In the courtly world of diplomacy, the meeting between US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and South Korean President Park Geun-hye was something of a shock.
Hagel was in the region to try to revitalize the US’ faltering “pivot” to Asia and had one especially pressing request for Park: to try to get along better with Japan. The steely Park instead delivered a lecture about Japan’s “total absence of sincerity” over the suffering that imperial Japan caused Korea in the last century and finished with a request of her own: that Washington force Tokyo to behave.
“If Germany had continued to say things that inflicted pain, while acting as if all was well, would European integration have been possible?” she asked Hagel. “I think the answer is no.”
Park’s refusal to budge during that September meeting was one of many recent reminders that the leaders of Japan and South Korea, the US’ closest military partners in Asia, seem to be barely on speaking terms. Analysts say the current tensions are among the worst in recent years, an increasingly vexing problem for US President Barack Obama’s administration as it struggles to present a united front in dealing with a rising China and a nuclear North Korea.
This month, a rare meeting of Japan and South Korea’s top defense officials ended in an impasse, with harsh words and no progress on an intelligence-sharing deal the US had been pushing for years.
Park went so far as bringing China into the fracas, even as the Japanese and Chinese feuded over disputed islands. She asked China’s leader during a summit meeting to erect a monument to a Korean national hero who assassinated the first prime minister of Japan for his role in the Japanese colonization of Korea. The Chinese complied. It has also not been lost on the Japanese that Park held the summit meeting with China’s leader while she continued to refuse to do the same with Japan’s prime minister, breaking a long-standing tradition of Korean and Japanese leaders meeting soon after taking office.
“History issues are having impacts on us and our alliances in Asia in ways that we never anticipated,” said Thomas Berger, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University.
While history has long haunted relations between Japan and South Korea, the recent chill is being driven partly by the very pivot to Asia that increasingly makes the US administration anxious that its allies get along. To bolster its attempts to contain China’s territorial ambitions, the US has supported Japan’s moves to strengthen its armed forces, despite South Korea’s fear that Japan is reverting to militarism.
However, beyond the policy irritants, the frustrations in the two countries seem very much rooted in the personal history of their new, and conservative, leaders.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a rightist who has long sought to have his country’s World War II-era history portrayed in a more positive light. He is driven, analysts say, by a deep desire to exonerate his grandfather, an architect of Japanese empire-building in the 1930s who was eventually arrested as a war criminal by Japan’s American occupiers, before becoming prime minister.
Park carries her own historical baggage. As the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military ruler who served as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army while Korea was still a colony, she is under constant pressure to distance herself from her father’s ties to Japan.