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Washington’s role in thawing icy Seoul-Tokyo ties

Publication Date : 17-02-2014

 

When it comes to Japan, the United States and South Korea are in the same bed but with different dreams, as the Chinese saying would have it.

Their differences on Japan manifested themselves at a news conference jointly held by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, in Seoul last week.

Kerry came here as part of his Asian tour, which also took him to Beijing, Jakarta and Abu Dhabi. His visit came one day after the two Koreas held their first high-level contact in seven years to discuss a family reunion event and a host of other pending issues.

It also coincided with the White House’s announcement of US President Barack Obama’s visit in April to four Asian nations - Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

During the press conference, Kerry and Yun spoke in one voice when they answered reporters’ questions about North Korea. Yet they spoke in different voices about Japan.

Kerry openly urged Seoul and Tokyo to mend their relations, which had plunged to their lowest ebb in years following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December.

The top US diplomat made no secret of Washington’s willingness to mediate between the two neighbours, stressing the need for the three allies to maintain robust trilateral cooperation, particularly in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Noting that he has already started working on the task, Kerry said he and other US officials would “work very hard” over the course of the next few weeks and months to ensure that the two countries’ frayed ties were repaired before Obama’s visit.

Mindful of the “deeply felt historic differences” between Seoul and Tokyo, Kerry said he would encourage the allies to do two things simultaneously: find mutually acceptable approaches to issues from the past and find ways to enhance bilateral and trilateral security cooperation.

Yet he urged the two countries to “put history behind them” and pay attention to the security issues that “are relevant in terms of today, not in terms of history” and involved high stakes “in terms of everybody’s lives right now”.

Seoul must appreciate Washington’s efforts to help it reset its relations with Tokyo. As Kerry noted, positive relations between them are in the best interests of not only Washington and the region but the two countries themselves.

Yet any attempt to push the neighbors closer together should be based on a clear understanding of the causes of the rift. As Yun pointed out, it was Japanese leaders’ “regressive” remarks and reckless behaviour that were to blame for the current icy Seoul-Tokyo relationships.

As has been widely reported, officials in Seoul and Tokyo were promoting a summit in December. But Abe poured cold water on their efforts by unexpectedly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, the potent symbol of Japan’s prewar militarism.

Abe also drew fire from around the world by refusing to acknowledge Japan’s wartime actions as “aggression.” To him, Japan’s invasion and occupation of Korea and other Asian countries is not aggression as there is no established definition of the term.

On top of that, officials who were recently appointed by Abe to lead the NHK, Japan’s influential public broadcasting network, made outrageous remarks. For instance, Katsuto Momii, the new NHK boss, played down the wrongdoing Japan had committed against “comfort women”, or sex slaves for its soldiers during World War II, by saying that the practice was common in every country during wars.

As long as historical provocations of this sort continue, a summit between the two countries is not only meaningless but undesirable. So Washington’s efforts to help Seoul and Tokyo improve ties should be focused on pressing Japan to create an environment conducive to dialogue.

Otherwise, Washington could give the impression that it is taking Japan’s side in the intensifying dispute over history between the two nations. In fact, it was this consideration that prompted Washington to alter Obama’s Asia itinerary.

Seoul was originally not included in Obama’s trip. But Washington included it by shortening his stay in Japan. The message was unmistakable - Japan should take action to improve ties with its neighbors.

Yet it is unclear whether this message has been received by Japanese leaders. There are few signs that the Tokyo government is refraining from taking provocative actions.

The Abe administration recently announced that it would send a vice minister to the annual Takeshima Day ceremony to be held in Shimane prefecture on February 22. The event is intended to assert Japan’s claim to Dokdo, which is called Takeshima in Japan. The Seoul government defined it as a provocation and warned that it would respond.

Abe also said he would take the dispute over Dokdo to the International Court of Justice. His remark was clearly intended to anger Seoul as he knew that the court could not hold a hearing on the case without Seoul’s consent.

The Tokyo government has also recently approved new guidelines to ensure that all school textbooks state that Dokdo belongs to Japan.

These and other moves suggest that there will be no change in Japan’s behavior. Under these circumstances, Seoul can hardly sit for talks with Tokyo. Nevertheless, the Tokyo government is reportedly pushing for a summit during the Nuclear Security Summit slated for March 24 and 25 in the Netherlands.

We can only say that there is no limit to incumbent Japanese leaders’ impudence and shamelessness. We wonder whether Washington can persuade Tokyo to put forth efforts to pave the ground for talks. Japanese leaders should realize that if they continue their current course, they will end up isolating their country diplomatically.

Yu Kun-ha is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald.

 

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