Tokyo-Seoul rift threatens U.S. interest

SCOTT SNYDER – The Japan Times

Special to The Japan Times
WASHINGTON — Despite efforts during last month’s summit between South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and President George W. Bush in Washington to speak with “one voice” about the health of the alliance and to improve policy coordination toward North Korea, the summit saw the emergence of a potentially serious new area of divergence between American and South Korean allies: the role and future of Japan.
South Korean criticisms of Japan are particularly sensitive for the Bush administration in view of the perception in Washington that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been one of America’s most faithful and consistent supporters following 9/11 — providing logistic support in Afghanistan and sending Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to Iraq. But where Washington perceives loyalty and a Japan that is stepping up to the plate as a partner in achieving global stability, Seoul sees a rightward shift in Japanese politics and the prospect of Japan’s renewed remilitarization.
The emergence of Korean and Chinese tensions with Japan over Japan’s textbooks, renewed tensions over the disputed Tok-do/Takeshima islands, and Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s memorial to its war dead, are background issues that have recently pushed hot buttons in Seoul and Beijing, but they have barely registered as dire matters for American policymakers focused on Japan’s near-term strategic cooperation in the global war on terrorism and the longer-term need to balance against a rising China.
An indication of Washington’s sensitivity to the South Korean critique of a strong U.S.-Japan alliance is the reaction to Roh’s “balancer” comments and subsequent explanations.
American objections centered less on criticisms of the idea that South Korea might play a constructive role in mitigating Sino-Japanese tensions than on the concept’s appearing to place South Korea in a neutral, equidistant position vis-a-vis China and Japan, despite the fact that both South Korea and Japan are important allies of the United States.
For its part, South Korean sensitivities were revealed in South Korea’s thin-skinned reaction to an alleged comment by Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi that Washington was willing to share some sensitive intelligence with Japan but not with South Korea.
At this stage, the patience of most Washington policy analysts for South Korean criticism of Japan is quite limited. If South Korean leaders want to make a case against Japan, it should be an even-handed, unemotional case built on logic that appeals to American interests rather than one that argues that history will inevitably repeat itself.
That said, the U.S. has a powerful interest in encouraging the management of differences in East Asia, especially between its Japanese and South Korean allies. Close relations between and among the U.S. and its alliance partners are critical to the realization of our shared goals and interests. The need for effective coordination of American, Japanese and South Korean policies toward North Korea is a case in point.
Equally important for this administration, Japan and South Korea share America’s democratic values, the expansion of which are necessary if a lasting and stable peace is to be secured across the East Asian region.
The shift in U.S. defense strategy embodied in the Global Posture Review underscores the American need for a positive Japan-South Korea relationship. The GPR assumes that American forces may be called upon to respond to a variety of contingencies in the East Asian region, requiring flexibility in deployments but also requiring a regionwide view of the U.S. presence, not just the traditional perspective that managing the U.S. presence in Asia requires management of parallel bilateral alliance commitments to Japan and South Korea in isolation from each other.
From this perspective, it is in the U.S. interest for South Korea and Japan, as primary alliance partners of the U.S., to work effectively with each other.
Washington policymakers should take seriously the security anxieties South Korea is expressing about Japan, even if those issues are not perceived as immediate dangers from Washington’s perspective. The controversy over Japan’s treatment of history threatens peace in the region as well as the ability of South Korea and Japan to effectively work with each other as fellow democracies and U.S. allies.
While the U.S. has little interest in forcing itself into the middle of South Korea-Japan disputes, it should consider playing a behind-the-scenes role that facilitates a more frank consideration of ways that Japan can deal effectively with the history issue in ways that will both respect those soldiers who fought and died for Japan and forthrightly acknowledge Japan’s historical excesses.
Such efforts are necessary to stabilize the foundation for a more regionalized, alliance-based approach to a U.S. security presence in the region and to lay the foundation for the consolidation and expansion of shared democratic values, transparency, and expanded economic prosperity, which are the prerequisite for assuring a truly stable East Asian community.
Scott Snyder is a senior associate at the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. The comments here represent his personal views.
The Japan Times: July 14, 2005
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