On 28 December the Japanese and South Korean Foreign Ministers announced a major diplomatic breakthrough toward the resolution of the thorniest problem in bilateral relations. The Japanese government led by Prime Minister Abe agreed to extend financial support for the 46 surviving South Korean women who had been forced to become ‘comfort women’, an euphemism for what others have called sex slaves, for Imperial Japanese troops during World War II. Moreover, each victim will receive a letter of apology from the Japanese Prime Minister. In return, the South Korean government under President Park Geun-hye will consider all claims for financial compensation as settled, ‘refrain from accusing or criticizing each other [i.e. Japan] regarding this issue in the international community, including at the United Nations’, and work toward the removal the bronze statue of a girl that civic groups placed to face the Japanese Embassy as a reminder of this wartime atrocity.

At first sight, the deal appears to be a South Korean victory: The Japanese side has long refused to recognize any claims on the grounds that war reparations had been settled in the Treaty on Property and Claim and Economic Cooperation approved by South Korean President Park Chung-hee and the Japanese Prime Minister Sato Eisaku in June 1965, and that justice had been restored through the Asian Women’s Fund’s voluntary extension of financial support to the victims and the accompanying letters of apology from the Prime Minister in the late 1990s.

Perhaps more important from a geopolitical standpoint, Washington seems to have finally managed to bring its two allies closer together in an efforts of countering rising China through the strengthening of its Asia-Pacific alliance network.

It should be remembered that South Korean resentments toward Japan due to the colonial past run very deep. That conservative Japanese political elites have continued to belittle this very unfortunate common history, that they have consistently been calling for a ‘forward-looking’ perspective – that is, essentially, forget about the past – and that they have shown no sign of compromise on the Dokdo/Takeshima maritime territorial dispute has not helped to improve mutual understanding either.

Even former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who had entered office with a distinctly pro-US alliance orientation and was intent to improve relations with Japan, failed to conclude relatively modest security-political agreements. What is more, toward the end of Lee’s tenure, relations with Japan deteriorated to what observers widely judged the worst state ever since diplomatic normalization. President Lee, angered by Japan’s refusal to lend help to a deal on the comfort women issue, had in August 2012 visited the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islets and triggered another round of controversies.

However, what seems to be a great diplomatic achievement between two democratic US allies in Asia is bound to produce a backlash which might even lead to the further worsening of Tokyo’s relations with Seoul.

Rather than a genuine first step toward historical reconciliation, the agreement has been forged under US pressure, for geopolitical purposes, and without any public debates or the involvement of civic organizations. The deal appears to have been made to shut down rather than encourage communication and reflection on the root causes of the ongoing history problems.

The eventual disappointment with that fact that neither government made any meaningful change in their position on this and other aspects of the history problem will likely harden anti-Japanese attitudes in South Korea and anti-Korean currents in Japan.

It is no coincidence that Tokyo as well as Washington emphasized the ‘final and irreversible’ nature of the deal. Also, Prime Minister Abe, who left it to his foreign minister to utter the words ‘remorse’ and ‘apology’, was quoted saying that ‘everything is over as of yesterday [Dec. 28] and we can’t apologize anymore,’ and ‘I will not be speaking on this issue again [in future relations with Seoul]’. Indeed, the wording of Foreign Minister Kishida’s statement that ‘Japan will now take measures to heal psychological wounds […] through its budget’ might give the impression that the Abe government intends to buy Korean silence on the issue. This is not how reconciliation works.

Abe’s frustration and the seemingly prevalent perception of the issue as a nuisance and unnecessary irritant in the pursuit of larger geopolitical objectives, in all three capitals, has probably been fuelled by the failure of the Asian Women’s Fund initiative. The then sincere Japanese attempt to address the issue had been too timid and legalistic, and met strong – one could say equally legalistic – opposition in Seoul.

The December deal is essentially a renewal of that attempt with the rectification of one earlier point of criticism: The proposed foundation is explicitly financed from the official Japanese ‘budget’, rather than through private donations. Yet, it can be seen as a step backward in that the responsibility of the Japanese Imperial Army remains ambiguous, reduced to mere ‘involvement’.

In addition, the Japanese government’s insistence on the removal of the bronze statue in front of its embassy is in itself not only politically unfeasible under current circumstances, but it also reveals the Abe government’s limited acknowledgement of and contrition for this wartime atrocity. Instead of calling for its removal, the statue could have been envisioned to serve as an enduring reminder of wartime suffering to everyone: A peace memorial.

The dim prospects for improved ties become all the more clear in view of the fact that the very governments which concluded the agreement have been fanning nationalisms for the sake of their own distinctly conservative agendas. In the name of national security, that is defence against North Korea and China, respectively, as well as arguably for the need to bring back past economic prosperity through neoliberal economic reforms, the Park and Abe cabinets have curtailed civil liberties, reduced government transparency, and at the same time embarked on enhanced missions of instilling patriotism in younger generations. Two examples of recent policy initiatives are instructive:

Last October, President Park signed off a directive that gives the ministry of education the monopoly over history textbook writing. Civic groups and the opposition maintain that this backtracking from political liberalization in the 1990s aims at glorifying her father’s authoritarian rule, including marginalizing his earlier role as an officer in the very Japanese Imperial Army that subjugated Korea, and that it helps to legitimize policies which support big business while further weakening safeguards against labour exploitation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe who sees himself on a mission to continue the work of his grandfather, a former wartime cabinet member and Prime Minister from February 1957 until July 1960, presides over a cabinet which is, as a whole, clearly revisionist on history issues. Abe himself has repeatedly denied the systematic recruitment of women for sexual services by the Imperial Army and also supported moves aimed at backtracking on the so-called Kono Statement; the proclamation that is widely considered as the gold standard of official Japanese repentance for the abuse of ‘comfort women’.

Why then, given these dire prospects, did the two governments conclude such a bargain and why did the Obama administration push for this kind of dealing with the bilateral history problem?

On the part of Tokyo and Seoul, the reason seems to be twofold. First, for both, Abe and Park, US support is crucial for remaking their states according to their conservative views of the glorious past: A withdrawal of geopolitical support, or worse, pressure to advance transparent and democratic government from their main ally would strengthen the need to look at their own states’ and, indeed, their own families’ history problems. It would also increase pressure to engage in difficult and politically risky conciliatory moves toward their arch-rivals and enemies: North Korea and China.

Second, the Park and Abe cabinets’ strong state mentalities, their generally questionable understanding of democracy, has likely misled them to believe that they can solve problems of international politics through elite power politics such as it is perceived to having been successfully used in the golden ages of the pre-war and post-war eras. In doing so, however, they seem to repeat the errors of their predecessors who, in the 1960s and 1970s, thought that high level diplomacy was sufficient for overcoming the painful legacy of imperialism and colonialism and who, thereby nurtured the very history problems that keep haunting Northeast Asian and Asia-Pacific international relations until today.

On the part of Washington, the inclination toward geopolitics as a means for securing an abstract notion of ‘stability’ at the civilizational level, rather than efforts at nurturing democratic accountability, such as would increase capacities for mutual exchange and reconciliation, seems to have won out. This miscalculation is the likely result of prevalent views in Washington (and in Tokyo) that ‘nationalism’ is a tool reserved for the instrumental use by non-democratic governments such as China’s, and that democracy (understood in procedural, static terms) inherently guarantees the legitimacy of political systems and of governments such as those of President Park and Prime Minister Abe.

As such, the December 28 deal exemplifies the pitfalls of Asia-Pacific geopolitics and the pertaining so-called value-oriented diplomacy: Ostensibly pursued for safeguarding a politically liberal world order based on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law at the civilizational level, geopolitics tends to provide cover for anti-democratic and oppressive policies at the national level. Thus, policies that aim at stabilizing the existing political order, by weakening its social and democratic foundations, in fact, risk rendering it more and more unstable.

Article by Dr. Christian Wirth. Dr. Christian Wirth is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and a Visiting Associate Professor at the Tohoku University School of Law.