Backed by U.S. engagement, Japan and South Korea appear to have started initiatives to, in Washington’s words, “put history behind them and move the relationship forward” in the face of an increasingly assertive China and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development.

After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul on Thursday and called for improved ties between Washington’s two key allies in Asia, hopefully before President Barack Obama visits Tokyo and Seoul in April, a senior Foreign Ministry official said, “setting aside the issue of a time limit, we would like to start a process to improve relations with South Korea.”

Underlining the comment, it was learned that Junichi Ihara, director general of the ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, will travel to Seoul on Tuesday and plans to meet with Lee Sang-deok, director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, to seek ways to mend ties.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that during a Feb. 7 meeting with Kerry in Washington, the two reaffirmed the importance of ensuring trilateral cooperation with South Korea in light of potential provocations by North Korea and other sources of concern.

“We would like to promote Japan-South Korean relations from broader perspectives,” Kishida told reporters, indicating that individual issues such as differing perceptions of the history of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula should not affect overall relations.

“Looking ahead, we would like to advance ties by implementing specific projects of cooperation,” he said.

Despite issues such as South Korea’s demand for compensation for women forced into wartime brothels by Japan and a dispute over a pair of Seoul-held but Tokyo-claimed islets in the Sea of Japan, a recent survey by a South Korean think tank shows signs of hope for improved ties with the two countries sharing strategic interests vis-a-vis China.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies survey found 57.8 of respondents want to see Park taking the lead in mending ties with Japan, and that 50.7 percent support the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, which will allow the two countries to exchange military intelligence.

“To many Koreans, China poses a threat to regional security,” Asan said in a report containing the survey result. It said 63.9 percent stated that it would be “necessary to cooperate with Japan on security” to deal with China’s rise.

Amid U.S. efforts to mediate between Japan and South Korea, China has aggressively promoted an anti-Japan public relations campaign around the world, apparently aimed at driving wedges between Tokyo and Washington and Tokyo and Seoul in the wake of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in December.

According to the survey, 74.5 percent said Seoul should cooperate with Beijing in pressuring Japan on history issues. “A shared grievance over Japan’s perceived whitewashing of history and territorial disputes has created a large swath of common ground between South Korea and China,” the report says.

Abe has explained that his visit to the Tokyo shrine honoring the war dead — more than 2.4 million — as well as 14 Class-A war criminals was meant to be a way of pledging that Japan “must never wage war again” based on “severe remorse for the past.”

The prime minister said he did not go to pay homage to Class-A war criminals nor to hurt the feelings of the Chinese or Korean people. But China and South Korea, which regard Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese militarism, have refused to accept his stated intention.

While Abe has said “the door for dialogue is always open,” Park has shunned a summit with Abe. She says she sees no point unless Japan first takes steps to resolve long-running grievances over its colonial-era actions, including the controversy over the “comfort women,” the euphemism used in Japan in referring to females recruited to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

South Korea earmarked a 4.58 billion won, or $4.23 million, budget this year for programs and events to raise global awareness about the comfort women issue, up from 2 billion won in 2013, Yonhap News Agency reported Jan. 27, quoting the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Speaking at a joint news conference Feb. 13 with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Seoul, Kerry said Japan and South Korea should focus on “issues of enormous current pressing concern that deal with security and that are relevant in terms of today, not in terms of history . . . even as we deal with this legitimate concern about the past.”

U.S. experts urge Japan and South Korea to think strategically and look to the future for better ties, especially when there are growing calls in the United States not to expand its military deployment abroad despite China’s military buildup and its increasingly muscular territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

“There is a strong group in America, a nationalist group and more sort of a moderate realist group. They are all saying, ‘Let’s come home. The Cold War is over. We don’t need forces in Asia. We don’t need forces in Europe.’ That voice, by the way, is growing in the United States,” said Henry Nau, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

“What we the allies are doing, South Korea, Japan and the United States, we are not thinking very hard about how we preserve a strong alliance while reinvigorating our markets in order to sustain the bargain with China, namely, ‘Don’t be provocative because we can stop you, we can deter you and let’s all make money together in very open, good, prosperous markets,’ ” Nau said in a recent lecture in Tokyo.

“That bargain with China has worked very well, so we’ve got to keep that bargain going. That means revive growth and it means adjust the alliances now to a new period,” he said. At the same time he questioned Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, saying it “seems to have no other effect except to isolate Japan.”

Observers speculate Abe may contact Park as they, along with Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, attend the Nuclear Security Summit slated for late March in the Netherlands. The four leaders are also expected to join a Group of 20 summit, an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and the East Asia Summit later in the year.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.