At Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Feb. 27 (local time), Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman bluntly expressed her discontent with the conflict between Korea, China, and Japan surrounding the comfort women, history book, and East Sea issues. She also criticized the three countries as abusing national sentiments and trying to win cheap applause by blaming their enemies of the past. Experts suspect that her remark is to warn Korea and China, more than Japan, to not use historical issues for political purposes.
Her remarks draw attention in that it differs from the official stance that the U.S. maintained until recently. The U.S. Congress had adopted a resolution with regard to the comfort women issue in 2007, and American historians more recently criticized Japan’s recognition of the past for its deviation from what is generally accepted by the international community. After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine two years ago, Washington was considered to be maintaining its stance that Japan’s heartfelt apology and self-reflection should come first for stability in Northeast Asia. Then, she abruptly mentioned joint responsibility at this time, which is totally unexpected and highly disappointing. Consequently, there is emerging a concern that Washington is being affected, as Japanese politicians and diplomats have insisted that the deterioration of the relationship between Korea and Japan is due to Korea’s obsession with the past.
Amid the controversy, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf mentioned on Mar. 2 that the remark aims at no specific country or leader. Nevertheless, she neither called for Japan to admit its cruel colonial rule and aggressive war, nor explained anything about Washington’s policy regarding the history issue.
Experts are sure that Sherman’s comments were intended to be political, because she knew that what she said would be open to the public. In the State Department, she is second in rank only to Secretary John Kerry and Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken. Besides, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is one of the think tanks that represents the U.S. along with the Brookings Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This means her remark reflects the Obama administration’s official stance rather than her own thoughts. She is the very person who said, during her visit to the three countries in January this year, that the U.S. government appreciated the importance of the Kono Statement and the Murayama Statement, and hoped for their continuous effects.
What she said at this time is inappropriate diplomatic wording and shows a lack of understanding of history. She did not urge Japan to apologize, but instead used expressions that should not be used by a diplomat. The phrase of cheap applause she mentioned, regarded as being directed at Korea and China, is an insult against, the leader of the allied nation Korea in particular. The current entanglement was caused by the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine and attempts to tamper with the Kono Statement. But nonetheless she seemed to blame Korea and China.
There is no doubt that she made the remark to encourage the three countries to cooperate in the future. However, what is wrong with the statement is that it could spread the misunderstanding that Korea and China are more responsible than Japan for the feud in Northeast Asia. She said the dispute was understandable but frustrating. However, it is Korea that should be frustrated with the Japanese government having made no apology at all for its many wartime atrocities.
Korean politicians have expressed complaints one after another since her remark. Democratic United Party supreme council member Jeon Byeong-hyeon deplored the remark as completely thoughtless, and his counterpart Kim Eul-dong at the ruling New Frontier Party asked if the U.S. can hold all of Europe accountable while forgiving Nazi Germany.
What happened in Northeast Asia in the early 20th century cannot be cleaned up with the ease that the under secretary assumes. Even President Barack Obama himself said in Seoul in April last year that the mobilization of comfort women was an extremely heinous violation of human rights. The spokesperson of the State Department has consistently asked the Japanese government to face the issue, too. The U.S. government should clarify which is its official stance.
Mentioning the joint responsibility of the three countries with Japan rushing to rearmament is sure to result in greater conflicts by fueling Japan’s drive to become a militaristic nation. The ongoing territory dispute is attributable, at least in part, to Washington’s ambiguous position resulting from the lack of historical understanding. It is an undeniable historical fact that it patched up the Treaty of San Francisco in a hurry so that Japan can call the Dokdo issue into question later.
The U.S. has been concerned over the fact that the leaders of Korea and Japan, two of its closest allies in Asia, have had no summit meetings in over two years. In that light, her remark can be regarded as reflecting a willingness to put up with some tension from the Korean government with the importance of cooperation between Korea, Japan, and itself on the rise as China is emerging. If this is the case, President Barack Obama’s meetings with the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese leaders scheduled in Washington D.C. are unlikely to yield positive results, because any attempt to force Korea-Japan relations to get better will be in vain.
The under secretary’s remark is particularly egregious in that it was made immediately before the 96th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement in the 50th anniversary year of the Korea-Japanese diplomatic reestablishment. During her commemorative speech on Mar. 1, President Park Geun-hye cited the example of Germany and France to stress that Korea and Japan should create a better future as partners for the next 50 years. Still, she emphasized that such a constructive relationship would be possible based only on a Japanese reality check. This is her consistent yet strong warning message against the Japanese Prime Minister, who is looking to turn the tables by means of his U.S. Congress speech in May and statement for the end of WWII in August.
There is no denying that the bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan should be recovered as soon as possible to check the North Korean nuclear issue continuing to pose a threat and to boost the cooperation between Korea, Japan, and the U.S. for the balance of power in Northeast Asia. A closer partnership between Seoul and Washington is indispensable in the quest for Korean reunification, too. However, today’s Korea-Japan relations cannot be dealt with the ambiguous theory of joint responsibility, and even the minimum trust between the two based on the Murayama and Koizumi Statements has been impaired now. It is Japan that must be responsible for the recovery. The vague theory is sure to hamper the progress of any improvement.
The Obama administration’s change of stance, to put pressure not on Japan but Korea, is no viable option. It would fuel the anti-U.S. opinion in Korea while giving wings to Japan’s distortion of history and nationalism. The U.S. government would be well advised to stop the controversy from further spreading by coming up with its official position concerning the under secretary’s remark. This will be the best choice in the interest of the summit meetings to come and long-term stability in Northeast Asia alike.