President Barack Obama’s attempt to refocus his foreign policy on Asia is running into centuries-old animosities that are seared into the psyches of U.S. allies in the region but barely remembered by most Americans.
Fostering closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea, the region’s largest democratic economies, is crucial to the administration’s ambitions for maintaining stability in the Pacific. The alliance between the two countries is an important counterbalance to nuclear-armed North Korea and a more assertive China.
Those efforts have been stifled by a widening rhetorical gap between the two countries’ leaders over the forced prostitution of Korean women by members of the Japanese military during World War II.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has called for reparations for so-called “comfort women,” while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is visiting Washington this week, has declined to publicly reiterate apologies for some of his country’s war-time behavior.
“The glaring problem is that the U.S. can’t get them into the same room, because Japan will not acknowledge the past,” said Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, who has written about historical apologies by Japan, Korea and the U.S. “It makes it impossible for what should be an incredibly natural security alliance to be realized.”
Obama’s pivot toward Asia, which he articulated during his first year in office, was intended to reassert U.S. influence in the world’s fastest growing markets.
China also is using its military and economic clout to make territorial claims and seal trade deals. For Obama, the progress has been halting as events in Europe and the Middle East pull U.S. attention away and friction among countries in the region delays stitching together a unified alliance.
Last month, Abe told a Japanese television network that he does not feel compelled to repeat certain aspects of past-war apologies in an upcoming statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He also sent a traditional offering to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo, that commemorates Japanese servicemen, including hundreds of convicted war criminals.
Abe further agitated Seoul in an interview last month with The Washington Post when he notably avoided connecting the wartime Japanese military to the suffering of comfort women. School textbooks recently were also revised to temper descriptions of its military’s actions.
The government has sidestepped questions over whether the moves are an attempt to whitewash the past. Abe has said he continues to uphold previous apologies made to Japan’s neighbors.
Park has demanded additional compensation for the women subjected to forced prostitution as a condition for direct talks with Abe. Japan has said those issues were settled in a 1965 agreement that normalized relations with South Korea and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid.
The South Korean government has hired BGR Public Relations to promote its concerns in the United States, according to recent filings with the Department of Justice.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama is “mindful of what a priority this issue is for some of our other allies in the Asia-Pacific.” He would not say if Obama planned to raise the issue directly with Abe.
“This would not, of course, be the first time that we would be meeting with an ally who may have a little bit of friction in a relationship with another one of our allies,” Earnest said.
“What we believe is that by deepening these relationships, particularly when it comes to security concerns, we can address that friction in a constructive way, and allow the United States and our allies to move forward toward a more peaceful future.”
The U.S., where memories of World War II suffering have faded faster, has been drawn into the dispute, complicating its efforts to exert influence in the region.
Last month, senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman drew criticism when she said during a conference in Washington that historical disputes are “frustrating” and that vilification of former enemies by political leaders “produce paralysis, not progress.”
South Korea’s ruling New Frontier Party, in a statement published by the Financial Times, warned that America’s status as the world’s policeman “won’t last long” if the country continues “its stance of ignoring victims.”
“The sentiments in Korea are very real, and the Koreans feel these issues deeply,” Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and author of a book on international reconciliation, said by telephone. “This is not some sort of government manufactured propaganda.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters that the administration’s policy is to encourage Abe “to constructively address historical issues consistent” with past Japanese statements.
Administration officials have raised the historic issues in diplomatic settings, including in trilateral nuclear talks last year between Abe and Park — the first time the leaders had met face to face. Still, the brittle relationship has raised concern on Capitol Hill.
Last week, a bipartisan group of 25 lawmakers issued a letter urging Japan to “lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues.” They want Abe to use his address before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday — the first ever for a Japanese prime minister — to directly acknowledge South Korea’s concerns.
Abe’s reluctance to address the historical issues may be symptomatic of deeper troubles in the relationship, Lind said.