Japan and South Korea should take the lead in improving relations and the U.S. will do whatever it can to help defuse tensions between its two main Asian allies, Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy said.
“The three countries can work together, will work together, and I think these good relations are in everyone’s interest,” Kennedy said in an interview aired yesterday by Japanese broadcaster NHK. “The two countries really should and will take the lead in this process and the United States, being a close ally of both of them, is happy to help.”
Relations between Japan and South Korea have soured since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012. Ill-will over a lingering territorial dispute has been aggravated by Abe’s visit to a Tokyo war shrine and comments by his administration about wartime sex slaves, reviving tensions over Japan’s militant past and 35-year occupation of Korea. Abe has not met with Korean President Park Geun Hye during his current term in office.
The tensions are driving a wedge between the U.S.’s biggest allies in the region at a time when President Barack Obama is trying to build a united front to keep a more assertive China in check. The U.S. maintains more than 60,000 troops across Japan and South Korea.
Turn for Worse
The U.S.’s biggest challenge in Northeast Asia “may be the deterioration of relations between Seoul and Tokyo,” Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told a Senate committee on March 4. “Memories of the past century continue to infuse contemporary political relations in Northeast Asia; and since 2012, the Japan-Korea relationship has taken a turn for the worse.”
Park’s government expressed outrage at Abe’s visit in December to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo that honors 14 Class A war criminals from World War II, among other war dead. Japan further strained ties by announcing a review of a 1993 apology over the military’s use of sex slaves, many of them Korean, during the 1930s and 1940s.
“I think anything that distracts from all the positive work we do together and makes the regional climate more difficult is something that is not as constructive moving forward,” Kennedy said when asked about Abe’s shrine visit.
Park said last week that Japan needs to overcome its “painful” history and heal the wounds stemming from the issue of the so-called comfort women. A survey by the Seoul-based Asan Institute of Policy Studies this week showed Abe is more unpopular in South Korea than the North’s dictator, Kim Jong-Un.
“We appreciate the constructive role that the U.S. has played to improve the South Korea-Japan relations, and we expect the Japanese side to stop making wrong comments and contribute to building the right South Korea-Japan relationship together with us,” the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said in an e-mailed statement.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he agreed with the U.S. that trilateral cooperation with South Korea was important from a strategic viewpoint as the security environment worsens. He added that Abe sought understanding for visiting Yasukuni “out of the feeling that he wants lasting peace and to build a Japan that will not go to war again,” he told reporters today.
Obama is due to visit South Korea and Japan in April. When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked in Seoul on Feb. 13 whether Obama would mediate between Japan and South Korea on his visit, he said “we hope that this issue will not be outstanding in a way that requires the President to do that. We need to be doing it now.”
The trip by Obama comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, with North Korea over the past week launching a series of short-range missiles and China announcing its defense spending would rise 12.2 percent this year to 808.2 billion yuan ($131.6 billion).
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army are not Boy Scouts with red-tasseled spears,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters March 5 in Beijing. “Some foreigners always expect China to be a baby Scout. In that way, who will safeguard our national security? What about protecting world peace?”
Kennedy said the U.S.-Japan relationship remains “incredibly strong” and praised Abe for re-energizing the Japanese economy with a policy that has curbed deflation and boosted growth.
The appointment of Kennedy, 56, was welcomed by the Japanese government, helped by her close ties to Obama and her status as the only living child of former President John F. Kennedy. Thousands lined the streets to cheer the first woman in the post when she traveled by horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito in November.
Since then she has shown a willingness to criticize Japan that has surprised and angered some Japanese. She provoked a backlash among Abe’s nationalist supporters when she expressed “disappointment” in December over Abe’s shrine visit. Kennedy also used Twitter in January to voice her concern about the “inhumaneness” of dolphin-hunting in Japan. That prompted a rebuke from the Japanese government.
“Hunting dolphins is one of our country’s traditional forms of fishing, and it is carried out appropriately in accordance with regulations,” Suga said on Jan 20.