Washington's decision to support Tokyo's military expansion plans is putting President Park Geun-hye into a bind since she has been trying to persuade Japan to take responsibility for its World War II atrocities.
Park has often spoken of an "Asian paradox," where there is a yawning disconnect between growing economic interdependence on the one hand and chilly diplomatic ties and poor security cooperation between South Korea, China and Japan.
Park believes Japan holds the key to resolving the paradox. When she met U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week, she pointed out that constant Japanese attempts to whitewash the island country's history led to a "lack of trust" between Seoul and Tokyo.
But Hagel flew straight to Japan to express support for Tokyo's moves to bolster its military and expand its sphere of operation, which is severely limited by the pacifist postwar constitution. Washington supports Tokyo's new doctrine of "collective self-defense," which allows the country to send troops to an ally which is in some way under threat.
From Park's perspective, the U.S. has given the green light to Japanese rearmament, which alarms many in the region. They feel the Japanese government is lurching dangerously to the far right, and now Washington has given it carte blanche.
But U.S. President Barack Obama is also in a bind since he faces an acute fiscal problem and needs to cut down on U.S. military spending, so any attempt by an Asian ally to spend its own money on countering China's military expansion is welcome.
The U.S. administration is apparently worried about Park's moves to forge friendlier relations with China while giving Japan the cold shoulder.
One U.S. expert who recently visited Seoul said the Obama administration is aware of problems with the Abe government but feels Korea is "excessively fixated" on past history. It really wants Seoul to bolster cooperation with Washington and Tokyo to keep China in check, he added.
Park is fairly close to the Obama administration, but differences over Japan's military expansion and lurch to the right could yet sour relations. It remains to be seen how Park will deal with the latest challenge to her attempts to resolve the Asian paradox.