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Korean PR Push Fails to Elicit WWII Apology from PM Abe

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe / AP
• April 30, 2015 2:53 pm

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South Korea’s attempts to pressure Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to address his country’s past slights fell flat during Abe’s visit to Washington this week despite an aggressive public relations campaign.

Ahead of the prime minister’s visit, the South Korean government hired Washington-based PR firm BGR Group to push for his speech before Congress to include an apology for Japanese crimes against Korea during World War II.

Abe declined to directly address those concerns during his speech to a joint session of Congress, though he acknowledged that Japan’s "actions [during the war] brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries."

That was not enough for some South Korean critics. A columnist for South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency accused Abe of "sidestepping questions with vague words and expressions carefully selected to stick to his administration’s position not to unequivocally acknowledge Japan’s responsibility for the atrocity."

Tensions between Japan and South Korea represent a challenge for U.S. policymakers who are seeking allies in the face of an ascendant China. Some have expressed hope that the two countries will move past decades-old disputes, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Part of Seoul’s calculus is an awareness that Washington’s priorities don’t include applying strong pressure on Mr. Abe on matters of history. The U.S. has bigger concerns, specifically coordination to tackle friction with China and a major trade deal.

South Korea’s confidence in the U.S.’s sympathies over its historical concerns has also been shaken. In late February, Korean politicians and media commentators were alarmed when Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman used a speech to call historical disputes in Northeast Asia "frustrating." She appeared to point a finger at South Korea and China, remarking, "It’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy."

Korea’s insistence on Abe’s acknowledgement of Imperial Japan’s aggression in Asia have hindered U.S. efforts to get allies on the continent to coalesce around a more constructive agenda, according to Hudson Institute fellow John Lee.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have worsened over the past decade even as Northeast Asian problems that necessitate a more proactive Japan have deepened. Washington knows that it may take many years for these two countries to improve their relations, and it would be in the U.S. interest for both to resolve their problems constructively without using history as a weapon to damage the other for domestic political gain.

A congressional resolution introduced on Tuesday in honor of Abe’s visit did not address tensions with South Korea, though it expressed the United States’ commitment to work with Japan to counter the threat posed to South Korea and other Asian nations by a hostile North Korean regime.

Published under: Japan, North Korea, South Korea