WASHINGTON – The United States expressed concern on Tuesday about tensions between Japan and Korea and said its two main allies in Asia could not afford to let historical rivalry interfere with ensuring security in the region.
“There is an urgent need to show prudence and restraint in dealing with difficult historical issues. It is important to handle them in a way that promotes healing,” Washington’s top diplomat for the East Asian region, Daniel Russel, said in prepared testimony for a U.S. Senate hearing.
Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said strategic cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea was essential for future security in Northeast Asia, given the threat posed by North Korea and other “regional uncertainties,” a reference to concerns about an increasingly assertive China.
“No one can afford to allow the burdens of history to prevent us from building a secure future,” Russel said.
Russel’s testimony came a day after nationalist politicians in Japan urged the government to revise a 1993 apology over Asian women forced to serve in wartime brothels, saying accounts that tens of thousands of women were forcibly recruited were a “total lie.”
Any revision to the landmark apology made by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono would incense China and South Korea, from where most of the “comfort women” were drawn.
Both accuse Japan of failing to atone fully for aggression before and during World War II.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to bolster the military and be less apologetic about the past. It has said it will set up a team to review the testimony of South Korean comfort women, but officials have been careful to avoid any mention of revising or watering down the apology.
Japan’s ties with South Korea have been frayed by a territorial row over small islands and the legacy of its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, including the question of compensation and an apology to the comfort women.
The 1993 apology recognized the involvement of military authorities in the brothel system and apologized for the women’s suffering. It was based in part on the testimony of 16 South Korean women, their identities kept anonymous in line with a Japanese government pledge.
On Saturday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged Japan to stop denying the past “and write a new history of truth and reconciliation so that we can walk together toward cooperation, peace and co-prosperity.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations subcommittee that oversees U.S. policy toward the region, said the Abe’s rhetoric on historical issues “is increasingly concerning to many.” He also said China appears to be trying to increase “the wedge” between Japan and South Korea to establish a closer relationship with Seoul to the detriment of Tokyo.
Michael Auslin, an Asian studies expert at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, told the panel that Japan-South Korea tensions are at their highest level in decades and seem to be worsening.
He said that makes it difficult to “optimize” the U.S. security presence in Northeast Asia, and there appears no prospect of the two nations setting aside their differences soon.