In 1916 London faced a dilemma. The British were hoping to bring American reinforcements to assist them and their beleaguered French allies in the trenches of the First World War. Woodrow Wilson, however, seeking to become the first Democratic president to win reelection since before the Civil War, was campaigning under the slogan “He kept us out of war.”
Wilson knew that every vote counted, and the sizable Irish-American community was demanding a deliverable to cement its support for Wilson in key swing states. That deliverable was named Éamon de Valera. Born in New York to a Cuban father and an Irish mother, de Valera had moved to Ireland at an early age following his father’s death. Still, he was a U.S. citizen by birth. He became involved in Ireland’s independence movement and was a leading figure in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. London regarded the wartime rebellion as treason but saw no option, given American pressure, except to spare de Valera’s life, even while executing the other 15 Easter Rising leaders by firing squad.
Wilson’s choice of votes over diplomacy is not much different than Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s recent decision to side with his Korean constituents on the Tokyo-Korean-American clash over the labeling of the Sea of Japan in textbooks (Koreans call it the East Sea).
The strategic location of the Korean peninsula in close proximity to Japan is similar to Ireland’s in relation to Great Britain. “Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent,” observed C.T. Grenville in a letter to the Duke of Rutland in 1784. And as Prussian adviser Major Klemens Meckel told the Japanese military after the Meiji Restoration, Korea is “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” Yet, despite this strategic importance, both former colonial powers allowed a hostile relationship to fester with their previously occupied people. As with the dysfunction between the British Empire and the Irish nation, which lasted for over 700 years, Tokyo’s estrangement from its Korean neighbors has relied partially on a smug sense of cultural superiority, including a condescending attitude toward the alleged immaturity of the victimized people.
Tokyo seems today just as paralyzed as turn-of-the-century London in its inability to reach a constructive conclusion to its own version of the “Irish Question.” For the United States, the danger is that the continuing dysfunction between its two key northeast Asian allies will allow South Korea to slowly slip away irretrievably into Beijing’s orbit. The Japanese should ask themselves whether it’s worth it to score points in territorial disputes over minuscule islands and historiographic disputes over Tokyo’s World War II atrocities. Is defensiveness over the Imperial Army’s sex slaves, the Korean Comfort Women, strategically wise if it results in a unified and hostile Korean peninsula tilting toward Communist China?
The recent condemnation by Shinzo Abe’s administration of Korean independence figure Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Resident General of Korea Ito Hirobumi at a train station in Harbin in 1909, as a “terrorist” and “a convicted criminal” even has its Irish equivalent. And it involves, ironically, the family of Caroline Kennedy, the current U.S. ambassador to Tokyo.
In 1994, Ambassador Kennedy’s aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, then U.S. ambassador to Ireland, championed the issuance of a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a suspected former IRA operative. British prime minister John Major was described as being “incandescent with rage” when President Bill Clinton heeded Ambassador Kennedy Smith’s suggestion (joined later by her brother Senator Ted Kennedy) and granted Adams the visa. This British ire was compounded when Clinton warmly shook Adams’s hand at a St. Patrick’s Day reception on Capitol Hill in 1995. Major reportedly refused to take President Clinton’s phone calls for a number of weeks. But President Clinton’s diplomatic gamble paid off when his envoy George Mitchell successfully brokered the Good Friday Agreement, the culmination of the Northern Ireland peace process, in 1998. The issuance of the visa to Adams was seen, in retrospect, as a game changer, proving that even though it’s a cliché, sometimes one nation’s terrorist is another’s patriot. The same applies to Ahn Jung-geun.
It is important to note that Éamon de Valera had his revenge on the British for the execution of his comrades-in-arms in 1916. When the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled over Western Europe two decades later, it was a democratic, but still bitter and divided, Ireland under then-president de Valera which maintained its neutrality, along with fascist Spain and Portugal. The handover of the Irish Treaty Ports from British naval to Irish control in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, particularly infuriated Winston Churchill, a former First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill took his old nemesis de Valera to task in a speech to Parliament, adding that “these ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence.” Yet as the clouds of war approached, the Irish ports were closed to the British Navy. In a V-E Day radio broadcast in 1945, Churchill renewed his feud with de Valera by accusing his government of “frolicking with the Germans” during the war.
As the acrimony between Japan and South Korea continues to deepen, have Tokyo and Washington even contemplated the prospect of a de Valera-like declaration of neutrality? Could a disenchanted Seoul remain on the sidelines in an East China Sea crisis generated after a Japan-centered American pivot to Asia? Is the bitterness toward Tokyo by the South Korean people now at such a level that, like the Irish toward London in the 1930s, no government in Seoul would dare to lift a finger to help a neighboring democracy in crisis? Could Seoul conceivably even invoke the consultation wording contained in Article 2 of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States to seek, as de Valera did with Britain, to deny access to ports and bases on the Korean peninsula—and even the use of the 28,500 U.S. forces stationed there—in a contingency involving a security threat to Japan?
Tokyo’s own Irish Question, left unresolved, may turn out no better than did London’s in 1939, when it was left without having Ireland to cover its back.
Dennis P. Halpin, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins), is a former Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, a former U.S. consul in Busan, and a former adviser on Asian issues on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.