President Barack Obama’s attempt to refocus his foreign policy on Asia is running into deep-seated tensions between two U.S. allies in the region.
Fostering closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea is crucial to the administration’s attempts to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific. Improved ties among North Asia’s largest democratic economies would help the U.S. build a united front to respond to a nuclear-armed North Korea and a more assertive China.
Those efforts have been stifled by a rhetorical gap between the two countries over the use of Korean women as sex slaves by Japan’s army during World War II. South Korean President Park Geun Hye has called on Japan to resolve the issue of the so-called comfort women, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, visiting Washington this week, has questioned whether the women were forced to serve Japanese troops.
“The glaring problem is that the U.S. can’t get them into the same room, because Japan will not acknowledge the past,” said Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, who has written about historical apologies by Japan, Korea and the U.S. “It makes it impossible for what should be an incredibly natural security alliance to be realized.”
Obama welcomed Abe to the White House Tuesday with a formal ceremony on the South Lawn. He called Japan “one of America’s closest allies in the world” and said Abe is leading his country to a new, leading role of the world stage.
Japan is a linchpin in Obama’s pivot toward Asia, which he articulated early in his first term, that is intended to reassert U.S. influence in some of the world’s fastest growing markets. Obama has repeatedly warned that China will step into the void.
While Abe said in his remarks that strengthening Japan’s relationship with the U.S. is his top priority, the U.S. also wants its allies in synch.
Abe told a Japanese television network this month he did not feel compelled to repeat specific language from previous government apologies for Japan’s aggression in his upcoming statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. He also sent a traditional offering to a controversial Tokyo shrine that commemorates Japanese war dead, including about a thousand convicted war criminals.
Abe has repeatedly said he continues to uphold Japan’s apologies to his Asian neighbors, including those referring to comfort women.
“When I think of the people who were trafficked and suffered unbearable experiences, my heart aches even now,” he told students on Monday at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge. “My feelings are no different from those of previous prime ministers.”
Lee Yong Soo, an 86-year-old South Korean former comfort woman who is trailing Abe in the U.S. to join protests against his visit, dismissed his comments.
“That’s shameless and leaves me speechless,” she said in a phone interview. “What’s it aching about? He’s the one making us ache.” She also criticized Obama for welcoming Abe.
About 100 protesters gathered at Harvard and demonstrations are planned for each of Abe’s stops: Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles, an organizer said. South Korea’s government has hired BGR Public Relations to promote its concerns in the U.S., according to recent filings with the Department of Justice.
Park has demanded further compensation for the women subjected to sexual servitude as one of the conditions for direct talks with Abe. In 1993 Japan’s then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a formal apology to the women. While Japan set up a fund in 1995 to offer compensation to the victims in several countries, some Korean women rejected the money.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama is “mindful of what a priority this issue is for some of our other allies in the Asia-Pacific.” He would not say if Obama planned to raise the issue directly with Abe.
There are signs of frustration within the administration over the issue. Senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman drew criticism from South Korea after she said at a conference in Washington in February that historical disputes were “frustrating” and vilification of former enemies by political leaders produces “paralysis, not progress.”
South Korea’s ruling New Frontier Party warned that America’s status as the world’s policeman “won’t last long” if the U.S. continues “its stance of ignoring victims,” in a statement published by the Financial Times.
“The sentiments in Korea are very real, and the Koreans feel these issues deeply,” Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, the author of a book on international reconciliation, said by phone. “This is not some sort of government manufactured propaganda.”
Administration officials have raised the historic issues in diplomatic settings, including in trilateral talks hosted by Obama last year with Abe and Park -- the first time the Japanese and South Korean leaders met face to face. Still, the brittle relationship has raised concern on Capitol Hill.
Last week, a bipartisan group of 25 lawmakers issued a letter urging Abe to use his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday to “lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected the size of the economies in second paragraph and the title of the Japanese prime minister in third paragraph.)