Yes, Ms.Sherman, you are absolutely right. We are all to blame for this outstanding history madness: China, Japan, Korea, and just to remind you, the U.S. as well.
What perplexes many professionals in the diplomatic theater of D.C, clearly including the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, is that secretary Wendy Sherman is no borderline low-ranker ignorant of the intricate issues surrounding the Korean peninsula. In fact, she is a veteran East Asia expert who served three consecutive administrations, and also the North Korea Policy Coordinator during Clinton’s presidency.
Given that, out of hundreds of senior officials within the vast bureaucracy of the U.S. government, she was supposed to be one of the more informed ones who should have known better, that this is not as simple as Japan trying to be a bigger person(hardly, in reality) while China and Korea refuse to get over the past. Instead, Wendy Sherman’s controversial remarks fail to grasp the key points to resolve the East Asian international tensions at so many levels, a few among which follow:
The U.S Is Not Exactly Clean-Handed
Unlike how Ms.Sherman wishes to see the American government as a good-willed arbitrator promoting “possibilities of cooperation” in East Asia, the lukewarm U.S. postwar policy is actually responsible of constructing Japan’s long lasting moral opaqueness.
The US military government throughout late 1940s and 50s acquiesced the political legitimacy of rightist LDP factions and industrial conglomerates, largely the very same circle that supported militaristic Imperial Japan during the Pacific War. Due to the outbreak of the Korean War and the ensuing Cold War, Japan was suddenly transformed into a fortified American forefront against the possible Chinese and Russian aggression; and within this pursuit of new American geopolitical interests, many Japanese war criminals and related parties responsible for the atrocities during the Second World War went unpunished. The real victims of Japanese imperialismㅡnamely, the rest of entire Asiaㅡwere never represented as plaintiffs during the Tokyo war trial. The issues of human rights and repatriations were conveniently set aside, only to reemerge well past the 1990s with enough national animosity and hurt stocked up all those years. America now belatedly, and awful unsuccessfully, tries to stitch up.
lukewarm postwar U.S. policy is
responsible of Japan’s moral opaqueness
The American government’s relative indifference, if not intentional ignorance, to pressurising Japan to properly compensate and apologize to its disgruntled neighbors needs to be addressed in order to explain why so many South Koreans found Wendy Sherman’s statement condescending. It is that uneasy feeling which was stirredㅡ the feeling of betrayal Koreans had when they heard how apologetic the U.S. can get with the Japanese internment camps. How come the U.S. turn a blind eye to the Koreans if it cares so much about justice, truth, and apology?
The International Politics of Emotions
The second point under secretary Sherman appears to miss is a unique characteristic which underpins the Northeast Asian international relations: the politics of emotions. The sensitivities resonating from diverse historical experiences, and resulting popular sentiments, drastically vary among the peoples of China, Korea, and Japan. The emotional signals from words such as comfort women, Dokdo, Yasukuni, and Nanjing are very much desperate and barely hold any common ground.
Granted, “vilifying a former enemy(Japan)” is not exactly to earn “cheap applause,” as Sherman put. Rather, the political cost of failing to reflect the dominant national sentiment is too high. This is true not just in Korea, but also in Japan. When prime minister Shinzo Abe made a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in late 2013, Obama instantly expressed ‘disappointment’ in such a provocative action, but Abe’s revisionist stance did not budge an inch. Ordinary Japanese citizens could not care less of what Obama had to say about a customary tribute to a respected Shinto shrine, for they were more concerned with the issues of nuclear reactors and reviving the economy. If Abe, say, were to heed the American warning and make a weakly apology of a sort for visiting the shrine, that would cost Abe, who was receiving so much anticipation for being a strongman, his prime ministership.
Considering how deeply emotional this history issue already is, Sherman’s reckless word choices like“‘so-called’ comfort women”, which goes against the universal recognition of their existence now, was destined to be outrageous, intended or unintended.
Who Are You Defending?
It would be naive to believe that Wendy Sherman’s frustration was purely out of her genuine care for peace and prosperity of East Asia given the time, context, and political incentivesㅡthere is simply too much at stake. America happens to be in a hurry to conclude the final stages of the forever-taking TPP negotiations with reluctant Japan; Abe is scheduled to make his first Congressional address; think tanks and research institutions in D.C. are flooded with money from the Japanese interest groups and Chrysanthemum Club. Sherman’s nuanced defense for Japan cannot be more timely. After all, Japan is labelled the ‘cornerstone’ of America’s ‘pivot to Asia’.
Everything of course comes in unnerving contrast with South Korea’s recent bending toward China, which seemingly pushes Korea further away from realizing the U.S-Japan-Korea trilateral coalition, a grand American schema to check rise of China. Korea is obviously not playing cooperative enough with this agenda: it does not want to be part of the MD system, nor does it call for a summit with the head of Japan, and it had very hard time finally signing for the military intelligence sharing pact. Wendy Sherman and many others in the DoD and State Department–who most likely perceive Korea not as a sovereign, self-determining nation with history of 4000 years, but just another ‘linchpin’ of the U.S’ foreign tactics–probably are annoyed that Park was playing difficult. Why is Korea not being docile? Why is it being so incongruous? Why? Wendy Sherman’s wordy remarks at Carnegie Endowment was hardly more than this childish tantrum.
Clearly, a priority gap exists between the U.S and Korea in regards to how they respectively evaluate the U.S-Japan alliance and U.S-Korea alliance. To the majority of American policymakers, Japan is unarguably an AAA rated American ally along with Britain and Israel. Thousands of fluttering cherry blossoms on the streets of Washington D.C visually symbolize it. But the Koreans find that odd: How could the U.S-Korea alliance, a comradery bonded by blood they shed together on the battlefields of Korean War, possibly be secondary to the U.S-Japan alliance, which is between sworn ex-enemies? From the general Korean view, it was Ms.Sherman who scantily tried to “earn cheap applause” by pleasing her own “former enemy.” Pun fully intended.