Tensions between Japan and Korea have been incrementally building, reaching their height over the past couple years under the watch of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Tokyo and Seoul’s deep-rooted historical problems have thus far prevented any chance a comprehensive bilateral partnership between Washington’s two key allies in East Asia. This presents a significant obstacle for the US which is looking to coordinate between its allies in the Asia-Pacific in order to add heft to the Obama administration rebalancing strategy.
The one inescapable image coming from the 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] leaders’ summit in Bali was that of a daydreaming Japanese Prime Minister hunched over in his chair next to a visibly indignant President of South Korea. The frigid personal relationship between Abe and Park however is merely symbolic of the fractured bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea.
Indeed, ties have become so strained over the past year that Park even indicated that a summit with Abe would be “pointless.” Meanwhile, Park’s refusal to entertain a summit with Abe over the past year appears to be somewhat vindicated after Abe’s controversial – and provocative – decision to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, burial place of World War II war criminals – in late 2013.
The stumbling blocks to a Japan-Korea rapprochement are not new to most in Washington. The most important of these issues are an acceptable resolution of the “comfort women” saga, including a strong reaffirmation by Japan of its historical statements on the pain it caused Korea before and during World War II; Japan’s whitewashing of its unsavory war history through its text books; and finally managing tensions surrounding the sovereignty of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands.
In late December 2013, Abe made the controversial pilgrimage to Yasukuni shrine. Abe reportedly made his decision to visit mainly due to his personal convictions. If that wasn’t enough, Abe obstinately refused to listen to pleas from his advisors and allies to avoid the controversial visit claiming that ties with South Korea and China were already at an all-time low.
According to Yomiuri Shimbun, Abe dismissed such warnings, telling aides that “even if I pay a visit to Yasukuni, [ties with South Korea and China] won’t deteriorate further. Japan has established a good relationship with Russia and other countries aside from those two countries.”
The Yasukuni visit resulted in significant blowback. China and South Korea pointed to the trip as more ammunition for their arguments that Tokyo remains recalcitrant on coming to terms with Japan’s role in World War II. The Chinese foreign ministry even went as far as decrying Abe as “celebrating the Nazis of Asia” through his visit. Seoul used less bombast in its condemnation but still levied a thinly veiled accusation at Abe for “digging up wounds of the past.”
The move may also derail recent efforts to progress on trilateral free trade talks between the three countries. North Korea’s state news agency meanwhile, in its predictably over-the-top manner, labeled the decision as an “act of war on Asia.” But worst of all, Abe’s decision has bailed out both China and South Korea, which were receiving flak from Washington for their recent policies of aggression and isolation, respectively, towards Tokyo.
To make matter worse for Japan, the visit resulted in an unusually stern rebuke from the US which denounced the decision as “disappointing” and one that could “heighten regional tensions.”
But the visit to Yasukuni was not the only blow to diplomatic ties with Korea. Despite its consistent approach to Seoul for a bilateral summit, the Abe government made a number of gaffes and clumsy remarks that further discolored the diplomatic skies. The most harmful were those addressing historical issues.
For example, Abe helped contribute to a rocky start with Park when he heralded the relationship between his beloved grandfather – former Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi – and Park’s father, former South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The seemingly innocent sentiment betrayed the political realities and pressures that Park faces as the daughter of the former dictator – who also served in the Japanese Imperial Army. Further inflaming this comparison is the role of Kishi during World War II [accused, but acquitted, of class-A war crimes during the Tokyo Tribunal].
Abe similarly angered Seoul when he questioned the use of the term “war of aggression” to describe Japan’s role during the war. And then there was the case of Taro Aso, Abe’s deputy, who further riled Seoul when he suggested that, in looking to revise Japan’s post-war constitution, the Abe government should replicate the Nazi approach in changing the Weimar Republic’s constitution in the 1930s. Abe also had to deal with blowback from South Korea after a Japanese politician outside of his party seemingly noted approval of Japan’s military using “comfort women” during the war.