South Korean President Park Geun-hye may have avoided walking into a potential minefield in postponing her recent Washington visit due to the MERS outbreak in her home country. Following the highly successful Washington visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, there is a growing sense of “Korea fatigue” among American policymakers – a narrative being vigorously promoted by the Japan lobby. And with even Tokyo’s regional rival, Chinese President Xi Jinping, relenting enough on history issues to meet twice with Mr. Abe, President Park’s continued avoidance of ally Abe is being denigrated by some as not befitting a true alliance “team player.” Thus the current scramble in Seoul to convey the message that South Korea is moving forward with strategic issues of vital importance, such as cooperation on the North Korean nuclear threat. And there was President Park’s own recent comment in a Washington Post interview regarding “considerable progress” with Tokyo on the historically contentious comfort women issue (a view not necessarily shared by Japanese negotiators.)
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se recently made the first visit to Tokyo by a foreign minister of his country since 2011 in order to attend a June 22nd ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the South Korea-Japan normalization treaty. In an interview with the South Korean wire service Yonhap upon his return to Seoul, Yun stated that, "We can say that there is certainly a difference before and after this week in terms of the will for improved bilateral relations."
Yet history will rear its ugly head repeatedly this summer threatening to upset the proverbial applecart. First, there will be the June 28-29 meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Bonn where committee members will consider Tokyo’s controversial bid to have Meiji-era industrial sites registered without mentioning the POW, Korean, and Chinese slave labor that was utilized at a number of them. Then there will be Prime Minister Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War in August. A number of questions surround this statement: Will it be official or private? And will Abe repeat former Prime Minister Murayama’s wording in 1995 that Imperial Japan, “through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.”
Further, it is even possible that Abe, having determined that he satisfied the Americans and Australians with his past parliamentary remarks, will decide to again visit the Yasukuni Shrine to honor his maternal grandfather and others from the Tojo war cabinet. The visit of Mrs. Abe to Yasukuni soon after her return from Washington this spring could be seen as a testing of the waters. Washington’s muted response over “just another Japanese housewife’s” visit to the controversial war shrine could be taken as a green light (many American political leaders demonstrate the same tone deafness to Yasukuni’s historic symbolism as they displayed until recently with regard to the Confederate flag.) Finally, there will be Xi Jinping’s VJ Day parade in Beijing in September, which South Korean President Park may well attend. This event will likely be more about chauvinistically displaying Beijing’s military muscle than about commemorating the end of the Second World War.
South Korea and its president, involved in a series of diplomatic pirouettes, are caught smack dab in the middle between what is perceived as a disengaging American ally and a rising China. Certainly on the economic side, Seoul knows full well where its bread is buttered. The Wall Street Journal, for example, reported on March 24th that Seoul agonized over the “diplomatic circumstances” involved in its decision to become a founding member of Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) against Washington’s wishes. The fact is that money talks and that at present 25 percent of South Korean exports go to China and only 12 percent go to the United States. Seoul’s Joongang Ilbo newspaper said that South Korea’s decision to follow along with other European allies of the U.S. and Pacific ally Australia in signing up for AIIB was “a no-brainer.” Interestingly, Tokyo stuck with its American ally in isolation from the 57 AIIB founding members although it did not rule out the possibility of eventually signing up.