WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stopped short of offering a personal apology for Japan’s role in World War II but his recent 70th anniversary statement could still help improve fragile relations with South Korea, leading U.S. experts said Tuesday.
Washington is keen for its two main allies in Asia to overcome sharp differences on historical issues that have poisoned their relationship. Since taking office in late 2012, Abe, a nationalist, has been accused of trying to whitewash Japanese wartime atrocities.
While Abe did not offer a fresh war apology in his heavily scrutinized statement last Friday, he upheld those of his predecessors, and used terms considered contentious by Japanese nationalists, such as “aggression,” and “deep remorse.”
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told a seminar at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington that the statement had bucked earlier expectations, and demonstrated Abe’s diplomatic intent to improve relations with Japan’s neighbors.
But Abe made only passing reference to South Korea, which wants Japan to show more contrition over the plight of Korean females forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military. Abe addressed at greater length the suffering historically faced by China.
Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official on East Asia, said Abe could have been more forward-leaning in assuaging Korean concerns, but said the statement “may yet contribute in some way to an easing of tensions between Japan and Korea if both sides handle it well.”
Smith said South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s measured response and Abe’s statement provide “diplomatic wiggle room.”
Park said that Abe’s statement “left a lot to be desired” but that it was “notable” that it stood by the historical views of past Japanese governments.
Michael Green, former National Security Council senior director for Asia, said the U.S. and Australia had responded quickly and positively to Abe’s statement, which probably had an impact on Seoul, underscoring their interest in seeing Japan-South Korean relations improve.
Revere said while the U.S. could remind both sides of the dangers of festering relations, ultimately it would be up to the two governments to “conclude that the challenges they face and the values that they share are much more important than the terrible and tragic history that has continued to divide them.”
Japan and South Korea, both democracies, host tens of thousands of U.S. troops and face a common threat from North Korea.
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