Sherman marched right into it. At an event in Washington on Friday, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, held forth on the subject of the prickly relations between South Korea and Japan -- and did so in a way that seemed to blame the victims in the situation.
“Nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it's not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy,” she lamented. "To what extent does the past limit future possibilities for cooperation? The conventional answer to that question, sadly, is a lot.”
It has been widely interpreted (in Korea and elsewhere) that Sherman was slyly alluding to the conservative South Korean president Park Geun-hye in her admonishment. President Park has notably chilly relations with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Indeed, the two leaders have been in office for several years now, and they have still held no bilateral meetings.
Japan’s subjugation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, was unremittingly brutal. (A trip to Seodaemun Prison in Seoul, while grim, is a must for visitors to Korea.) Among those who suffered the most were the so-called “comfort women,” the tens of thousands of young Korean women who were forced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. A dwindling number of former comfort women are still alive in South Korea today; the issue still burns bright hot among even the youngest generation of Koreans.
That’s partly because many Japanese leaders, including, alas, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have deliberately minimized the crimes of their forbearers. As the New York Times noted last year, “The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is engaged in an all-out effort to portray the historical record as a tissue of lies designed to discredit the nation. Mr. Abe’s administration denies that imperial Japan ran a system of human trafficking and coerced prostitution, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes.” Last fall, Abe hinted that he might even try to “revise” the Kono Statement, Japan’s 1993 apology for its massive sex slave operation. Abe has also prayed at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors some 14 class-A war criminals, including Hideki Tojo.
In sum, President Park has hardly been “exploiting” nationalist sentiment for “cheap applause” – she has, quite rightly, refused to kowtow to a leader of a foreign country who appears to celebrate the former subjugation of her country. If anyone was after “cheap applause,” it was Wendy Sherman, whose cheap Kumbaya sentiments would blame both victims and aggressors in equal measure.