WASHINGTON — With the leaders of Japan and South Korea both set to visit Washington in the coming months, President Barack Obama has a fresh chance to nudge the estranged U.S. allies to heal a bitter rift that has put a damper on his effort to boost America’s role in Asia.
Obama brought Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye together for a three-way meeting a year ago, but direct talks between the two nations have failed to achieve progress on the thorny historical issues that divide them.
The Japan-South Korea rift has complicated U.S. efforts to forge a stronger security alliance against common foe North Korea and to U.S. strategy aimed at countering China’s rise. Japan and South Korea host 80,000 U.S. troops, the backbone of America’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
The U.S. administration’s former top diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, has proposed appointing a high-level envoy to shuttle between Tokyo and Seoul. But the administration remains wary of wading into the historical minefield that underlies the acrimony and which will be in the spotlight ahead of commemorations this summer to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Japan colonized the Korean peninsula and occupied parts of China, often brutally, before and during the war. Historians say tens of thousands of women, including Japanese, Koreans and others from around Asia, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.