History Dispute Becomes Diplomatic Headache

In mid-March, a few U.S. veterans organizations publicly opposed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forthcoming address to a joint session of Congress.

The American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, a group dedicated to helping those who were held captive by Japanese forces during World War II in the Pacific, released a written statement demanding an apology from Prime Minister Abe for past war crimes. But this is far from the end of the story.

Eight days later, on March 26, the U.S. Department of Defense posted a video about the war in the Pacific on YouTube via the department’s official website. Interestingly, its theme was very contrary to the claims of the prisoner of war organizations. The DoD, in the video titled “Iwo Jima – Once Enemies, Now Friends,” portrayed U.S. veterans visiting Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battlefields of the war in the Pacific, making peace with their former enemies.

An old veteran is heard saying, “We were former enemies, and now we are friends.” Soon, it is followed by another veteran who says, “I am 91 years old, I don’t know how much time I have left,” conveying a theme of reconciliation. The video was posted right after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Prime Minister Abe, and in praise, said, “The kizuna between us has never been stronger.” In Japanese, kizuna means bond between people.

President Barack Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro during his visit to Panama City for the Organization of American States summit. He remarked that, “The point is that the U.S. will not be held captive by the past … we are looking to the future.”*

Two days earlier, President Obama, in his speech at a university in Kingston, Jamaica, emphasized that “the differences between us and the Cuban government will continue, but we do not wish to be held captive by the past.”**

Both President Obama and the DoD, while addressing remarks to different recipients, i.e., Cuba and Japan, have the same message in that Obama and the DoD are focusing on the future rather than the past. It seems the same line of thought can be traced back to email statements of U.S. officials, like Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who said, “It’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy, but such provocations produce paralysis, not progress,” and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who said, “The potential gains of cooperation … outweigh yesterday’s tensions and today’s politics.”

Under any normal circumstance, “future rather than past” is common sense. But for our government, in facing an obstacle like Prime Minister Abe’s administration’s denial of history, common sense is difficult to swallow. We, too, would love to look to the future, but we will be seen as the ones who cannot let go of things as long as we are entangled with Japan’s effort to erase the past.

Right now, what is needed for South Korean diplomacy is brand new reasoning that can overcome the dichotomy of past versus future. We need to convince everyone that it is we who are trying to convince Japan to turn away from the past in a consistent and refined manner.

Domestic issues are one thing, but the news from overseas isn’t heartwarming either.

*Editor’s note: The quotation, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

**Editor’s note: Although President Obama addressed the matter of Cuba-U.S. relations in his April speech at Jamaica House in Kingston, this quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified exactly.

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