When a dispute over several islets in the sea between Japan and South Korea threatened to spin out of control and into hostilities last year, the US quietly intervened to tell both sides to back off.
"We told them that a bunch of rocks in the water weren't worth fighting over," a US official said, noting inflamed rhetoric and naval and air maneuvers around the isles, which the Koreans call Dokto and the Japanese Takeshima. US officials recognize neither name nor claim but refer to the isles as Liancourt Rocks, which a French whaler designated them in 1849.
This squabble over rocky isles may seem trivial but it reflects the deep antipathy South Koreans and Japanese feel for each other. That, in turn, has a corrosive effect on the US' security posture in Northeast Asia. The US has defense treaties with both South Korea and Japan and has armed forces stationed in each. For the US' allies constantly to be quarreling does it little good.
A senior US officer said the antagonism precludes joint planning and training in what, from a military viewpoint, should be a single, integrated area of operations.
"It certainly limits our options," he said. "We have not found many ways to operate together."
Another senior US officer carried that further, saying: "We don't talk to the [South] Koreans about what we are doing with the Japanese and we don't talk to the Japanese about what we are doing with the [South] Koreans."
Occasionally, Japanese and South Korean officers get along personally as both are professionals. They cannot say so in public, however, because their compatriots would roundly criticize them. South Korean and Japanese navies sometimes do search and rescue drills at sea, out of the public eye, but rarely do they train together for war. Moreover, US officers see little hope for improvement.
"We don't see anyone on a path to resolve these issues," a senior officer said. "There's no political will in either country to resolve this, no substantive offers to even begin."
On the surface, US leaders seek to be even handed. In reality, security relations with Japan are being upgraded while those with South Korea are being downgraded.
US Forces in Japan and Japan's Self Defense Forces are organizing parallel commands. A Bilateral Joint Operations Coordination Center has been established and Japan's Air Defense Command is slated to move next door to the US Fifth Air Force near Tokyo. The US Army plans to set up a forward operational headquarters where it will be joined by Japan's Central Readiness Force.
The US Navy and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force have what a US officer calls "probably the strongest daily naval relationship in the world."
Japan and the US are developing a joint missile defense. All told, the US expects to keep 42,000 military people in Japan after 8,000 Marines have been transferred to Guam.
In contrast, over the next five years the US will draw down its forces in South Korea beyond the 29,500 level to be reached next year. The Combined Forces Command, a joint US-South Korean headquarters, will be dismantled. Most likely, the US Eighth Army headquarters and that of the 2nd Infantry Division, whose troop level has already been cut, will be moved to the US.
In a realignment of US forces, 30 bases have been returned to South Korea; another 29 will be returned later. Seoul plans to reduce its own forces 45 percent over the next decade to 2 million troops, giving the US even less reason to post soldiers there. Despite US requests, South Korea has resisted taking part in joint missile defense.
The conventional explanation of the bad blood between South Koreans and Japanese is the 35 years of harsh Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The ill feelings, however, seem deeper and are not the same on either side. In its simplest generality, Koreans hate Japanese and Japanese disdain Koreans.
In March, for instance, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asserted that Korean, Japanese and other women who served as "comfort women," or prostitutes, for Japanese soldiers in World War II had done so for money. He brushed aside allegations that they were compelled into it.
"The fact is," he said, "there is no evidence to prove there was coercion."
Koreans exploded. An academic, Kim Jin-hyun, reflected the sentiments of his compatriots in an essay when he pointed to what he called "the uncivilized, historically fallacious, anti-humanitarian and illogical displays by mainstream Japan."
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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