[Interview] Bruce Cumings: “Washington has always preferred Tokyo over Seoul”

Posted on : 2015-05-13 17:42 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
 University of Chicago Professor
University of Chicago Professor

University of Chicago Professor Bruce Cumings recently conducted an interview via email with the Hankyoreh’s Washington correspondent, discussing the recent tensions in East Asia over historical issues, and the US’s apparent siding with Tokyo amid its failure to apologize for its imperial aggressions. Cumings’s scholarship is focused on East Asia, with particular attention to Korea.


Hankyoreh: What made you and other professors issue the official letter to Japanese Prime Minister Abe?

Bruce Cumings: We published it because we are concerned about the Abe government’s prevarication and even lying about Japan’s crimes in the Pacific War, and because honest historians and journalists in Japan are being intimidated and attacked by right wingers.

Hani: Even though Abe didn’t express his sincere apology to comfort women during his visit to the U.S, the Obama administration didn‘t raise the issue at all. Do you think the U.S. government is helping Japan to cover up its historical crimes? If so, what’s the motivation of the U.S.?

Cumings: I don‘t think the US is helping Abe cover up crimes, and Amb. Kennedy has brought more pressure on the Japanese government then most previous ambassadors. As for why the Obama administration did not raise the issue at all, I’m sure the Japanese government, in preparing the trip, asked them not to. More generally, American support for Japan since 1945, and its huge military commitment to Japan, with 50,000 troops, the huge Kadena airbase, and the Seventh Fleet having its base at Yokosuka, means that Japan does not really provide for its own defense. If Japan were independent militarily, then people like Mr. Abe would have to be much more careful about historical issues, or visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, or antagonizing their neighbors more generally. But because they know no one will attack Japan with all that American firepower, they are free to build up their right wing political base and make irresponsible comments, because when all is said and done, they aren’t responsible - for their own country or its defense.

Hani: Despite Abe’s historical revisionism, the U.S. is demanding South Korea to participate in strengthening trilateral security cooperation. So, many Koreans suspect that the U.S. is taking Japan‘s side when it comes to historical issues. What’s your view on the Obama administration’s current stance?

Cumings: As I wrote in the journal Current History last September, Pres. Obama has been “herding cats”. In East Asia, that is, trying to get Tokyo and Seoul to work together so as to contain China. But South Korea has an excellent relationship with China, and Pres. Park has been unusually cold toward the Japanese Prime Minister. So the “cats” are not doing what Mr. Obama would like. Also, his policy of strategic patience toward North Korea is only resulting in more nuclear weapons there. So all in all, the administration’s stance isn’t working now and hasn’t been working for years.

Hani: When it comes to the historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, the U.S. government has said that it couldn‘t mediate between the two countries. What roles do you think the U.S. should, or could play in this issue?

Cumings: The American responsibility for historical tensions between Korea and Japan goes back to the settlement of World War II. As an aggressor, Japan should’ve been divided like Germany was, but instead Korea was divided, leading to a terrible war, while Japan got a very soft piece. By early 1947 the US wanted Japan back on its feet as an industrial producer, and an ally of the United States. It therefore relaxed restrictions on the zaibatsu groups, which had contributed so much to the war and which had used hundreds of thousands of Korean slave laborers; it also let people it had deemed Class A war criminals out of jail or off the hook, like Kishi Nobosuke, Abe’s grandfather (whom he reveres). Kishi and many others who had contributed so much to Japan’s war effort then became close allies of the United States, and of course Kishi became Prime Minister. The peace treaty then codified all of this, letting Japan off the hook for its war atrocities. And again in 1965, when South Korea and Japan normalized relations, this happened under tremendous American pressure to bring South Korea and Japan back together, especially for mutual economic benefit. Many contentious historical issues were thus swept under the rug in the late 1940s and in 1965, and this was all done because various US governments wanted a good relationship between South Korea and Japan. As a matter of high policy, for 70 years the United States has never shown much regard for either Korean or Chinese historical claims against Japan.

Hani: While South Korea is facing tension with Japan with regard to historical issues, the U.S. continues to demand South Korea to participate in strengthening the trilateral security cooperation, particularly missile defense. On the other hand, as we saw in the case of THAAD deployment issue, South Korea is facing the diplomatically difficult choice between the U.S. and China. How could South Korea promote its national interest in the context that the strong powers are pressuring their own national interests on the Korean peninsula, which would be contradictory to South Korea?

Cumings: South Korea is in a very difficult position strategically because the US wants Japan and South Korea to cooperate in containing China. THAAD and other issues are always publicly directed against North Korea, as is the alliance system itself, but North Korea simply provides a useful and provocative front so that the US can deepen its military collaboration with South Korea and Japan, with an eye to the China threat.

When Roh Moo-hyun was president, he was very worried that a war in the region would inevitably draw South Korea into that war on the American side, whether he liked that or not. Today things are in many ways worse, because of the rising tensions between Japan and China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The US has publicly committed itself to defend Japan and its claims over these islands, which I think is a very stupid policy because it could result in a general war over what are really a handful of rocks. This also puts South Korea in a very dangerous and ticklish situation. But in the longer view, this is nothing new: Washington has always preferred Tokyo over Seoul.


By Park Hyun, Washington correspondent


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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