Post #104 –Engaging and Apologizing: Two Exercises, Different Results

The art and wisdom of engaging and apologizing to adversaries was on display in recent days in two very different settings, one in East Asia and the other in the Persian Gulf. Comparing the two—the South Korea-Japan joint statements on comfort women and Iran’s seizure and release of ten US sailors whose boats entered Iranian territorial waters—I find some useful lessons for diplomacy.

The first lesson is that engagement before apologizing stands a much better chance of being effective than apologizing without engagement. The US-Iran case represents the first approach, the South Korea-Japan statements the second. The nuclear deal between Tehran and the US and other parties clearly facilitated the quick release of the US sailors—John McCain’s utterly foolish denial notwithstanding. That deal cemented positive relations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, promoted trust as both sides fulfilled their commitments under the deal, and isolated hardliners opposed to the deal in the US and Iran.

Contrariwise, Seoul and Tokyo were at a dead end in relations until they struck a deal that they hoped would finally put to rest the awful history of abuse of Korean women by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While South Korea was busy courting China, its president flatly rejected a summit meeting with Japan’s prime minister. The long-running dispute over a Japanese apology (see Post #85) kept simmering, with some Japanese rightists even calling the comfort women “prostitutes” and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo hinting that prior official expressions of regret would be overturned.

Against this negative background, the agreement reached last month, in the form of separate statements by the two countries’ foreign ministers, was less binding than it first appeared. Japan did apologize forthrightly, citing “a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women,” accepting governmental responsibility, and citing Prime Minister Abe’s “most sincere apologies and remorse” ( Korea promised not to raise the comfort women issue at the UN or anywhere else, and Japan agreed to pay about $1 billion to a Korean government-established foundation. Korea also promised it would “seek to resolve” the matter of a statue of a young woman in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul that has been the scene of weekly protests for the last 15 years by supporters of the comfort women. Nevertheless, the joint statements did not appease strident nationalists in Seoul, who consider the agreement one-sided and treasonous, or in Tokyo, where any concession arising out of World War II is treated as a dishonor to the nation and its armed forces. Consequently, a number of observers don’t see the comfort women issue, including the manner of Japan’s payment to end it, as a final settlement.

The second lesson is that domestic politics rules when leaders consider apologizing. Abe ignored right-wing opposition to the deal, but Korea’s President Park Geun-hye failed to consult the comfort women, who constitute an influential lobby. The organizations that protest on their behalf has a longstanding demand for a settlement that includes Japan’s acknowledgment of full legal (not just political) responsibility for the rapes and abuse of the Korean women. Since the joint statements, this group has sold the Korean public on its position and on the righteousness of continued protests in front of the Japanese embassy.

Iran’s release of the US sailors, on the other hand, was carried out after a minimal apology from their commander, not from the US government itself. That was possible because both countries’ leaderships did their due political diligence, ensuring that extremists (from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz) had no opportunity to garner support for punitive action. The quick settlement is dramatically different from the US-China imbroglio in 2001 following an aerial collision between a Chinese jet and a US spy plane that resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot and the forced landing of the US aircraft on Hainan Island. In that incident, China demanded and received an official apology—US expressions of “very sorry”—before releasing the twenty-four US crew members. By contrast, the Pentagon admitted that the two riverine patrol boats had violated Iran’s territory and that mechanical failure was not the reason.

The bottom line to these stories is that engagement of an adversary, once set in motion, may yield unexpected benefits. Call it a positive domino effect. Apologies are more likely to satisfy hostile publics and legislators if preceded by serious engagement efforts, as with the Iran nuclear deal. But the politics has to be done right, lest enemies of engagement have time to subvert agreements. dismiss apologies, and keep up calls for sanctions—or worse.



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