At a recent conference on the U.S.-South Korea alliance in Washington, a former senior official of the Obama administration used the word “painful” to describe the U.S. perspective on the recent strain in Japan-South Korea relations. While carefully avoiding criticizing either South Korea or Japan, the former official reiterated that, as it faces security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, it is essential for the United States that Japan and South Korea-the two key U.S. allies in Asia-have a constructive relationship with one another. He expressed his “strong hope” that Japanese and South Korean leaders will come to see that focusing on both countries’ common strategic interests will serve their individual national interests far better than prolonging the current tension.
As the United States explores ways to sustain its “pivot/rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region in a cost-effective manner, it will place greater emphasis on cooperation with allies. In particular, it will be increasingly important for the United States to see security cooperation broaden and deepen among its allies. In this context, the current diplomatic impasse between Japan and South Korea has begun to create a serious alliance management problem for the United States.
In the immediate term, a strained Japan-South Korea relationship not only makes policy coordination vis-a-vis North Korea extremely difficult but also makes practical security cooperation among the three almost impossible. Tension between Japan and South Korea also hinders trilateral cooperation in other policy areas, such as dealing with China and capacity-building in Southeast Asia. Despite the obvious convergence of interests, however, Japan-South Korea relations indeed have remained at new lows, with little prospect of improvement in the near future.
The heart of the tension between Tokyo and Seoul in the last several years has been “history issues.” Namely, Seoul has expressed its grievances over the lack of a straightforward apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Its complaints have often been aggravated by Japanese political leaders’ insensitivity toward such issues-including their visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and statements that appear to deny involvement by the Japanese government (particularly its military) in organizing the “comfort women” system under which a great number of Korean women were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese imperial soldiers during the war.
Washington has had its own questions regarding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s view of history. Most recently, in April 2013, he became the subject of intense criticism not only in South Korea and China but also in the United States when he referred to the “definition of ‘aggression'” during a debate on the Diet floor. Abe’s statement upset many in Washington who interpreted it as rejecting the legitimacy of the process of establishing the post-World War II international order. Because of its own doubts about Abe, Washington was more sympathetic to Seoul’s intense criticism of Abe in the beginning.
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This column was originally published in The Japan News on Nov. 20, 2013
Photo Credit: Secretary of Defense via Flickr