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US pulled into growing Seoul-Tokyo dispute
Publication Date : 17-02-2014
In a park in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale sits a life-size statue of a Korean woman, next to an empty chair. It has been in place since last July, to commemorate World War II "comfort women", or sex slaves to Japanese soldiers, many of them Korean.
Now a petition to take down the statue has gathered 127,139 signatures on the We the People section of President Barack Obama's website, and a group of Japanese officials also travelled to the town last month to ask that it be removed.
But a competing petition was started - with 105,672 signatures - for the statue to remain.
With both petitions crossing the 100,000 signature mark, the Obama administration is obliged to give its response.
The statue battle is only one sign that the souring ties between Japan and South Korea are beginning to spread outside diplomatic circles and into suburban America.
Other states are engulfed in a battle over the name of a sea between Japan and Korea in school textbooks. In Virginia, a bill was passed earlier this month stating that all textbooks when referring to the Sea of Japan should include that it is also called the East Sea. The topic has also found its way to the state of New York, where a similar bill has been introduced.
A lot of this is driven by Korean and Japanese nationalists living in the United States. And politicians representing constituencies that have significant proportions of either are starting to get dragged into the mix.
The ferocity of the fight is partly fuelled by the strained relations between the two Asian neighbours and posturing by both governments, which must be seen as defending their national stance regardless of how small the matter.
Phyllis Kim, spokesman for the Korean American Forum of California, which helped to bring the statue to Glendale, says: "The US plays a very important role in North-east Asia and has strong ties with Japan. The US perspective on the 'comfort women' issue will have an impact on Japan's policy." The aim, she says, is to put pressure on the Japanese government to "acknowledge and apologise in a clear, unequivocal manner; and include this history in (its) textbooks".
Yet the Japanese insist that they have already made amends.
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs states: "Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to all those women on various occasions such as the statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993." The Asian Women's Fund was also established in 1995 to "extend atonement from the Japanese people to the former 'comfort women'".
As for the textbook debate, it is particularly sensitive as a group of islets between the two sides remain in dispute. The Liancourt Rocks are controlled by Seoul, which calls them Dokdo. Tokyo also claims them and calls them Takeshima.
At the federal level, Jen Psaki from the US State Department has said "the US Board on Geographic Names' standard name for that body of water is the Sea of Japan. We understand the Republic of Korea and others use a different term, but that is the term we use".
And while many await the White House's response to the petitions, the US government seems determined not to take sides.
On his trip to Seoul last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: "I will personally continue to encourage both allies to find mutually acceptable approaches to legacy issues from the past and find ways to enhance bilateral and trilateral cooperation that will define the future."
These scuffles may seem superficial but they "really reflect the growing tension between South Korea and Japan in terms of national identity", says Shihoko Goto, Northeast Asia programme associate at the Wilson Centre. "Japan's economy has been stagnant over the past two decades... at the same time, Korea has really leapfrogged, so the power politics in the region has really changed in the last few years."
The relationship took a turn for the worse recently, when Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where several Japanese war criminals are buried.
While the statue and the textbook issues might be a "big win" for the Korean American community, Goto says, it does not "forward the Korean national interest". "If the ultimate objective is to improve relations, then this is not what they want to do."