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Korean Sex Slaves Dispute Hurts Obama’s Asia Strategy

©2015 Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama’s attempt to refocus his foreign policy on Asia is running into deep-seated animosities that are seared into the psyches of some U.S. allies in the region.
Fostering closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea, North Asia’s largest democratic economies, is crucial to the administration’s ambitions for maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific. Improved relations between South Korea and Japan would help the U.S. build a united front to respond to a nuclear-armed North Korea and a more assertive China.
Those efforts have been stifled by a widening rhetorical gap between the two countries’ leaders over the use of Korean women as sex slaves by Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II. South Korea’s president, Park Geun Hyehas called for additional reparations for so-called comfort women, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is visiting Washington this week, has questioned whether the women were forced to serve the Japanese troops.

“The glaring problem is that the U.S. can’t get them into the same room, because Japan will not acknowledge the past,” said Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, who has written about historical apologies by Japan, Korea and the U.S. “It makes it impossible for what should be an incredibly natural security alliance to be realized.”

U.S. Influence

Obama’s pivot toward Asia, which he articulated during his first year in office, was intended to reassert U.S. influence in some of the world’s fastest growing markets. China also is using its military and economic clout to make territorial claims and seal trade deals. For Obama, the progress has been halting as events in Europe and the Middle East pull U.S. attention away and friction among countries in the region delays stitching together a unified alliance.Last month, Abe told a Japanese television network that he did not feel compelled to repeat certain language about Japan’s aggression contained in previous past-war apologies in his upcoming statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He also sent a traditional offering to a controversial shrine that commemorates Japanese servicemen, including thousands of convicted war criminals.
Abe further agitated Seoul when he notably avoided connecting Imperial Japan to the suffering of comfort women in an interview last month with the Washington Post. Japanese school textbooks were also recently revised to temper descriptions of its military’s actions.

Previous Apologies

The Japanese government has sidestepped questions over whether the moves are an attempt to whitewash the past. Abe has said he continues to uphold previous apologies to his country’s Asian neighbors. Park has demanded additional compensation for the women subjected to forced prostitution as a condition for direct talks with Abe. Japan has said those issues were settled in a 1965 agreement that normalized relations with South Korea and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid.
South Korea’s government has hired BGR Public Relations to promote its concerns in the United States, according to recent filings with the Department of Justice. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama is “mindful of what a priority this issue is for some of our other allies in the Asia-Pacific.” He would not say if Obama planned to raise the issue directly with Abe.

Fading Memories

“This would not, of course, be the first time that we would be meeting with an ally who may have a little bit of friction in a relationship with another one of our allies,” Earnest said. “What we believe is that by deepening these relationships, particularly when it comes to security concerns, we can address that friction in a constructive way, and allow the United States and our allies to move forward toward a more peaceful future.”

The U.S., where animosities over World War II have faded faster, has been drawn into the dispute, complicating its efforts to exert influence in the region.

Last month, senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman drew criticism when she said during a conference in Washington that historical disputes were “frustrating” and that vilification of former enemies by political leaders “produce paralysis, not progress.”

South Korea’s ruling New Frontier Party warned that America’s status as the world’s policeman “won’t last long” if the country continued “its stance of ignoring victims,” in a statement published by the Financial Times.

Korean Sentiments

“The sentiments in Korea are very real, and the Koreans feel these issues deeply,” Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, the author of a book on international reconciliation, said by phone. “This is not some sort of government manufactured propaganda.”

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters that the administration’s policy is to encourage Abe “to constructively address historical issues consistent” with past Japanese statements.
Administration officials have raised the historic issues in diplomatic settings, including in trilateral talks hosted by Obama last year with Abe and Park — the first time the Japanese and South Korean leaders had met face to face. Still, the brittle relationship has raised concern on Capitol Hill. Last week, a bipartisan group of 25 lawmakers issued a letter urging Japan to “lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues.” They want Abe to use his address before a joint session of Congress — the first ever for a Japanese prime minister — to directly acknowledge South Korea’s concerns.

Deeper Troubles

Abe’s reluctance to address the historical issues may be symptomatic of deeper troubles in the relationship, Lind said.
With South Korea’s economy increasingly integrated with China’s, relations between those countries are improving at the same time Beijing and Tokyo are engaged in territorial disputes over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Obama may be reluctant to wade too deeply into the issue with Abe out of concern there’s little the U.S. can do.
“The reasons for the dispute are sufficiently meaningful that we can’t have any kind of expectation that we would mediate it,” said Van Jackson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former strategist on the Asia-Pacific region at the Defense Department.

Last year’s meeting between Park and Abe was an example of how, even at U.S. urging, there appeared to be little concrete action toward warming the relationship, Jackson said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at Alex Wayne, Justin Blum

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