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Opinion

As North Korea heats up, South Korea and Japan should warm ties

Cooperation on missile defense between South Korea and Japan would help blunt threats from North Korea. But Japanese officials' recent insensitivity to Imperial Japan's painful role in World War II, including forcing South Koreans to become 'comfort women,' works against cooperation.

By Daniel Sneider / May 15, 2013

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto answers reporters' questions in Osaka, Japan, May 13. The mayor has said the Japanese system that forced Asian women to become wartime prostitutes, so-called 'comfort women,' in World War II was necessary to 'maintain discipline' in the Japanese military. Op-ed contributor Daniel Sneider writes: 'The impact of this war of memories on public opinion is corrosive.'

Toru Hashimoto/Kyodo News/AP

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Stanford, Calif.

Late in April, as the North Koreans appeared to be preparing to test new medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, the top American military leader issued an almost plaintive plea to an audience of Japanese defense officials.

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South Korea and Japan have very capable air-defense systems, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said. Unfortunately, he lamented, “as I stand here today, with the North Korean threat very real, those two pictures are not combined.”

For Americans, whose air defenses are closely tied to those of Japan and South Korea, the logic of cooperation between its two principal allies in Northeast Asia has long seemed clear. All three countries face a common threat from a North Korean regime armed with weapons that can reach the South and also US bases in Japan. US forces in Japan are the backbone of any response to war on the Korean Peninsula. Trilateral cooperation could also help balance the growing and assertive military presence of China in the region.

As General Dempsey knows all too well, strategic and military cooperation between the two neighbors is almost nonexistent, and what little there is usually takes place out of public sight. Only days before this speech, the South Korean foreign minister canceled a visit to Japan aimed at discussing joint measures to deal with North Korea. Last year, the South Korean government pulled back from an agreement with Japan to exchange military intelligence literally hours before the signing ceremony.

These tensions have their roots in a troubled history between the two countries – a history of Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula, of brutal colonial rule, and forced labor. This past includes the coercive recruitment, by some estimates, of more than 140,000 Korean “comfort women,” or virtual sex slaves, to work in brothels organized by Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II.

While all that came to an end with the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, Koreans remain wounded by the periodic refusal of Japanese leaders to acknowledge that past and Japan’s responsibility. The problems over the past are also embedded in a minor territorial dispute over a small group of rocky islets, under South Korean control but claimed by Japan, which Koreans view as a symbol of liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

For Koreans, these issues are a matter of identity, and their leaders have learned never to ignore this popular feeling. Japanese complain that Koreans are too “emotional,” and that their leaders use the past for political ends. But Japanese politicians are not above playing to a sense of lost pride at home, fed by the rise of China.

This clash of historical perception has intensified with the return to power of the Japanese conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government last December under the leadership of Shinzo Abe. The prime minister was well known for his unrepentant view of wartime history, having run for office on the stated desire to reverse past conciliatory statements on the war, such as the official responsibility for recruiting the “comfort women.”

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