Despite the official response from the U.S. government that “[U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman’s remarks on the Northeast Asia history issue] does not represent any changes in U.S. policy,” many are now speculating that Undersecretary Sherman’s remarks are reflecting the United States’ true intent.
It is suspected that the undersecretary, the third highest ranking official* in the U.S. State Department, must have had her statements preapproved by the administration before attending an official meeting such as this, a seminar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
After Undersecretary Sherman’s remarks went viral in South Korea and China, the U.S. State Department quickly stepped in to contain the situation.
Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that Undersecretary Sherman’s remarks are “in no way [a reflection of] a change in U.S. policy – and were not intended to be about any one person or one country” in the daily press briefing on March 2, 2015.
Ms. Harf also deflected the blame on South Korean and Chinese media, stating, “[w]e were, frankly, a little surprised to see that some interpreted her remarks as being directed at any one particular leader in the region.”
In regard to Ms. Sherman’s remarks, the U.S. government explained that she said, “(in Northeast Asia) nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.” She then followed it by saying, “But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.”
Ms. Harf did not offer specific comment on Ms. Sherman’s double criticism about the historical issues among South Korea, China and Japan.
The press briefing was also embroiled in controversy, and in response, the U.S. State Department released another official response to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club** by a spokesman, elucidating that “the American policy [regarding the historical issues in Northeast Asia] has not changed at all,” and followed it with a condemnation of the abduction of women by the Japanese military during World War II, calling it a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights.**
The United States is indeed emphasizing that it does not intend to bury the past. However, whether its explanation is truthful or not no one can say.
Former Minister of Unification**** Jeong Seh-hyun was interviewed on SBS Radio on March 3, commenting that “[Sherman’s remark] is the U.S. siding with Japan,” and that “there are some people who are interpreting this event as an attempt by the U.S. to win over Japan’s heart before the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by being sympathetic to Japan’s arguments over history.”
Minister Jeong also offered his take on the issue, stating, “China is currently challenging America’s interests in the Northeast Asia and West Pacific region and all the while Beijing and Seoul are avoiding communications with Tokyo. This presents problems [to America’s strategies in the region] and in an attempt to address the issue, Undersecretary Sherman purposefully stroked the governments in the region, saying, ‘don’t use nationalistic sentiments to gain political support.”
He raised his criticism, commenting, “This is typical hit-and-run diplomacy based on hopes of solidifying the anti-China front containing South Korea, U.S. and Japan.”
Some raise concern that this issue will follow a path similar to that of the debate over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense issue. On one side, U.S officials claim that they are “in communication” regarding the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea, while other officials state that “nothing is decided, and there is no active discussion either.”
South Korea’s Embassy Row explains that it is ‘classic’ to express positions circuitously on sensitive issues by public speeches, rather than by a direct approach to the officials of the other country.
There is an interpretative remark by a U.S. think tank (the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) that reads this remark as disseminating the United States’ true intent.
Professor Kim Hyun-ook of Korea National Diplomatic Academy commented that “this seems like a discreet nudge since the U.S. administration cannot officially express their views.” He also added that “Diplomatic officials know better than to talk about something this sensitive in front of the public, yet this remark shows that the wave of criticism [about Seoul and Beijing] is really surging strongly among the policymakers within the U.S. administration.”
Professor Kim also noted that “the U.S., up until this point, was worried and showed concern over Japan’s past brutalities, but now they seem to have decided that it is better to focus on the benefits of having Japan on the U.S.’s side.”
In other words, the U.S. has decided that the struggle between Seoul and Tokyo over the matters of history is not aiding the United States’ cause in the region and has set in motion a way to address this.
As for the South Korean government, it must focus on changing the air of criticism in Washington. It seems that a direct approach to the U.S. government and public will be taken, explaining that the resolution of the historical issues between South Korean and Japan is the only way to establish the lasting peace in North East Asia.
*Translator’s Note: the position of Under Secretary is actually the fourth-ranking official in the Department, preceded by Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary, and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources.
**Translator’s Note: Although accurately translated, the statement could not be located.
***Translator’s Note: This is actually a repetition of President Obama’s remarks on comfort women during his visit to Seoul in April, 2014.
****Translator’s Note: This is the branch of South Korean government that exclusively deals with matters regarding North Korea and the possibility of the reunification.
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