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.
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.”
As prime minister, Mr. Abe has tried to reassure observers of his desire to improve relations with his neighbors. But his inner nationalism has resurfaced. Abe told the parliament last month that Japan’s actions in Asia could not be characterized as “aggression” or “invasion,” repudiating the language of a war apology issued in 1995.
When Abe’s deputy premier and 169 members of the parliament visited the Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead, where the men convicted by the Allies of war crimes are also honored, the Korean foreign minister responded by canceling his visit. Japan’s foreign minister has since said that the government stands by its apologies, but officials continue to avoid acknowledging Japan’s “aggression.”
President Obama got a personal taste of this legacy when he raised the need for trilateral cooperation in an Oval Office meeting May 7 with South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye. According to Korean officials, Ms. Park told her host that cooperation must rest upon the foundation of a Japan willing to face its wartime crimes and honor Japan’s previous clear statements of remorse. She pointed with concern to the LDP’s desire to rewrite the Constitution, removing the American-authored prohibition against the conduct of war except in self-defense.
“Differences stemming from history are widening,” Park told a joint session of Congress with unusual bluntness. Park reinforces how seriously she takes this question of the past in small but significant ways. For instance, she has pointedly focused her attentions in the region on improving ties with China, which she is planning to visit soon, well ahead of any trip to Japan.
The impact of this war of memories on public opinion is corrosive. In a joint poll of Koreans and Japanese in March and April, some 76 percent of Koreans had an unfavorable image of Japan, citing history and territory issues. Japanese with a favorable view of Korea declined from 50 percent a decade ago to 37.3 percent. Some 44 percent of Koreans see Japan as a military threat, almost as many as view China as a threat.
The failure of Korea and Japan to deal with their past imperils not only their own security but America’s. The burden of responsibility to promote cooperation lies with Japan, though South Korea also must be prepared to respond positively to real gestures of apology and responsibility.
Unfortunately the Abe government is mobilized not by the concerns of Koreans but only by the fear that Americans are paying attention to these concerns. While the United States is not without guilt when it comes to avoiding sensitive wartime issues, Washington must make it clear that it will not tolerate a retreat from the judgment of history, forged by the lives of Americans and their Allies, that the war in Asia was a consequence of Japan’s aggression.
America’s alliances in East Asia rest on that foundation, and its presence in the region requires that all of its allies work well with each other to keep regional peace.
Daniel Sneider is the associate director for research of Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, where he codirects a project on wartime historical memory. A former foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, he reported on Asia for 30 years.