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The Peninsula

What to Look for in Obama’s Upcoming Trip to Korea and Japan

Published April 22, 2014
Category: South Korea, Japan

By Clare Hubbard 

The official statement regarding President Obama’s April trip to Korea indicates that the main discussion points will be the ongoing implementation of the KORUS FTA, recent developments in North Korea, and reaffirming the U.S.-Korea alliance. However, one main reason for Obama’s trip to the peninsula is missing from the itinerary released by the White House. This unstated fourth, and most important reason for the visit, is to address the growing tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.

Over the past 18 months, historical conflicts between South Korea and Japan have been escalating, creating a barrier between the U.S.’s two closest allies in the region and affecting regional security cooperation. Evidence of the effects of the rising tension, such as the recent Asan poll of Koreans ranking Kim Jong-un above Prime Minister Abe Shinzo; show worrying signs of friction between Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, a more belligerent North Korea is continuing with missile launches and possible nuclear tests. It is imperative for President Obama to use this trip as a means for finding ways to get South Korea and Japan to put aside their differences and find a cohesive path toward a more secure Northeast Asia.

A recent encouraging step toward better relations from Japan was Prime Minister  Abe’s announcement in the Japanese Diet that he will uphold the 1993 Murayama Statement and the 1995 Kono Statement, despite the Diet’s investigations of the 1995 Kono Statement. This statement can help Japan and Korea to start resolving historical issues, but was unfortunately followed by antagonizing comments on history textbooks regarding assertive claims on the Dokdo/Takashimi islands dispute and Japan’s Minister Yoshitaka Shindo’s trip to the Yasukuni war shrine.

The statement to the Diet and Abe’s attempts to arrange meetings with South Korea’s president Guen-hye Park are commendable efforts to thaw relations. However, Abe must realize that until he stops provoking his neighbors with inflammatory statements that are sure to get a negative reaction, Park will not be willing to have a bilateral meeting. As Dr. Sue Mi Terry noted in a recent KEI panel at the AAS Annual Conference, there are ways to “do nothing,” such as avoiding provocative actions such as visits to disputed territory and staying quiet on historical issues.  In order to mend past grievances the two countries should work on present-day mutually beneficial issues, such as security, and then once ties are strong, take steps to mend their historical differences.

The trilateral meeting between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit was, in the words of Park “very significant.” The talk, which covered security issues involving North Korea, is a prime example of Abe and Park coming together to discuss non-historical issues. The meeting covered nuclear non-proliferation and missile programs and discussed ways to improve regional security.  The meeting seemed like a step in the right direction until an aide of President Park stated that Park is not likely to meet again with Abe unless he changes his views on Japan’s wrongdoings during World War II. These types of comments only demonstrate the challenge the Obama administration faces in bringing the two sides together.

The role of President Obama in this situation has been argued over by many analysts, but it is clear that as a main ally to both countries, Obama should continue to provide opportunities where all three leaders can discuss mutually beneficial issues and work together like the Nuclear Security Summit. Even if the clear and present threat of North Korea is the only issue the two countries are willing to discuss, they are at least opening paths to more cooperation in the future. At the very least, the Obama administration should show support for both countries working to strengthen relations. Once South Korea and Japan have strong relations over issues unrelated to history, they can start to slowly reconcile their cultural and historical differences.

Clare Hubbard is the Associate Director for Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from US Embassy, Jakarta’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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