To safeguard Asia, Obama must first deal with a test of penitence

Obama wisely brings together the leaders of South Korea and Japan, a necessary step to reconcile them over their history and allow them to cooperate in defending Asia's security.

AP Photo
A South Korean protester wearing a mask of President Obama puts heart-shaped stickers on masks of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, center, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, during a rally against their summit meeting this week. All three leaders will be at a Nuclear Security Summit on Monday and Tuesday in The Hague, Netherlands.

An American president usually does not help two other nations reconcile their past. Yet that task will befall President Obama this week. He has arranged for the leaders of Japan and South Korea to meet on the sidelines of a global summit in Europe in hopes they can begin to resolve disputes over their shared, troubled history.

Mr. Obama’s gentle head-knocking is necessary because South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not met since they took office last year. The United States needs these two allies to cooperate in order to deal with a nuclearized North Korea and a China vying to dominate Asia. Obama has found he must intervene, at least indirectly, on questions over Japan’s sincerity in its past penitence over its 1910-45 occupation of Korea and whether South Korea will fully accept Japan’s official apologies and payments for its imperial-era atrocities.

Their three-way discussion in the Netherlands probably will not focus on issues of guilt, forgiveness, compensation, and reconciliation. A third party like the US can only use its clout to open communications between parties on matters that must come from the heart. The US is already well practiced in such emotional diplomacy by its attempts to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians, and, to a lesser degree, India and Pakistan.

Obama can, however, impress upon South Korea and Japan the huge security challenge posed by China and North Korea. That challenge brings an imperative for each country to reconcile with each other by overcoming their respective domestic barriers in doing so. The two have a model in the way that Germany and France reconciled during the cold war and set a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

For his part, Mr. Abe finds it difficult to revive nationalism among the largely pacifist Japanese in order to boost defense spending in the face of the country’s external threats. Part of his difficulty is that he is politically beholden to some conservatives who seek to whitewash Japan’s wartime history, reinforcing the impression of insufficient remorse by Japan. 

For her part, Ms. Park – the daughter of a previous president who was criticized for opening ties with Japan in 1965 – has revived anti-Japanese nationalism to help consolidate her political power and to project South Korea’s prominence in the world. Her antagonism toward Japan, and her coziness with China, baffles Japanese leaders.

One specific issue between them is Japan’s attempt to compensate Korean women who were used for sex by Japanese soldiers during World War II. A private fund set up by Japan to pay the so-called “comfort women” is seen by many in South Korea as inadequate. Resolving that issue will be a big start in building the kind of cooperation that the US seeks in sharing the burden of defending the peace in Asia.

Penitence and the acceptance of it are difficult enough between individuals, let alone entire countries. If Japan and South Korea, however, can agree they have a common purpose in standing up to current aggression by their neighbors, they can find common ground in resolving issues of Japan’s past aggression. A diplomatic war over history should not stand in the way of preventing a real war.

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