WASHINGTON - Sharp differences on historical issues that have strained relations between Japan and South Korea require Tokyo to face up to its abusive wartime past and for Seoul to be less preoccupied with it, U.S. experts and former officials say.
The divisions between the two main American allies in Asia, which play host to a total of 80,000 U.S. forces, have become a growing concern in Washington as it attempts to consolidate its system of alliances and deepen its engagement in the region.
South Korea's ambassador to Washington, Ahn Ho-young told the Heritage Foundation think-tank Tuesday that it would difficult for relations between the neighbours to improve unless Japan "fairly and honestly" recognizes its wrongdoings of the past, including its treatment of so-called "comfort women" — mostly Chinese and Korean sex slaves used by Japan's military during World War II.
But U.S. experts addressing the same forum expressed frustration with the attitude of both South Korea and Japan given their common interests. They are both democracies, have strong economic ties and are both threatened by a nuclear North Korea.
"Washington has become frustrated with both our friends. With Japan for its tin-eared, ham-fisted diplomatic approach toward resolving historic issues, and with South Korea's insistence on seeing every issue through the lens of history," said Bruce Klingner, Heritage senior research fellow on Northeast Asia.
Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official, described the relationship as "often dysfunctional," undermining U.S. efforts to forge regional co-operation.
South Korean perceptions that Japan lacks contrition for its militarist past have intensified since nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected to power in Japan a year-and-a-half ago.
Last December, Abe visited a shrine in Tokyo where convicted war Japanese criminals are among the 2.5 million honoured. Last week, two Japanese Cabinet ministers also visited the Yasukuni shrine, prompting fresh criticism from South Korea.
South Korea is also suspicious about the Abe government's moves to reinterpret Japan's pacifist post-war constitution to allow Japanese troops a more active role in defensive military activities, including with the U.S. and other partners.
Dennis Blair, a former chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, supported the steps Japan was taking. "They should not be confused with a return to 1930s-style militarism. Japan of today is so far from that," he said.
Victor Cha, who served as director for Asian affairs in the George W. Bush White House, said there's no prospect of "closure" on historical issues between the two sides. He urged pragmatic co-operation, although he noted a growing sense of "Korea fatigue" in Japan over the criticism from Seoul.
Klingner said the evidence of atrocities by imperial Japan between 1910 and 1945 is "unequivocal and overwhelming and for anyone in Japan to question Tokyo's responsibility really historically inaccurate and morally reprehensible."
But he said South Korea should not allow "emotional nationalism to impede security policy."
It should identify specific steps it wants Tokyo to take, rather than make "amorphous demands for sincerity," he said.
© Coast Reporter