Abe, the US, and ‘Korea Fatigue’: How Interested is the US in the Korean ‘History Issue’?

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That is Wendy Sherman in Korea before the flap over her ‘history’ remarks.

The following essay was originally posted here, at the Lowy Institute.

The idea for this essay came from watching Abe’s successful trip to the US last month and just how much the Korean media wigged out that that was some major set-back for Korea. There were even calls at the time that the Korean foreign minister should resign, as if some how MoFA could have stopped Abe and Obama from sharing a glass of wine or whatever, and that that was some kind of cataclysm for Korea. Really? Jesus. Get some perspective.

Anyway, all the hullaballoo just reinforced that South Korea has an unhealthy obsession with Japan and an ‘enemy image’ of it that really doesn’t fly when you live next to the likes of North Korea, China, and Russia. Are Korea’s historical grievances with Japan legitimate? Yes, they are. Does Abe’s coalition have creepy righties in the shadows? Also, yes. But when you are more willing to talk to the modern day version of Big Brother (Kim Jong Un), than the elected leader of a liberal democracy with a 70-year history of good global citizenship, then something is wrong.

Anyway, I already got lots of hate-mail on this (try here and here if you want to troll me), so please spare me your ‘you-hate-Korea-and-don’t-what-you’re-talking-about’ and ‘Japanese-colonialism-was-good-for-Korea’ emails. I just delete them anyway.

Enjoy. …or maybe not. I don’t really care anymore…



“Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently completed a successful trip to the United States. As Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder of CSIS argue, the trip came off about as well as anyone might have expected. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to address Congress and seems to have built a good rapport with President Obama. The expected, almost ritualized South Korean and Chinese criticisms of Abe’s policy pronouncements seem to have left the US administration unmoved. Earlier in the year, US Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said publicly that Korea’s fixation on historical issues was ‘frustrating’ and produced ‘paralysis, not progress.’ The Korean response was predictably sharp, but as Karl Friedhoff and Alastair Gale both recently argued, the Koreans are slowly losing this global perceptual struggle with Japan. What the Japanese call ‘Korea fatigue’ – exhaustion with South Korea’s relentless hammering of war-time issues – is hitting the US, which deeply wants South Korea-Japan future-oriented cooperation.

As Sherman and countless western analysts have noted, the real issue for the US in Asia is, of course, China. While the US is not openly balancing China, the days of US belief in China’s ‘peaceful rise’ seem to be fading. Increasingly, the relationship is becoming competitive, particularly as China’s South China Sea expansion continues. In this climate, a strong US-Japan relationship is critical. Japan is the only Asian state that can really go head-to-head with China, barring India perhaps. As I have argued elsewhere, Japan is a unique bulwark to the extension of Chinese power. It is the world’s third largest GDP and the lynchpin of the American structure in Asia. The ‘pivot,’ America’s defense of South Korea, any intervention to assist Taiwan, and all other US Asian engagements are premised on the Japanese ‘way-station.’ Abe emphasized Japan’s centrality before Congress, and both the joint Obama-Abe statement from their trip and the new US-Japan Defense Guidelines repeat this. As Friedhoff sharply noted, “Mr. Abe saved the biggest dig at South Korea for near the end of his speech. In one of his only explicit references to South Korea, he mentioned it as an additional partner to the ‘central pillar’ of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In doing so, he made it clear that he views South Korea not as an equal—which is how Seoul views the trilateral alliance—but as a junior.”

Unsurprisingly all this causes great heartburn in Korea. As a middle power, it deeply irks Korean elites when the US, Japan, and China engage one another over Korea’s head. The hyperbole of Korea’s response to Sherman illustrates this hankering for status in a region where Korea is dwarfed by its neighbors. Korea’s ruling Saenuri party retorted: “If the U.S. continues its stance of ignoring victims, its status as the world’s policeman won’t last long.” No less than American hegemony might be the cost of US disinterest in Korea historical issues! Obviously this is not so; rather the comment illustrates Seoul’s fear that the US is simply burned out with this issue.

An important, post-Abe trip editorial in Korea’s major center-left paper, The Hankyoreh, admitted this and suggested the previously unthinkable: that South Korea should give up defining its relationship with Japan through the lens of the war. Even the Park administration seems to realize this. And it was always a somewhat impossible hope that Japan would issue a monolithic, thorough-going apology that everyone in Japan would strictly cleave to permanently. Open societies just do not operate like that. To my mind, Korea’s concerns with Japan’s historical representation, particularly at the Yasukuni Shrine museum, the Yūshūkan, and Abe’s (somewhat creepy) coalition, are quite correct. But badgering Japan is not the way to encourage contrition. The needed internal reckoning is ultimately something Japan must do for itself on its own. In lieu of a society’s own initiative, outside pressure will only breed a nationalist backlash, as it does in Japan over the war or China over human rights.

But it is also the case that South Korea has built its national identity so much around Japan as competitor, if not enemy, that it is quite difficult to move on. Victor Cha acutely observed awhile ago, that South Korea teaches a ‘negative nationalism’ of ‘anti-Japanism,’ and that most countries would have accepted Japan’s two big apologies in the 1990s (the Murayama and Kono Statements) and moved on. But ‘anti-Japanism’ is now akin to a political correctness in South Korea; public officials dare not bend (particularly on the right, where many are the children and grandchildren of collaborators). Maximalism on Japan, such as the needlessly provocative campaign to re-name the ‘Sea of Japan’ the ‘East Sea’ or page 341 of this, is so common and strident that Japanese elites are all-but-certain to regard concessions as humiliations before a state and people who loathe them. In the language of international relations theory, anti-Japanism is a part of South Korea’s ‘ontological security.’ The contention is so formative that it is hard to let go.

For this reason, I flagged that Hankyoreh editorial above; it is so very rare to read such sentiments in the press here. But even there, one can see the ‘enemy image’ at work: Abe’s trip to the US, which is fairly traditional diplomatic activity that had little to do with Korea, is an “icy blast from Japan.” The US-Japan summit, by two democracies whose assistance with North Korea is crucial, is a “shock,” that sent Korea “reeling.” That South Korean diplomats could somehow not stop Abe-Obama bonhomie means they are “inept,” “silent,” “cowardly,” and so on. There have even been calls for the foreign minister to resign over the successful Abe summit with Obama. This zero-sum, if-Japan-is-up-we-are-down mentality is deeply ingrained.

I have argued elsewhere why this is so, and I am working on a lengthier article regarding this. But in short, I believe Korea’s national division explains this intense, almost dogmatic ‘anti-Japanism.’ North and South Korea are in a direct, permanent, enervating legitimacy contest. North Korea has long since been a racist, nationalist, almost fascistic, rather than Marxist, state. Defending the Korean race (the minjok) against foreign predators is its raison d’etre, and in doing so, it routinely damns South Korea as the ‘Yankee colony,’ selling out the national patrimony and race purity to foreigners. South Korea cannot contest such reactionary nationalist credentials; it is too internationalized and Americanized, complete with a foreign military presence. Nor does South Korea’s corrupted, elitist, chaebol-dominated democracy generate enough internal legitimacy to counter Northern minjok fetishism. So Japan fills in nicely. It is the nationalist whipping boy, generating ontological security for a South Korean state unable to ‘out-minjok’ its competitor.”

Filed under: Abe, History, Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), Minjok, North Korea & the Left, United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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