As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wends his way through Asia's "triangular relationship" of Korea, Japan, and China, he's getting an earful of 19th- and 20th-century grievances. Conflicts over history, disputes over territory, nationalist pride, and energy hunger are amplifying and playing off each other in northeast Asia - continuing deep but often invisible rifts here.
Currently, Roh Moo-hyun and Hu Jintao, heads of state of Korea and China, are not meeting regularly with Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese head of state.
In some ways Mr. Annan, whose Asia trip may be his last as UN head, is approaching east Asia like a marriage counselor. He will meet all three heads of state, has said the three nations are neighbors "bound to live together," and that a crucial need is to be "truthful to history" in order to avoid past crimes and mistakes.
From his bully pulpit in Seoul this week, Annan pointed to the reconciliation in Europe - specifically the 60th anniversary of World War II last year, when the current leaders of principal combatants - Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, President George Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, and Mr. Koizumi stood together in Red Square in Moscow.
Yet more than a bully pulpit is needed to do the job today in east Asia, analysts say. "Annan is in a region that, for all the progress that has been made economically, is still anchored to the past psychologically," says Russell Leigh Moses, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing.
In Seoul on Tuesday, President Roh pushed Secretary Annan to take sides on a dispute over tiny islands between Korea and Japan.
Koreans are almost universally treating Japanese claims to the islands as a huge slap in the face, and as a dangerous precedent.
Koreans remember the Dokdo Islands as the first invasion point of Korea by the Japanese early in the 20th century, and stoutly refuse to acknowledge any dispute over the territory, which the Japanese call Takeshima. The US has not taken sides on the issue of the "Lian Court rocks," the US name for the island, nor did Annan.
In Tokyo, where Annan arrived Wednesday, politicians hoped the UN chief would not raise the issue of Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 war criminals are memorialized.
The shrine visits are the chief symbols of friction between Japan, and China and Korea.
In a development this week, conservative Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, candidates to replace Mr. Koizumi, hinted that they may take a different view of the shrine than Koizumi, who has visited five times, albeit as a "private citizen." No other Japanese prime minister has visited more than once since it was discovered the war criminals' names had been secretly added to the shrine in the late 1970s.
Mr. Aso, a voluble hawk, said Tuesday that he saw "problems" with the "methods" of Japanese leaders visiting the shrine.
A switch in tactics by Japanese politicians on shrine visits would be significant. For both Korea and China, unhealed grievances like a perceived lack of Japanese "sincerity," to use President Roh's word this week, seem far greater when played off a rise in Japanese nationalist rhetoric. Currently, the main question inside the discussion of strained relations is whether Koizumi will visit the shrine again on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
On Friday, Annan is scheduled to visit Beijing. In China, strains in the triangular relationship are mainly evident with Japan. To ease the tensions, foreign ministers of the two states are now conducting "talks about talks."
Disputes remain over natural gas fields in the East China Sea, and competition between the two over an oil pipeline from Russia.
But the major divide is over the Yasukuni shrine: President Hu will not talk to a Japanese leader that does not renounce the visits. Beijing hopes that after Koizumi, a more moderate leader will be elected.
The depth of feeling in the three countries is not always recognized, given all three countries' emphasis on good manners and polite relations. But the dimensions of the problem were hinted at by a Beijing University professor. "Kofi Annan will have no effect at all here," he stated. "If this is going to be solved, the people in different countries need to work together. The UN can't do anything other than promote goodwill."
Annan's trip, which will include stops in Vietnam and Thailand, is also focusing on Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, UN reform, and the next UN head.
Asia has three candidates to succeed Annan at the UN. Regional powers hope the institution relies on the "rotation" custom to choose the next leader, since it is Asia's "turn."
The roster of candidates includes South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, and Thailand's deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai.