Washington denies shifting stanceWashington said on Monday that there has been no change in U.S. policy, part of an attempt to rectify controversial remarks made by an American diplomat that seemed to position the United States with Japan on historical issues with its neighboring Asian countries.
On Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf expressed surprise over how Seoul had interpreted comments made by Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.
“We were, frankly, a little surprised to see that some interpreted her remarks as being directed at any particular leader in the region,” she said.
On Friday, Sherman stated in an address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington that, “It’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy,” words that seemed to be directed at South Korean President Park Geun-hye or Chinese President Xi Jinping, though the Asian leaders were not specifically identified.
Sherman’s remarks, which appeared to trivialize sensitive historical issues, were met with strong backlash in Seoul over the weekend, namely her claim that Seoul and Beijing “have quarreled with Tokyo over so-called comfort women from World War II.”
“There are disagreements about the content of history books and even the names given to various bodies of water,” she continued, likely referring to the dispute over the name of the body of water between Korea and Japan, designated as the East Sea in Seoul and the Sea of Japan in Tokyo.
In a separate statement to reporters on Tuesday, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department elaborated on Washington’s stance.
“The apologies extended by former Japanese Prime Minister [Tomiichi] Murayama and former Chief Cabinet Secretary [Yohei] Kono marked an important chapter in Japan improving relations with its neighbors,” he said.
“The trafficking of women for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights,” he added.
The spokesman also quoted President Barack Obama’s speech last year in Seoul, where he said, “We encourage Japan to continue to address this issue in a manner that promotes healing and facilitates better relations with neighboring states.”
Still, the statements from Sherman have raised concern in Seoul that Washington is essentially siding with Japan over historical issues, thanks in part to Tokyo’s vicious lobbying efforts.
In 2012, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the term “comfort women” incorrect, and insisted that the State Department use the term “enforced sex slaves,” a move that was not welcomed by Tokyo. Sherman was appointed by Clinton to her current post in 2011.
Likewise, both Korean and international scholars have raised concern over the Japanese right-wing’s revisionist movement that has focused on textbooks in Japan and, most recently, on a U.S. history textbook published by McGraw-Hill Education.
Passages detailing the Japanese military’s coercion of young women into sexual servitude during World War II lie at the heart of the issue.
McGraw-Hill Education refused to change the text despite lobbying efforts by the Japanese government since the end of last year.
Observers are also closely watching to see if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will water down his predecessors’ apologies over Japan’s wartime aggressions - specifically the landmark 1995 Murayama Statement - in his address marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Sherman added in her speech made Friday that East Asia would be safer and more stable if the United States, Japan, China and South Korea “were pulling in the same direction.”
She went on to say that political leaders could exploit nationalist feelings to vilify a former enemy - in this case, the implication was Tokyo - but that “such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.”
Her words seemed to indicate that the leaders of Seoul and Beijing were the instigators of the provocation.
According to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the U.S. State Department over the weekend confirmed that there was no change in Washington’s official stance on historical issues and that Sherman’s remarks were not directed at any individual.
“The issue of sexual slavery under the Japanese military is a women’s rights and human rights issue that is recognized by the international community,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Gwang-il said in a briefing on Tuesday.
He added that Washington has “until now shown attention and expressed concern on this issue, including through the 2007 U.S. Congress resolution, and our government will continue to head toward revealing those historical truths.”
Sherman, a former policy coordinator on North Korea, visited Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo at the end of January and has called the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II a “pivotal moment.”
But Korean experts remain skeptical of Washington’s stance.
Jeong Se-hyun, the former unification minister, said during an SBS radio program on Tuesday that Washington’s “real intention has been spoken by Sherman, and President Obama only paid us lip service [in his speech in April 2014].”
Jeong added that he did not buy the U.S. State Department’s claim that Sherman had not meant to target any country or leader.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]