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The Peninsula

Apologies in Northeast Asia – A Discussion with Dr. Jennifer Lind

Published August 30, 2012
Category: South Korea

Chad O’Carroll, the host of Korean Context, recently set down with Dr. Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth. The following covers their discussion of the challenges Northeast Asia has faced with the issues of apologies and the recent changes in North Korea.

Chad O’Carroll – You have done a lot of work regarding apologies between states and you say in your book, Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics, that it is important for countries to acknowledge past atrocities or mistakes, but that an apology is not always necessarily needed. How do you think a government or a leader should go about acknowledging past wrong doings in a way that appears sincere, but also protects themselves from political backlash internally in their domestic situation?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – This seems to be the million dollar question for East Asia. If only the leaders there were seriously and sincerely contemplating this question then I think things would be whole lot calmer, and the headlines will be substantially less interesting than they are. But rather than sincere efforts at reconciliation, I think we’re seeing a lot of politics.

Over the years of studying this issue I’ve arrived at a very simple plea regarding how countries should deal with the past, which is: don’t tell lies. Don’t tell lies about the past. This sounds like a very low threshold to ask people to meet (indeed, commentators are always writing and talking about how countries should be offering apologies). But my research shows that simply telling the truth about the past can have a remarkably positive effect.

You’d be surprised how hard it seems to be for leaders and other elites to actually meet what sounds such like a low threshold. We can see this in the U.S. election campaign—for example, U.S. Republicans can’t even agree on the simple fact that President Barack Obama was born in the United States! We can also see this in East Asia’s history problems. People writing the histories of their country tell lies all the time. Leaders shape the truth to suit their own political needs at any given time.

Historians have done a great deal of work and unearthed a great deal of documentation about things that we know happened during World War II and during Japanese colonization. For example: we know that Korean and other Asian women were recruited, lied to, forcibly abducted, and in a variety of other ways taken to be used as sexual slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army. This happened. We know this. Not only do we have historians telling us about it, we have survivors telling us their horrifying stories. So, it’s simply egregious to lie about it. When Japanese people lie about it, it arouses anger and suspicion among others – it raises serious questions about whether Japan truly desires to live peacefully among its neighbors.

You might ask, what’s wrong with asking for an apology for such a terrible thing? Nothing, of course, and I support citizens who do it. It draws attention to these terrible events, and we need to know what happened. From the standpoint of international reconciliation, however–which is what my book was interested in–I found that apologies are actually unhelpful to bring two former adversaries together. Because apologies are quite divisive politically, they create a great deal of backlash at home. And that backlash is observed by other countries that find it quite alarming. Hence my plea is that countries tell the truth, but avoid big polarizing public gestures such as these public apologies.

Chad O’Carroll – So you don’t agree with President Lee’s urging that Japan should apologize to South Korea?

As my book points out, Japan’s leaders have apologized many, many times. Many, many times. The problem is not the absence of a Japanese apology – clearly it isn’t, because we have many of those. The problem is the apologies do not reflect the views of the wider society, which continues to tolerate lies, and continues to resent being asked to apologize. So another apology is only going to trigger more of an outburst, just as it always has.

So, essentially a strategy such as President Lee is arguing for is not going to do anything to actually help the cause of reconciliation between Japan and South Korea. What my research suggests is, if the Japanese are interested and committed to reconciliation with South Korea, they need to start simply by telling the truth about the past – in their leaders’ speeches, in their textbooks, in their commemoration. They need to make impermissible, what the scholar Michael Ignatieff has called “permissible lies,” including lies about the Korean sex slaves. These lies are tolerated within the mainstream Japanese political establishment, and they cannot be tolerated.  For decades this has created serious political costs for Japan.

Chad O’Carroll – Just to pick up on it, why do you think they are tolerated within the political class of Japan?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – The first thing to remember is people always have a hard time acknowledging hard truths about their own country’s wrongdoing. People are always asking, “what’s wrong with Japan?” They point to West Germany and say that it was able to apologize, so they wonder what’s wrong with Japan that it couldn’t. But what I argue is that across the world we see that democracies in particular have a very tough time with atoning for past violence – apologies and other gestures usually trigger a great deal of backlash. Backlash to statements that condemn fathers, and uncles, and grandfathers is a very common thing. So in Japan, the backlash is not unusual –it’s happened in the U.S., it has happened in Austria, it happened in Great Britain. It happens everywhere.

So what we should be asking is not why Japan couldn’t apologize, but why Germany could? Why was Germany so unusual in that it’s numerous, detailed, extensive apologies didn’t trigger a lot of backlash?

Chad O’Carroll – Do you have any theories on that?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – I do discuss this in my book. When you think about the historical situation of West Germany, it really is pretty striking that the Germans recognized they needed other countries. They had the Soviet Union parked in the other half of their country and were fearful that the Soviet army would invade them at any time, so the West Germans needed NATO protection. Who is NATO? NATO is the same countries that Germany had just been brutalizing during WWII. So, West Germany had to come to terms with these former victims and current allies. It couldn’t walk around saying things like Hitler was a great leader. That was not going to be tolerated among the countries of NATO, on which West Germany was dependent.

Remember, Germany was a divided country and the West Germans placed their hopes for reunification in convincing those same allies that Germany was worthy of and could be trusted with reunification. Talking nostalgically about how great Hitler was would not inspire a whole lot of trust. The NATO allies under such circumstances would never conclude that yes, we can live safely with a reunified Germany. Now, there are so many other factors that I haven’t talked about here—a very rich domestic political landscape that is very important in this as well. But it’s important to think to the rather extraordinary situation in which West Germans during the Cold War, and I think it sheds a lot of light on why the West Germans were so more forthcoming about the recent past.

Chad O’Carroll – Do you think if a country constantly asks for an apology as we have seen with numerous cases in East Asia that it might make it more likely that apology will never be satisfied when another country does try to offer it?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – It’s an interesting question. Frankly I think another country’s motivation for actually extending an apology is going to be based on a whole host of other factors and those factors will probably be the most dominant. As I was just discussing with the German case, the extent to which you need that other country I think will factor in very largely. Do you need to cooperate with that country? Do you need good relations with that country? What we have seen is countries are pretty clever about turning on dime and taking what was yesterday’s hated adversary and turning it into today’s partner. French poll data showed this with respect to Germany as early as the mid-1950s, a mere decade after Germany had been occupying Paris. Countries do what they need to do. Did they ask 11 times for an apology or 15 or zero? I just don’t think it matters. Countries do what they need to do.

Right now I think what we are seeing with South Korea and Japan is they don’t think they need each other. Sure, they sometimes cooperate a little bit, and do this or that military exercise here and there, but when you look at the big picture their behavior seems to be telling us that they feel very secure. They each see themselves having a secure bilateral alliance with the United States. Why would they need to mess around with each other when they have that?  So when I see all of this posturing about history between the two countries – South Korea playing politics, and Tokyo tolerating right-wing deniers – what that tells me is, these countries don’t think they need each other very much. If they ever do decide they need each other, leaders will get serious – they will do what needs to be done to put the past behind.  We’ve seen this historically (when regional fears grow of a U.S. exit) and we’ll probably see it again at some point.

Chad O’Carroll – You talked just now about countries apologizing when they need to do so. I know you mostly look at countries apologizing to states rather than their own people.   Do you think something is happening in North Korea with Kim Jong-un’s recent acknowledgement of failure to his own people, because as you probably have heard, he said people should not tighten their belts any more.  Do you see that as some kind of acknowledgement of past policy failure in North Korea? Do you think there were drivers there that made it too difficult for him to avoid having to make a statement such as that?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – We know so little about the internal situation about North Korean politics. I really hate to speculate on what Kim Jong-un’s motivations for such a statement would be. We do know that there were times when government policies created a lot of problems, such as the 2009 currency reform where Pyongyang later apologized for having done that. This might be one of the times when Kim regime took the temperature of the society somehow and thought that an apology would be something that people would appreciate. But the bottom line is this is not a regime that appears terribly concerned about the approval of, or happiness of, the broader population. If it were, the regime would rule a whole lot differently.

Chad O’Carroll – So you don’t think the recent opening of fun fairs and dolphin shows was for the popular benefit of his people?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – “Give them bread or give them circus,” I suppose. Give them bread or give them fun fairs. People are enjoying talking about Kim Jong-un’s wife’s Dior handbag, and the roller coaster ride, and it’s all good fun, and North Korea is endless source of kitschy news.

I guess two things come to my mind. The first is to encourage people to resist North Korea’s kitschy appeal and to remember that this is truly a venomous, reprehensible government that is—still—engaging in the worst human rights violations on the planet. Blaine Harden wrote a powerful piece that makes this point. Let’s not get distracted by shiny objects like the first lady’s Dior handbag.

Second, we should be trying our best to discern whether this superficial makeover reflects a real makeover.  Is there something real going on — are there real reforms, economic or political, or has Pyongyang simply just hired a better publicist?

Chad O’Carroll – What do you think about that? Andrei Lankov wrote a piece earlier this week where even he said that he is starting to think maybe there will be some changes. It is the first time I have seen him say that since following him. He has always been the first to rubbish the changes and say they are meaningless and a number of others within the South Korea and the U.S. are starting to think perhaps change may be underway. Do you agree with that assessment or do you think that is still too early to say?

Dr. Jennifer Lind – All that I have seen so far about reform in North Korea has been speculation. I don’t have a sense myself as to what extent there has been meaningful reform. This is obviously something that I will be watching and other people who study North Korea will be watching very closely. We want to know, does this makeover have any association with a broader, more meaningful reform? This is an important question.

My work kind of casts doubt on the likelihood of reform; in an article that I wrote with Daniel Byman, we talk about the roots of the regime’s power — how the regime stays in power. To write this article we surveyed this broader comparative politics literature on authoritarian resilience. This literature shows if a government moves into what is called a post-totalitarian phase of governance, there is a seriously elevated risk that the government will be challenged. That could come in the form of a coup or popular uprisings — people have more windows into the outside world and also greater means of expression of their discontent. What we know from historical experience from authoritative resilience (and lack thereof) in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe is that the post-totalitarian phase — basically a reform phase — would have a much higher risk of instability.

That is why Andrei Lankov and myself and many other analysts have said Kim Jong-un knows this, and Kim Jong-un presumably wants to stay alive, and the people around him presumably want to stay alive, and for those reasons, reform is not a good idea for this government. Who knows — maybe he is just a bad dictator, and he doesn’t understand this. But this I seriously doubt. After all, he was raised by a very successful dictator.

Another question is does Kim think he can find some sort of a sweet spot of just enough reform to promote economic growth that will help him make the people happier and give him more money to buy off his supporters? So just enough reform to allow that, but not too much to increase the possibility of instability — not too much foreign information and chances for the people to mobilize against him. These are all the questions that we are going to be thinking about as we consider this idea and look for signs of North Korean economic reform.

Photo from Bas Lammers’ photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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