By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (Yonhap) -- The United States should exercise "outside pressure" on Japan to get the ally to put aside its complaint over a South Korean statue symbolizing Tokyo's wartime sexual slavery and work hard to mend ties with Seoul, a former State Department official said.
Mintaro Oba, a former diplomat handling Korea-Japan relations, made the remark in an article to The Diplomat, strongly criticizing Tokyo for overreacting to the establishment by civic activists of the girl's statue in front of Japan's consulate in the South Korean port city of Busan.
Japan has demanded the statue be removed, calling it a violation of the 2015 agreement that the two countries reached on resolving the sexual slavery issue. In protest, Tokyo has also recalled its ambassador and consul general from the South and put currency swap talks on hold.
"Japan's high-level response to an action by a civic group outside of Seoul's control makes a mountain out of a mole hill. It's an appalling error in strategic judgment that will endanger Korea-Japan relations at a time when unity among U.S. allies is critical to deterring regional aggression," Oba said.
"The United States must steer Japan toward a stance that reduces tensions and advances Korea-Japan relations," he said.
He also said that the next U.S. ambassador to Japan should actively make the case to Japan's ruling party leaders that further historical reconciliation serves Japan's security interests. Effective "outside pressure" from the U.S. is critical to move the two key allies toward reconciliation, he said.
Japan could have limited its response to diplomatic channels or lodged a public protest, rather than recalling its ambassador and cutting cooperation, Oba said. Such overreaction stoked "Korean doubts about Japan's sincerity in addressing its wartime wrongs and empowers critics of Japan," he said.
The renewed tensions came at a bad time when the Korea-Japan ties have become more vulnerable as uncertainty has grown for the fate of the 2005 agreement in the wake of the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Oba said.
"Japan is an easy mark in Korean politics, and the comfort women agreement's association with the unpopular Park makes it even more likely to become a campaign issue. Leading candidate Moon Jae-in has already called for renegotiation of the agreement," he said.
Stronger Korea-Japan relations are also more important than ever as North Korea steps up its nuclear and missile threats, and China continues to build military fortifications in the South China Sea outposts it has occupied, the former diplomat said.
"If others can divide and conquer the U.S. alliance system over a statue, we are in trouble," he said.
If Japan is serious about the relationship with South Korea, it should demonstrate it by going above and beyond the letter of the comfort women agreement to explore "additional reconciliation gestures and facilitate real reflection on Japan's history among scholars and in textbooks," Oba said.
"At the very least, Japan should avoid stoking tensions during a Korean electoral cycle. The Abe government should reverse course immediately and work to expand cooperation while keeping discussion of the statue in diplomatic channels."