SEOUL, South Korea — The political and historical war of words between Japan and South Korea has found another battleground: the United States.
One of the first volleys in the battle for America’s sympathies was played out in a park in New Jersey in 2010, where Korean-Americans in Palisades Park won the right to install a plaque memorializing “comfort women,” many of them Korean, who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II. Since then, more Korean communities — sometimes backed by activists and even diplomats from South Korea — have begun their own campaigns either to acknowledge the suffering of the comfort women or, more recently, to win recognition for the country’s arguments that a nearby sea should not automatically be named after Japan, its onetime colonial ruler.
Legislators in Virginia passed a bill this month requiring books mentioning the Sea of Japan to also use its Korean name, the East Sea. New York is considering a similar measure. The ambassadors of South Korea and Japan visited the governor of Virginia in January to press their countries’ cases. Japan also hired four lobbyists to argue that the name change was unnecessary.
As the issues mount, the United States, which has labored to remain an impartial friend to both nations, has found itself in the middle of a fight between its two main Asian allies at a time when it wants their cooperation to face a resurgent China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.
“There is not one tenured professor on the East Coast who has not been contacted” by one or both of the countries, said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, chairman of the Japan-Korea Working Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum in Honolulu.
The Obama administration seemed to succeed in getting the two estranged allies to at least temper their bickering last week, arranging the first meeting between the Japanese leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea on the sidelines of an upcoming nuclear summit in the Netherlands.
But the slight thaw comes after months of some of the most bitter divisions between the two countries in years, brought on in part by Japan’s election of a prime minister South Korea considers to be a dangerous revisionist of his country’s wartime history and the election in South Korea of a president whom the Japanese see as stubbornly demanding endless apologies.
The conflict is rooted in grievances going back to Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and its attempts to extinguish the Korean culture. Experts say this internationalization of what had been bilateral disputes reflects the shifting balance of power in a region where a wealthier South Korea is challenging Japan’s century-long dominance. At the same time, Japan is showing more willingness to push back under the leadership of Mr. Abe, who has argued in the past that Japan’s wartime history has been depicted too negatively.
“There’s propaganda to depict Japan in a way that’s far from the truth,” Mr. Abe told Parliament last month. “There is a danger that such propaganda will have a huge influence on our children’s generation. I want to think of a strong public relations counterstrategy going forward.”
The Koreans have gained the upper hand, experts say, partly by casting issues like the women forced into sexual servitude more broadly, as violations of universal standards of human rights. Koreans are planning a permanent exhibit on the comfort women that likens Japanese wartime actions to Nazi atrocities, at a Holocaust resource center at the Queensborough Community College in New York City.
South Korea recently sent its gender equality minister to Columbia University with an animated movie about Japanese war atrocities that shows a “comfort woman” in traditional Korean garb raped by Japanese soldiers.
Japan, meanwhile, has sent veteran America handlers to universities and research groups to warn that South Korea was out to settle old scores, and might be tilting dangerously toward China.
While Japan officially apologized in 1993, and set up a fund with private donations to compensate some of the 80,000 to 200,000 women believed to have been forced to work in wartime brothels, South Korean activists want a more repentant attitude. Tensions increased sharply last month when Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, responding to growing calls by nationalist lawmakers to scrap the apology, said the Abe government would review the testimony of women used in compiling it. Mr. Abe later said he would uphold the apology.
Experts say that each side has the same goal: cajoling Washington into pressuring the other to make concessions.
“The U.S. is the main battlefield in Japan’s global public relations warfare against South Korea and China,” said Hiroshi Nakanishi, a professor of international politics at Kyoto University. “They are trying to reduce Japan’s global influence, and the perception is that they are winning.”
Experts said they expected the campaigning to only intensify ahead of President Obama’s visit to Asia next month, which the Americans hope will help mend fences.
Instead, the visit itself has become a new cause of one-upmanship between the nations: when a draft itinerary showed Mr. Obama spending two nights in Tokyo with no stopover in Seoul, Korean officials said they successfully demanded that the time in Japan be reduced and a visit be added to Seoul to meet with President Park.
“We warned them that China is being very friendly toward Park Geun-hye,” said Han Suk-hee, an associate professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, who was part of a three-day mission to Washington last month to explain the grievances against Japan. “Korea believes we have the moral justification to ask the U.S. to change Japan’s stance.”
The campaigning in the United States had begun heating up last summer, when Korean-American groups persuaded the city of Glendale, Calif., near Los Angeles, to build a bronze statue of a “comfort woman” similar to a statue activists erected on a sidewalk outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Alarmed, Japanese right-wing politicians visited to press for removal of the statue, which the city has refused to do.
Activists in South Korea fought back by supporting Korean-American groups with historical literature and other evidence, including a visit by an 87-year-old comfort woman to the city for the statue’s unveiling. Japanese and Korean officials said the campaigns were independent and were not financed by their governments.
Still, South Korea’s Parliament voted this year to provide about $100,000 to help comfort women activists pay for travel, printing photographs and booklets and other activities abroad.
South Korean officials have also increasingly taken a public role in supporting the “comfort women’s” cause. That included the visit this month to New York by the gender equality minister, Cho Yoon-sun, who said she had also traveled to Europe to raise awareness of her nation’s position.
“The comfort women issue is still not as widely known to the ordinary public in the world as the German Holocaust,” Ms. Cho said. “We have to continue our efforts to make this known, and persuade Japanese political leaders to change their unforgivable attitude.”
By NY Times