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South Korean activists tear a banner showing a picture of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul on April 28, 2015. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Abe's Washington Speech Also Puts Seoul on Trial

John Lee

On April 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take up an invitation by the U.S. Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress. In a year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Japanese leader will seek both to convince supporters that Japan will “make a proactive contribution to peace and security,” as the prime minister himself put it, and answer critics who accuse him of wanting to forget Japanese actions leading up to and during World War II.

The U.S. needs a proactive and confident Japanese ally to help complement Washington’s strategic rebalance to Asia, and an economically revitalized and strong Japanese economy to help it shape the future regional economic order as China rises.

This is why Washington will be receptive to an address by the Japanese leader that walks the difficult line between recognizing past mistakes while focusing on Japan’s enormous post-war contribution to regional prosperity. Any desire in the U.S. for Abe to succeed in word and action stems from growing acknowledgement of the need to address future challenges, such as collectively coaxing and coercing China to play by accepted rules.

At the same time, Washington’s other key ally in Northeast Asia, South Korea, clearly wants to focus the West’s attention back on history, and wartime Japanese actions in particular. This means that even in the august chambers of the U.S. Congress, Seoul will ensure that its increasingly bitter quarrel with Tokyo will not be far away.

Winning over skeptics

For a crucial speech that will attempt to balance remorse for the past with a push to move on for the sake of the future, Abe can be expected to draw heavily on his address to Australia’s parliament in July last year. On his visit to a country that suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism in the previous century, the Japanese leader won over many skeptics by paying tribute to the many young Australians who lost their lives and expressing sorrow for the trauma and painful memories caused by Japan’s aggression.

In his Canberra speech which, he emphasized, was made on behalf of Japan and its people, Abe apologized for past sins and reflected on the lessons Japan had learned to explain the motivation for the country becoming a model international citizen in the second half of the 20th century.

Exhorting Australians to assess modern Japan based on how the country had behaved in the 70 years since the end of war, Abe and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott made proud note of the evolution of relations between the two countries from enemies to partners and eventually, friends — a message that would apply to the U.S. with the added step of becoming formal allies.

Such an approach would no doubt play well with most Americans. Like in Australia, the sincere and personal reiteration of sorrow for past actions by a Japanese leader would most likely be seen as a way to achieve further closure — as has occurred in Southeast Asian countries that were also colonized or invaded by Imperial Japan.

Unique among U.S. security allies and partners is the backward slide of Japan-South Korean relations over wartime history. In contrast to Tokyo’s relations with Southeast Asian countries, bilateral ties have steadily become more — rather than less — rancorous over the past decade. It is undeniable that the two countries have contrasting viewpoints on whether Japan has expressed adequate remorse over past deeds, and whether the issue of compensation for the use of Korean “comfort women” by Japanese troops has been legally and properly settled.

Importing noisy squabbles

The problem is that while Washington wants these issues to be resolved quietly at home by the two allies, as other countries in Asia and Japan have eventually done in previous decades, Seoul seems eager to noisily import such squabbles onto American shores. In August last year, a bronze statue symbolizing Korean comfort women was unveiled in Michigan, after one was installed in California in 2013 and a monument in New Jersey in 2010. While these were not erected by the South Korean government, they reflect monuments clearly endorsed by Seoul, such as the one established outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea in 2011.

If approval is not the same as commission, more startling according to mandatory documents filed with the Department of Justice is that Seoul in March hired the Washington DC-based BGR Public Relations firm to provide strategic communications services to the South Korean government for U.S. audiences.

Although using local experts to shape or sharpen a message for a particular market is nothing new or illegitimate, credible reports that the confidential nature of the project involves promoting Seoul’s historical interpretation of Japan’s war record and the alleged inadequate level of Japanese remorse is a new step in propaganda battles on foreign soil.

The shaping and targeting of the firm’s messaging through outreach to American entities and individuals is reportedly timed to promote Seoul’s position ahead of Abe’s speech to Congress. That is probably a step too far. After all, it may well be the first time a democratic ally of the U.S. has hired a local communications firm to undermine the public image of a visiting leader of another democratic security ally — extraordinary since South Korea depends on a robust alliance system to deter North Korean aggression and shape the behavior of an increasingly powerful China.

Through such actions, South Korea risks inadvertently isolating itself. Abe’s government, and his own vision of Japan’s future role in the region, has been well received in every major capital in Southeast Asia and Australia. After his speech on Wednesday, and assuming Abe hits the right notes in conveying sincerity, he may reinforce a trend evident in the recent tone of bilateral relations: that is, while not wanting to forget the past, a growing number of Americans will not seek to use Japan’s historical record as an obstacle in moving the relationship forward.

Behind closed doors, U.S. officials are growing increasingly tired of the bitterness between its two Northeast Asian allies. And South Korea’s readiness to fight its personal and historical battles on U.S. soil will not impress Washington. In accepting the U.S. invitation, Abe knew that the jury is still out assessing Japan under his leadership. But suddenly — and ironically — it is now also South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s leadership and the image of her country that are also on trial.

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