The mini-Cold War between Japan and South Korea has kept Washington busy as it tries to forge closer security ties between its allies to offset the rise of China. Policymakers confront the Asian paradox of deepening distrust and conflict in tandem with widening economic and human exchanges. Relations are handicapped by an ambiance of antagonism that is preventing robust ties between two countries that should be getting along better based on their shared values and strong cultural and economic ties. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia depends on greater cooperation between regional allies so Washington is frustrated that the shared history keeps getting in the way. But why wouldn’t it?
The vilification of South Korea and President Park Geun-hye in the Japanese media over the past year has been extraordinary. She is accused of “scolding diplomacy,” relentlessly insisting that Japan embrace a correct view of history as a basis for improving relations and building trust. South Korean polls show strong support for Park’s foreign policy, and she is a popular leader with a 60 percent approval rating. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe polls in low single digits about the same as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while according to the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Korean attitudes toward Japan have hit an all-time low.
In a recent article posted on the Asan website, Lee Ching Min at the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University acknowledges the need for increased strategic cooperation in East Asia with Japan and China over critical issues such as the threat of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, “but not at the expense of ignoring or downplaying Japan’s historical amnesia and whitewashing of wartime atrocities.” He writes, “business-as-usual with Japan (especially in the security and political sectors) is no longer possible. To begin with, regardless of one’s political persuasion and standing, there is wide-ranging consensus in South Korea that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s more nationalistic policies are being pursued in conjunction with historical revisionism.”
Ironically, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2103 took the heat off Park, who had been facing growing pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to show more flexibility over historical grievances. In Washington, Abe’s counterproductive gesture at the war shrine proved Park’s point about Japan’s insensitivity regarding history, prompting an unusually frank rebuke.
Provoking South Korea undermines Washington’s aim to bolster security cooperation between its East Asian allies. Given that Tokyo and Seoul have a strong stake in realizing this agenda, Abe’s Yasukuni pilgrimage raises doubts about his judgment since he knew this would slam the door on cooperation. The phalanx of conservative politicians who visited Yasukuni on the eve of Obama’s recent visit also sent a blunt message: At the highest echelons in Japan jingoistic impulse trumps strategic thinking.
In March, the U.S. prevailed on Abe to publicly declare he would not seek to rescind or alter the 1993 Kono Declaration regarding Japan’s coercive recruitment of women, mostly Korean, to work in wartime military brothels 1931-45. Agreeing not to gratuitously inflict further damage on bilateral relations was just enough to get Park to meet with Abe in The Hague under U.S. auspices. It was a chilly meeting and Abe’s greeting in Korean did not break any ice.
Although Abe is blamed for worsening bilateral relations, public opinion polls in South Korea indicate support for rebuilding ties, but that means restoring a degree of trust. As Lee argues, “South Koreans feel very strongly about the vestiges of colonialism and remaining historical disputes with Japan, (but) they are also aware that if bilateral ties worsen beyond repair, it will have major repercussions for South Korean security.” Growing economic ties with China have not diminished anxiety about Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions. He concludes that, “fundamental improvement in bilateral ties can only be undertaken when Japan accepts its wartime legacies … alliance management in the context of ROK-US-Japan trilateral cooperation can no longer sideline historical legacies. It is time to relearn history and not to bury it under the carpet.”
Park Cheol-Hee, the director of the Japanese Studies Program at Seoul National University, asserts in an April essay on Asan’s website that shared values provide no traction for improvement in relations because, “Abe’s Japan shows ambiguity about the past and has no intention to further apologize while glorifying historical transgressions. Abe’s Japan should first get back to a normal status whereby it does not deny, distort, and glorify its troubled history.”
Park reassures that, “Korea would not take sides with China, when it comes to security issues. Cultural ties between Korea and Japan are so thick that dividing the two is unnatural.” But he believes that Abe is too preoccupied with domestic politics to appreciate the strategic importance of South Korea and has been cavalier about improving ties. He warns, “Unless Korea and Japan successfully manage thorny historical controversies within this year, 2015, which is the 50th anniversary of signing their normalization treaty, may turn out to be a disaster for both of them.”
The ASAN Country Report on Japan provides a detailed analysis of the Japanese media, noting that, “In the battle for international opinion, even conservatives had to acknowledge that Japan was losing to China. On March 19, Yomiuri Shimbun reported on a meeting of polling research organs in 23 countries at which Sino-Japanese relations became the focus, where the results were unexpectedly harsh toward Abe.” While some liberal pundits such as Yoichi Funabashi, former editor of the Asahi, “were warning that it was Abe who was isolating Japan” accusations in the conservative media, “that the United States was letting Japan down were intensifying and being buttressed with arguments that something was going wrong in Washington: a weak president, advisers stacked against Japan, a lobbying disadvantage, an unprincipled academic community, etc.” Rather than change policies, conservatives believe that Japan needs to mount a more effective propaganda campaign. In their view, “Chinese propaganda is inundating the capital, while American China experts are intimidated by the threat of losing their visas to travel to China, leading to an unfair advantage to China in this struggle.”
It is always easier to shift blame and responsibility, but this doesn’t make the consequences more palatable. Japan is isolated in Northeast Asia where it has much at stake. This isn’t Chinese propaganda, or a lack of Japan’s counter-propaganda, it is Abe’s maladroit diplomacy. This is what needs fixing along with the self-inflicted damage of his historical revisionism.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.