“Neither Park nor Abe can come together for personal reasons that run across generations,” said Mikio Haruna, a politics professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “And this fact is driving Washington up a wall.”
The lack of communication, analysts and US officials say, has practical ramifications, including a setback of US efforts to nudge the two countries’ militaries to work together. Such cooperation, which is very limited, would be crucial during any regional conflict.
“The headwind created by these tensions over history raise the political cost of Japan-Korea cooperation that should be a given,” said Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
For its part, South Korea wants to avoid any regional conflict and is reluctant to take sides in the rising tensions between China, its largest trading partner, and Japan, its third largest.
Initially, US analysts say, much of the blame in Washington for the troubled Japan-South Korea relationship fell on Abe, viewed by some as a dangerous nationalist. However, the analysts say that has been changing, especially since the Hagel meeting.
Analysts say there is no personal bad blood between Park and Abe, and that any Korean leader would feel pressure to take a hard line with Abe, who has long denied that the Japanese military had a direct role in coercing so-called Korean comfort women to provide sex to soldiers during World War II — a particularly fraught issue for South Koreans. In addition, relations began on a difficult footing.
According to South Korean officials, Park — who had called for stabilizing South Korea-Japan relations during her presidential campaign — became deeply upset when Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso visited Seoul for her inauguration and, they said, told her that there was no big difference between the Yasukuni Shrine, where some convicted war criminals are honored, and Arlington National Cemetery.
Abe has not visited the shrine since taking office, but has sent offerings on special days, feeding South Korean suspicions that although he has toned down his rhetoric, his hawkish stances have not changed.
The legacy of the collaboration by Park’s father makes it even tougher for her to compromise, experts say.
“For President Park, the negative legacy carries a huge domestic political risk,” said Park Cheol-hee, director of the Institute for Japanese Studies at Seoul National University.
South Korean leaders have made it clear that ties can be improved only if the Japanese prime minister admits to greater government responsibility for past offenses and agrees to pay compensation to the surviving “comfort women.”
That may be the one thing Abe cannot do. This is also a highly emotional issue for the Japanese ultraconservatives who form his political base as nationalists see it as a fabrication used to help paint their nation as the villain in World War II. Their take is that Japan was fighting to liberate Asia from European and US imperialism.
Referring to the historical entanglements, Berger said, “These are chronic problems that only seem to be getting worse.”