For several months, Japan and South Korea, America’s main allies in East Asia, have been going at each other. Japan stripped South Korea of trading privileges; then South Korea removed Japan from a list of favored trade partners. In late August, Seoul announced that it would cancel an agreement with Tokyo over the sharing of sensitive military intelligence, including about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The tiff, some observers argue, marks a low in relations since the two countries normalized ties in 1965 after decades of friction over conflicting interpretations of Japan’s record during its occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 — forced labor, territorial claims, sexual slavery. Those debates hardly have been settled, it turns out, and they still inflame nationalist impulses on both sides. History is more than just background music to the present.
President Trump has said of the United States allies, “If they need me, I’m there” — he meant that he would be available to negotiate between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. He is expected to meet with each leader this week, on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. But if Mr. Trump hopes to make any headway, he will have to do what the United States government has long refused to do: He will have to recognize that if Japan and South Korea still weaponize their history today, it is partly because of the United States’ role in it — and because the United States has long played favorites between the two.
The current rift centers on a Washington-brokered 1965 treaty that was supposed to normalize relations between South Korea and Japan, in particular by settling any South Korean claims regarding Japan’s enforcement of compulsory labor during the war. Some historians estimate that between 700,000 and 800,000 Koreans were forced to work in Japan during the war, often under horrible conditions.
The Japanese government argues that the 1965 treaty settled “finally and completely” all questions to do with compensation for forced labor. (The deal, in addition to establishing diplomatic and business relations between the two countries, provided that Japan would give South Korea $500 million in grants and loans.) South Koreans disagree. The latest fracas was sparked by a ruling of the Supreme Court of South Korea in late 2018, which allowed 11 Korean men and women who claimed to have been forced into labor to seek compensation from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Neither South Korean nor Japanese officials point a finger at the United States for their dispute, and yet they should. This diffidence may be understandable: The United States is their security guarantor. But the historical moment they are fighting about, more than a half-century later, was fundamentally shaped by America’s involvement. Even as it claimed to help resolve Japan’s and South Korea’s longstanding grievances with the 1965 treaty, Washington used one ally over the other out of expedience, to advance its own interests.
Today’s fights between Japan and South Korea over history have a history of their own — and it prominently involves American diplomats. A significant behind-the-scenes player was William J. Sebald, who held several important positions between 1946 and 1952, including as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief political adviser in Tokyo during the American occupation of Japan. In May 1965 — on the eve of the controversial treaty’s signing — Sebald published his memoirs, “With MacArthur in Japan: A Personal History of the Occupation.” He was retired by then but remained influential, and his book is especially revealing for unmasking dominant attitudes toward East Asia in 1965 American government circles.
Sebald had cultivated personal relations with powerful Japanese political figures, and those ties appear to have led him to internalize their positions about “Korea” — the term he continued to use, even then, well after the Korean Peninsula had been divided. He reconciled them with his own understanding of America’s interests, namely, “the clear United States objective of keeping Japan out of Communist orbit.” Notably, his book bleeds unabashed contempt for Koreans as a people.
For Sebald, Koreans — but never the Japanese — were inclined to violence. They were also frozen in time: “a nation of sad people — oppressed, unhappy, poor, silent and sullen.” In his telling, the Korean War was something of a nuisance, a “confrontation of Washington and Moscow hardened into implacability” on “the unhappy peninsula.” Sebald failed to mention that Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula for much of the first half of the 20th century, and brutally so, or that Koreans in Japan were enlisted in forced labor. Nor did he consider how the era of Japanese colonial rule bred divisions within Korean society — independence movements, anti-Japanese insurrections — or how those were then reinforced by America’s arbitrary division of the peninsula in 1945 and the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.
Sebald’s views dovetailed with those of American diplomats working in the thick of things. Leading up to the 1965 treaty, Washington wanted the funds it had been using to support President Park Chung-hee of South Korea to be redirected toward its growing involvement in Vietnam. In May 1964, Robert Komer, a staffer on the National Security Council, wrote to the national security adviser McGeorge Bundy with an idea for a new approach (couched in familiar derogatory terms): “We’ve got to find someone to share the long-term burden, and it’s logically the Japs.” Edwin Reischauer, America’s ambassador to Japan, agreed and suggested smoothing over the proposed treaty’s contingent (and arguably racist) understanding of Japan’s and Korea’s history by urging his Japanese colleagues to make a gesture. An outright apology would be an “extremely delicate operation,” he wrote in a telegram in November 1964, but he “wondered if some forward-looking statement about turning backs on past unhappy history and moving to new period of friendly cooperation might not help assuage Korean feelings without irritating Japanese public.”
Such was the context in which American officials negotiated the 1965 deal between Japan and South Korea. Meaning: If the deal was problematic from the outset, that is partly because of Washington’s preferences and decisions. Eager for a quick resolution, it pushed aside some of the thorniest issues, such as whether Koreans could seek compensation for forced labor.
The 1965 treaty didn’t settle Japan’s and South Korea’s disputes so much as freeze them — and all because that’s what suited the United States then. It was inevitable that Tokyo and Seoul would play the blame game again at some point. Yet somehow America still isn’t getting its share of criticism for its own role in keeping those grievances alive.
Alexis Dudden is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut.