South Korea can’t count on the U.S. to resolve its issues with Japan

The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek Korea. — John.

On his visit to Asia that ended last week, U.S. President Barack Obama once again performed the delicate balancing act that has long characterized his country’s relations with the region’s major powers. On his visits to South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, the American president came bearing the usual rhetorical gifts for his hosts. But in Seoul and Tokyo, especially, these statements of praise and pronouncements on policy were no doubt carefully judged to garner good will from the respective hosts, while not causing an unacceptable level of offense to the other side.

In Seoul, on his fourth visit to the capital, Obama offered South Korea a significant publicity coup in his unambiguous denunciation of Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean and other Asian women during World War II. In a joint press conference with President Park Geun-hye, Obama said that the women had been “violated in ways that even in the midst of war was shocking.” In most contexts, it would be an easy statement to make, an observationof moral clarity so obvious as to be banal. But considering the juggling act the U.S. employs to keep its two biggest Asian allies on side, it represented about as firm a stance on the issue as South Koreans could reasonably expect.

Indeed, even while bolstering perhaps South Korea’s biggest grievance with Japan, Obama offered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the slight consolation of being able to save face by claiming that the Japanese leader recognizes the importance of an honest telling of history. Many Koreans, no doubt, would question this claim. 

The significance of Obama’s remarks was made clear by Japan’s reaction. Clearly reflecting the government’s displeasure with the U.S. president’s remarks, deputy chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato later said the issue of the comfort women “should not be made into a political or diplomatic subject.”

Despite the relative clarity of Obama’s stance in an arena as full of platitudes and insincerity as political diplomacy, it was not enough to please some Korean commentators.

In The Korea Times, an editorial about the visit lamented that “Obama raised, subtly but mistakably, Tokyo’s hand in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkakus/ Diaoyu islands in South China Sea, while not saying a word about his host country’s historical regressions, highlighted by visits of nearly 150 Japanese political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine which houses the remains of 14 Class A war criminals, just a day before the U.S. leader’s arrival.”

Further on, it continued: “President Obama…needs to realize that his ‘pivot to Asia’ will get nowhere if he fails to persuade — or force — Japan to own up to its past misdeeds before reasserting itself.” 

 Considering how high resentment runs here against Japan, as well as the closeness of the South Korea-U.S. relationship, it is on some level understandable that some South Koreans would be disappointed by its biggest ally’s reticence on certain grievances. But such disappointment speaks of unrealistic expectations, and, more crucially, an unhealthy reliance on the U.S. to achieve the country’s foreign policy aims.

Like any sovereign country,the U.S. will ultimately always seek to put its own interests first. Washington has an interest in there being a cordial relationship between South Korea and Japan, but not in championing one side’s causes at the cost of egregiously antagonizing the other.

Despite almost comically unbelievable remarks from the Obama administration to the contrary, the U.S. hopes that South Korea and Japan can work together to further its aim of preventing a rising China from asserting total dominance over the Asia-Pacific. To do this, it must walk a fine line between supporting each side’s respective policy objectives and keeping a suitable distance from issues fraught with diplomatic risk. 

It will never be feasible for Obama to walk lockstep with South Korea in its stance on Japan. As long as the U.S. maintains its close alliance with Tokyo, no future American leader will be fundamentally different on this point, either. 

All of which makes complaining about American reluctance to fight others’battles a waste of energy. South Korea is ultimately responsible for its own foreign policy, as is Japan for its foreign agenda.The two countries together are also responsible for setting the tone of their relationship, regardless of whatever role the U.S. may play as a mediator.

 South Korea is no weakling. It must have the confidence and conviction to pursue its policy priorities without the expectation of American heavy lifting.