The Cable

Korea Plays Nice at Trilateral Meeting With Japan and U.S.

Despite repeated attempts by reporters to bait him into dredging up lingering resentments against Japan, a senior South Korean diplomat bit his tongue, downplaying 70-year-old tensions at a trilateral meeting in Washington.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 22:  A South Korean student waves a national flag during an anti-Japan rally on February 22, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea and Japan are making claim to a set of islands controlled by South Korea, Dokdo or Takeshima, located in the East Sea. The rally was taking place after the Japanese government declared today to be Takeshima Day, further fueling a long-standing territorial row between the two countries.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 22: A South Korean student waves a national flag during an anti-Japan rally on February 22, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea and Japan are making claim to a set of islands controlled by South Korea, Dokdo or Takeshima, located in the East Sea. The rally was taking place after the Japanese government declared today to be Takeshima Day, further fueling a long-standing territorial row between the two countries. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Despite repeated attempts by reporters to bait him into dredging up lingering resentments against Japan, a senior South Korean diplomat bit his tongue, downplaying 70-year-old tensions at a trilateral meeting in Washington.

“Diplomacy is about trying to find a way to work together while we have healthy differences on issues,” South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong told reporters at the State Department on Thursday.

Cho said South Korea had not changed its stance “on the issues of history,” but understood that cooperation between Korea and Japan was “beneficial to both governments.”

The press conference played perfectly into Washington’s Asia rebalance strategy, which relies on the U.S. mediating differences between Japan and South Korea in order to better coordinate on China’s economic and military rise in the region.

“We have an extraordinary array of shared interests and that’s built on a foundation of shared values,” Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said during the joint press conference. “That was obvious to me in conversations we had over many hours today covering an extraordinary array of issues.”

In recent days, South Korean diplomats have privately expressed concern about an upcoming address to Congress by Japan’s right-leaning prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has at times downplayed Japan’s wartime aggression. A particular source of tension is the use of Korean women in Japanese military brothels during the conflict.

Although Abe has conveyed public remorse over the war, his other actions, such as a visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasakuni Shrine in 2013, have sustained suspicions that he’s a stubborn revisionist.

U.S. officials just want the two sides to play nice, but the sensitivities involved continue to spark diplomatic incidents.

Last month, South Korean lawmakers criticized Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, for failing to understand the region’s history when she described the tensions between Japan and South Korea as “frustrating.”

“It is not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy,” she told a conference in late February. “But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.”

South Korea’s New Frontier party issued an angry statement saying “If the U.S. continues its stance of ignoring victims, its status as [the world’s] policeman won’t last long.”

On Thursday, Blinken avoided any explicit reference to World War II or even historical differences between the two nations.

“Minding the gap in Japan-Korea relations is a diplomatic hazard for American officials,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The danger usually lies in the Korean desire for the U.S. to continue to acknowledge in some form that Japan carries an added burden of moral responsibility. When the U.S. officials make statements of even handedness on these issues, Koreans impute that to a sense of moral equivalency that they reject.”

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