U.S. State Secretary John Kerry at a press conference after talks with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Washington on Tuesday had nothing to say about Japan's lurch to the far right. As if anticipating that journalists would want to ask about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the militarist Yasukuni Shrine, Kerry took no questions. All he said was, "The United States and [Korea] stand very firmly united, without an inch of daylight between us."
But the focus of attention in recent weeks has been Abe's whitewash of Japan's World War II atrocities, military expansionism and gross insensitivity to the feelings of neighbors who suffered during colonial times.
When Abe visited Yasukuni late last year, a U.S. State Department spokesman expressed "disappointment." But other than that Washington's response has been perfunctory. The U.S. State Department said on Monday that resolving differences through dialogue "coincides with the interests" of all of the countries involved.
In his New Year's address on Monday, Abe claimed he would like to explain to Korea and China his intentions in revising Japan's pacifist constitution drafted after the country's defeat at the end of World War II. A day later, he said it would not be possible to separate convicted war criminals from the war dead honored at the Yasukuni Shrine. This shows he is dead set on pushing ahead with his plans, regardless of opposition from Seoul and Beijing. It is a mystery how Washington can believe that Seoul and Beijing could engage in "dialogue" with such a leader.
The U.S. and Japan are allies, and it is of course difficult for allies to publicly discuss problematic issues. Washington may be trying to rein Abe in using more inconspicuous methods. But considering Washington's policy of strictly separating Japan's past history and security in Northeast Asia, there is also the possibility that the U.S. is simply choosing to look the other way and tacitly condone Abe's continued outrages.
Korea suffered the most from imperial Japan's colonization from 1910 to 1945. That occupation has led to a divided Korean Peninsula. It is unacceptable for Korea to join hands in regional security matters with Japan while it refuses to deny its past wrongdoings and blithely goes about its expansionist campaign.
If German politicians continued to pay homage to Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Hitler, and continued to deny their country's offenses during World War II, what would have happened in Europe? The entire European Union would have fallen apart. In that case, would the U.S. urge other European nations to join hands with Germany in regional security matters?
The U.S. is the only country that can put the brakes on Abe's actions. That is why Japan's lurch to the right also means that the U.S. is not living up to its responsibilities. By denying World War II atrocities, Abe is also insulting the 300,000 Americans who were injured or killed during the Pacific War. It is understandable that the U.S., saddled with mounting fiscal debt, needs Japan on its side in regional security matters. But ignoring Japan's recent moves does not coincide with the values Americans claim to uphold.
Cooperation between Korea, the U.S. and Japan in Northeast Asia hinges on whether Washington can halt Abe's outrageous behavior. As long as the U.S. remains wishy-washy on the issue, conflict between Seoul and Tokyo will continue and eventually cause problems in the Korea-U.S. alliance. That must not be allowed to happen. The U.S. must approach the issue of Japan's past history not as an observer, but as an affected party, and understand that past and present are inextricably linked.