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Tokyo and Seoul at 'historic' impasse. Can S. Korea's Park break out?

At a time when America wants to deepen its relationship with Pacific allies, the historic rancor between Japan and South Korea is worsening – with Seoul accusing Japan of blatant untruths about abuses in World War II.

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    In this file photo, South Korean President Park Geun-hye met with President Obama at the White House in 2013. She is expected to visit again in June.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/FILE
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President Park Geun-hye is a living witness to Korea’s dramatic modern history. Her father presided as dictator of the country for 18 years. She was born during the brutal Korean war – which never officially ended – and she has watched her neighbor to the north amass nuclear weapons, even as her own cosmopolitan South has built the world’s 14th  largest economy.

Now the tides of history are presenting President  Park with a dilemma that is disrupting relations in Northeast Asia – irritating Japan, causing China to gloat, and challenging Park to make hard choices about identity, power, truth, and cooperation with allies. 

Park's main dilemma is Japan and its current leader, Shinzo Abe -- whom on principle she refuses to meet or talk with.

As China rises more aggressively, Mr. Abe is pushing his nation, whose pacifism is deeply entrenched in society and its postwar Constitution, to stand tall and rediscover its honor and military spirit.

Yet Abe’s approach to making Japan a "normal" nation seven decades after World War II – involves openly revising 20th  century wartime history. And that includes a new denial that Japan forced Korean women into sexual slavery as “comfort women" for Japanese troops.

For Park's country, occupied by Japan between 1910 and 1945, it is a potent issue that Park doesn't want but that she can't back down from. And it is creating an ever-widening gap in relations between the two main Pacific allies of the United States at a critical moment. 

This week Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of the US Congress, partly to show China that there is no distance between Japan and the US, which are drawing ever closer as security and military allies. President Obama fêted Abe and held a joint Rose Garden press conference with him describing US-Japan relations as "indestructible." 

Yet South Korea and Japan, amid antipathies, will not formally connect. At least not until, as Park puts it, Abe adopts “a correct view of history.” 

Yet could Park take a more idealistic path? Some here suggest Park could help bolster a new dynamic that helps the region move beyond the harsh legacy of World War II. She could be the Asian leader to take the high ground, confront history, play the stateswoman, be a Nelson Mandela, and forgive Japan its untruths without agreeing with Abe.

But such a sweeping approach carries risks. A magnanimous gesture toward Japan is generally thought to be political suicide for Park, given emotions here.

“No one who could care about the issues of Korea right now has more of a sense of history built into him or her than she,” says Scott Snyder, Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “No Korean leader is more invested in that history. She knows the issues and Korea’s place in them … better than anyone. The question is: Can she shed that history? In some ways, now, Korea is at a point where the best moral and strategic option is to break out despite the terrible injustices done.”

A leader of firsts

In 2012 Park became South Korea’s first female president and Northeast Asia’s first elected female leader. She ran as a compassionate conservative, a “president for the people,” and in motherly fashion at her inaugural called for the work-driven nation to become a “happier place.”

Park, who has no spouse but says she is “married to Korea,” witnessed the tragedies and flowering of her nation up close. Her father, Park Chung-hee, ruled with an iron hand between 1961 and 1979; he is credited with pulling a poor, agricultural state out of the shambles of the Korean war and into one of the world’s most productive, wired, and literate nations. Hard as it is to imagine, when Ms. Park received her engineering degree in 1972, North Korea was more prosperous than the South, wooed in tandem by China and the Soviet Union.

Park lost both parents to political violence. In 1974 at a Liberation Day speech, an assassin aimed at her father and killed her mother. Park, fresh from college at age 22, served as First Lady of Korea for five years. Then her father was shot dead at dinner by an aide. Later, as the South democratized, Park joined in. She held the political opposition together and in 2006 was herself physically attacked and slashed while campaigning. She also reached out to North Korea, visiting Kim Jong-il in the 1990s. 

Along the way, Korea brilliantly modernized under the “chaebol,” or mega-corporation system started by Park’s father and aided by Japan and the US. Today, as an expatriate lawyer in Seoul puts it, “As far as build-out is concerned, South Korea is done, its finished, it’s a success.” Korea in 2015 is slightly hip, and its family soaps, boy bands, and “Gangnam style” are popular across Asia. It is a crossroads between maritime and mainland Asia, between socialism to its east and democracy to its west, and is a front line in US-China relations.

Yet the South itself is sharply riven on partisan lines, between right and left. Disagreements are profound on how to interpret most of the past, including the autocratic rule of Park's father, who served as an officer in the Japanese Army. Not until 2012, for example, could political agreement be gained to open the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, which sits prominently at the Gwanghwamun Square rotary next to the American embassy. But inside, one subject does garner agreement: Korea’s unhappy occupation by Japan, a time when Koreans were forbidden to learn or speak their language.

“In 1905 Imperial Japan forced the Korean government to sign a treaty depriving it of sovereignty,” reads an opening script. Partway through is a photo display of the so-called “comfort women,” stating: “Women and girls were even victimized as forced laborers at the various places or as the military sexual slaves at the Japanese military camps.”

In fact, comfort women are just the tip of the iceberg for Korea’s outcry. It is Abe’s entire revision of the basic meaning of World War II that bothers Japan's neighbors, many of whom see the prime minister as also trying to restore the honor of his own family. Abe's maternal grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a minister in Japan's wartime cabinet who was arrested on war crimes charges and then released. 

Indeed, many ideas that purport to restore Japan’s honor and dignity hearken to Meiji era propaganda, which helped form the basis for Japan’s colonial expansion and the war. For example: that Japan in the 1930s was only taking territory to keep it from Americans and other European colonials. That Japan was acting as friend to the nations it invaded. That Japan’s cause was just, and the atom bomb attacks made Japan the war’s victim.

“The problem for us is that Japan’s denial and revisionism is their actual position,” says Choi Jin-wook, president of the Korean Institute for National Unification.  “For them it is truth. They have drifted into believing that they were victims of World War II. For Japan, nothing is remembered. For us, nothing is forgotten.”

Prof. Choi points to another factor: Mounting strains between Japan and China mean that Abe cannot be seen as showing any weakness in northeast Asia.

Today, most historians and a UN investigation argue that some 200,000 women in Asia were forced into sexual slavery during the war. Yet Abe has questioned this, despite previous Japanese official apologies and the payment of compensation starting in 1992. Last November, Abe enabled a commission to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women.”

The new Japanese position has emerged gradually. But its main points are this: Korean women were not rounded up and forced to service Japanese soldiers, as most history texts outside Japan suggest. Rather, the women were volunteers, willing participants – not coerced by Japan but offered up under Korean management.

For Koreans today, Japan is saying under its breath across the 120-mile ocean strait: Your women acted as prostitutes, not sex slaves. “This kills us twice,” is the saying in Seoul, meaning that Japan first abused the women and now denies it.

“The idea pushed by Japan that there was no exploitation of Korean women but that they were selling themselves to soldiers for monetary gain, is repugnant to a female president of Korea,” former South Korean foreign minister Han Sung-joo told the Monitor. “Japan is making an all-out effort to reinvent their past and restore their honor and bring the US on their side. We see Korea moving more toward China, away from the US. Japan wants to be seen as a normal state, but doesn't want to act normally to achieve that. I don’t know where this will end.”

Park is now in the third year of her single five-year presidential term. By year three, a Korean president wants to have a legacy issue, sources say. (Park’s predecessor advocated “green growth.”)  But Park is still searching for hers, amid criticism that she is adrift. She’s weathering scandal and days ago accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo over bribery. She faces criticism for a lukewarm response to last year's sinking of the Sewol ferry  that killed 304 passengers, many of them high-school students on a field trip.

But Park's popularity seems to be resilient, and it is suggested she could consider a Japanese rapprochement since she isn’t running for reelection. 

The history trap

In Seoul however opinion makers find it difficult to see Park breaking out of the history trap, given the ongoing slaps from Tokyo. Japan recently asked UNESCO to grant heritage status for a series of war camps and mines  – places where Koreans died of hunger or exhaustion. Then in January, Japan appeared to downgrade its relations with South Korea, changing its official statement about relations with the country from an “important neighboring country that shares basic values with Japan such as freedom, democracy, and a market economy, ” to a country that is Japan's “most important neighboring country.” South Koreans have also taken note of a “Ken Kan” or “Hate Korea” movement in Japan.”

Yet the Park “breakout” idea is not yet dead, despite a view that changing the rings of Saturn would be easier than forgiving Japan. Political and diplomatic elites in Seoul argue it is impractical if not unhealthy for Asian relations to wither, and that Korean affairs should not be captive to slights coming from the former colonial master.

The recent death of longtime Singapore leader Lee Kwan Yew – whose funeral Park attended last month – has also prompted fresh consideration of his approach to Japan after World War II. Lee decided after the war that it was in Singapore’s interest to forgive Japan in a wholesale manner.

“Unlike China and Korea, Singapore nurtures no sense of grievance towards its former occupiers, despite the … cruelty,” John Curtis Perry, professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, recently wrote in The Wall St. Journal. “The Japanese chose Chinese Singaporeans, three quarters of the population, for the worst treatment … [singling] out those who had soft hands and wore glasses – marks of the leadership class – for execution. Many thousands died.”

Indeed, Park need look no further than her own father’s historic breakout and normalization with Japan in the 1960s. The senior Park took the step despite terrific opposition and uprisings and protest at home. Lee Myung-bok, Park’s predecessor and fellow party member, was tossed in jail for rioting.

“Normalization with Japan is now seen as wise and progressive, but not at the time,” says Mr. Chin at Yonsei University. “The streets of Seoul were full of fire and the country was divided. The only way to move forward was to take aid and emulate Japan. Park’s father saw a need … and he took the bitter pill. But it was the beginning of what would come to be our economic miracle.”

Last year, China's President Xi Jinping came to Seoul and proposed a united front against Japan. Park swiftly said no. But senior diplomats here worry about the country's possible drift from the US alliance. President Obama clearly supported Korea’s position on comfort women in a visit to Seoul last year, and Park will visit the White House in June. But the fact that the US is seen mainly as Seoul’s military partner, and China is its partner in commerce, suggests somewhat hollower relations with America, many say. And with the US and Japan creating tighter military relations, many Koreans are convinced that Washington is preoccupied, doesn't care, or has been seduced by Japan into viewing Korea as narrow-minded and obstinate.

All the more reason for Park to break out, according to Chin. If he were advising Park, he says, he would point out that trade deals with China are not what people will remember her for.

“At some point, Abe or Park will have to understand there are bigger issues at stake. History is not the final be-all issue. It will take political courage and I hope she has that courage. Can she show the world ‘I can be sisterly,’ that Korea can take a mature attitude? She would have more cachet than any other Asian leader.”

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