What makes US look away from Japan-SK spat
According to The Asahi Shimbun, the Supreme Court of South Korea on November 29 rejected Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ appeal and ruled the Japanese company compensate 28 South Koreans for their forced labor in Japan during World War II. On November 21, the South Korean government announced the closure of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation that was established in accordance with the “comfort women” agreement reached with Japan in December 2015. The two measures have dented JapanSouth Korea relations and it would not be easy for the two countries to shake off the gloom.
The “comfort women” issue and other historical problems between Japan and South Korea cannot be resolved in a short time. In fact, the diplomatic row between Japan and South Korea can be traced back three years. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intended to use the “comfort women” agreement to address the issue once for all. However, things did not go as Abe had expected. South Korean citizens were against signing the agreement. According to a poll released by South Korean pollster Realmeter on December 31, 2015, 50.7 percent respondents opposed the agreement.
The agreements signed between governments need to be carried out steadily rather than being scrapped. It is also the reason why the Japanese accused Seoul of lacking credibility after the dissolution of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation. However, since the US has quit several international organizations and conventions without plausible reasons after Donald Trump took office, South Korea’s move won’t necessarily damage its international reputation.
It was the US that helped thaw Japan-South Korea relations last time, but so far the Trump government has shown no sign of involvement. After Abe was re-elected at the end of 2012, his words and deeds on historical and territorial issues led to fraying of Japan’s ties with South Korea. In March 2014, then US president Barack Obama brought together leaders of Japan and South Korea for talks on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. It was the first time Abe met then South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Thereafter, China-JapanSouth Korea leaders’ meeting reopened in 2015 while the “comfort women” agreement was signed at the end of that year.
The mediation move by the US was aimed at the North Korean nuclear issue and coordinating the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. After all, the unstable relationship between two important US allies was not conducive to the overall strategic deployment of Washington. This also applies today when the US has to promote its Indo-Pacific strategy, deal with the North Korean issue and step up military security against China and Russia.
However, no talks took place between Trump and leaders of Japan and South Korea to mediate the two Asian countries at the recent APEC summit or the just-concluded G20 summit. Perhaps Trump believes that Japan-South Korea relations are not yet at the lowest, or he simply does not care about the impact of their frozen relations on the US’ strategic architecture. Trump is sticking to his major policy guidelines including “America First” and improvement in trade deficit. Thus, he doesn’t seem to have time for the spat between US allies unlike his predecessor.
Some right-wing forces and even the public in Japan have long held that historical issues are the “bargaining chips” held by neighboring countries to suppress Japan. Nevertheless, this theory is untenable given the recent spats between Japan and South Korea. Since Abe hasn’t done anything to provoke Seoul over historical issues recently, the dissolution of the foundation by South Korea cannot be regarded as retaliation against Japan. Likewise, the ruling on compensation for forced labor was made by the Supreme Court of South Korea, which is independent of political and public influence.
All in all, linking historical issues with diplomatic pressure is nothing but wishful thinking by Japan. Tokyo needs to be sincere to solve historical issues with its neighbors.