense, the deputy secretary of state, other senior State Department officials have had multiple trilateral meetings which reinforce the value that all three of us derive from closer cooperation. And the Secretary, as did the President and the Vice President, have used visits and multiple bilateral meetings to talk through the issues in ways that we hope were helpful.

So we see this agreement as a major step forward. It is the choice of reconciliation over recrimination. We hope that it will have the effect of relegating the bitterness of the past to the past and opening a new chapter of cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, and as well as on a trilateral basis.

We also hope and expect that this agreement will have a calming effect on nongovernmental communities, that it will help build trust that will help Japanese and Koreans everywhere to embrace a new chapter in Japan-Korea relations of cooperation and reconciliation.

So let me stop there and see if there are any questions.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. We’ll now be able to take a few questions. Operator, go ahead.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1. Once again, for questions please press * then 1.

Your first question comes from the line of Pam Dockins from Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Thanks for doing this. A couple of questions. First of all, can you talk about how the settlement between South Korea and Japan might benefit the United States in terms of its regional interests? And then also a follow-up question concerning the timing. You mentioned the multiple meetings at the bilateral and trilateral levels that the U.S. has had to help facilitate these talks. Is there anything significant about the timing and the agreement being reached today?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Thanks. So on your first question, any impediment to the full and unfettered cooperation between the United States and its allies or between U.S. allies like Japan and Korea represents a strategic drag on our national security interests. And there is no need to look any further than North Korea, which has made a practice of seeking to divide the five members of the Six-Party Talks, has profited from exploiting seams and disagreements between Japan and Korea.

Presenting a fully united front unencumbered by the unresolved legacies of the past is a huge improvement. And more broadly, I think that this should be seen as a major step towards not only healing between the two countries but promoting and creating a political space for greater cooperation in economic as well as in security matters.

Now, I distinctly did not say that the United States facilitated these talks. These discussions have been undertaken on a direct bilateral basis between Japan and Korea. I believe that the United States – from President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry on down – have played a constructive role, that we have worked to foster an atmosphere that hopefully made it possible for progress to be made. But the progress was made by the Japanese and the Koreans, and they deserve the credit for this agreement.

The timing, I think, is, however, significant in the sense that they reached the conclusion of their discussions in the course of 2015, which is the 50th anniversary of bilateral normalization between Seoul and Tokyo. This is consistent with the resolve expressed by President Park and Prime Minister Abe following their recent meeting in Seoul to accelerate the process and redouble their efforts. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of David Brunnstrom from Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. Thanks for doing this, [Senior State Department Official]. I wondered if you could be a bit more specific on what sort of enhanced security cooperation we can expect between Japan and Korea (inaudible) especially in the light of North Korea’s missile development. For instance, can we expect greater cooperation on missile defense? And how much should this be seen also in the context of China and China’s growing strength in the region?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it remains to be seen how the U.S.-Japan, U.S.-ROK alliances and the bilateral and trilateral coordination between Japan and Korea will evolve. My point is that this removes a significant political impediment to unfettered and expanded cooperation across the board. Now, precisely because North Korea presents a serious threat to Japan, Korea and, for that matter, the United States, the world simply can’t afford for Japan, Korea, and the U.S. to operate at anything less than full capacity in terms of our security cooperation.

With respect to China, who obviously can speak for itself with regard to this agreement, I would hope that the improved relations between Japan and Korea that we would expect to flow from this important landmark agreement represent a positive development. A region in which Japan and Korea are trading, are collaborating, are working together, are exchanging their goods, services, ideas, culture, tourists, scientists, et cetera, without reservation, without hindrance, is going to be a more stable, secure and prosperous Asia.

Now, the fact that Japan, Korea and, for that matter, the United States and other important Pacific nations embrace and pursue the principles of democracy and openness makes the resolution of this issue even more significant and positive from a strategic point of view. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Felicia Schwartz from The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Just going – following up on the question that David had about how this should be seen in the context of China and how this fits in with the broader U.S. policy of containing China. Could you talk about that? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. You misspoke when you described the U.S. policy as containing China. It is decidedly not that. It is, however, a policy of rebalancing, which begins with strengthening our alliances and partnerships with important likeminded friends and democracies.

So in that respect, it isn’t enough, from our point of view, that relations between the United States and Japan and relations between the United States and the Republic of Korea are at an all-time high. The challenges to a rule-based region, the threats to security posed by North Korea’s irresponsible pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and the opportunity for dramatic progress in trade, commerce, and investment, all argue for the removal of the last major impediment to good relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of John Hudson from Foreign Policy magazine. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Should this lay to rest Japan’s World War II past once and for all in the U.S. perspective? And I hope that should include Japanese activity in Korea and in China.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This is an agreement reached between two governments, two nations – Japan and Korea – and that’s how it ought to be regarded. It certainly constitutes a positive signal of Japan’s willingness to face up to its wartime legacy. We commend the leader of Japan and the leader of the ROK for having the courage and the vision to reach this agreement, and we think that all the countries in the Pacific area – frankly, all the countries in the international community should similarly applaud it and should support it. The question of how China regards this issue and the ability of the Chinese leaders to engineer with their Japanese counterparts warm and unencumbered bilateral relations isn’t a question for me to answer, but we certainly would welcome improvement in Japan’s relations with each of its neighbors, as we have welcomed Japan’s very positive contributions and active diplomacy throughout the Asia Pacific region. Thank you.

MODERATOR: We have time for just – sorry, operator – just time for I think two more questions, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. Your next question comes from the line of William Everson from TV Asahi. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hello. Thank you very much for doing this. My question is: You had mentioned that there would be a calming effect on the nongovernment communities and, well, already you’re seeing some of the voices, particularly from the victims themselves, who seem to be unhappy with this agreement and that they’ve been left out sort of from the process. Do you have any particular concerns about these groups and the fact that they seem to have been left out from this government-to-government agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it’s for governments to consult, to reach out, and to coordinate with their own citizens. The statement itself makes clear that in the case of the Republic of Korea, the government has undertaken measures such as consultations with related organizations about issues germane to this legacy problem.

I think that the move towards reconciliation over recrimination should indeed have a positive effect on all the citizens of the two countries. It is certainly my hope that, as both President Park and Prime Minister Abe have each said, that this agreement opens a new era in Japan-Korea relations. We think that the two countries should be exporting their services, their products, their culture, their talent to each other and throughout the world, not exporting their historical grievances. And this powerful agreement between the two governments marks a huge step forward, but it is certainly going to take time for the calming effect to take place and for various stakeholders to satisfy themselves that the agreement addresses their own concerns. Thank you.

MODERATOR: And your final question today comes from the line of Jiwon Song from SBS. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. The Korean Government has stated that they’ve reached an irreversible resolution to finalize this deal. Does this mean that at an international level, the Korean Government, or any advocacy group or the victims themselves, cannot voice their complaints officially and at an international level?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I really have to leave it to the governments concerned to speak to the question of what the agreement really means. What they have said in their statement is that the two sides have agreed to refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community, including in the UN, on the premise that the measures that are agreed to will, in fact, be implemented as we all expect and believe they will be. Clearly, nothing that these democratic governments agreed to will or should compromise universal human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. But the significance of this landmark agreement should not be lost on the citizens of either country, and should encourage the trend towards reconciliation and help to remove the impulse to look elsewhere to seek resolution. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks to our senior State Department official and to all of you for joining us this morning. This concludes our on-background call. As I said, we expect to have a statement from Secretary Kerry out shortly. And once that is released, you’re welcome to use any of the content of the call. Thanks so much, everyone.