WASHINGTON — With the leaders of Japan and South Korea both set to visit Washington in the coming months, President Barack Obama has a fresh chance to nudge the estranged U.S. allies to heal a bitter rift that has put a damper on his effort to boost America's role in Asia.
Obama brought Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea's Park Geun-hye together for a three-way meeting a year ago, but direct talks between the two nations have failed to achieve progress on the thorny historical issues that divide them.
The Japan-South Korea rift has complicated U.S. efforts to forge a stronger security alliance against common foe North Korea and to U.S. strategy aimed at countering China's rise. Japan and South Korea host 80,000 U.S. troops, the backbone of America's military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
The U.S. administration's former top diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, has proposed appointing a high-level envoy to shuttle between Tokyo and Seoul. But the administration remains wary of wading into the historical minefield that underlies the acrimony and which will be in the spotlight ahead of commemorations this summer to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula and occupied parts of China, often brutally, before and during the war. Historians say tens of thousands of women, including Japanese, Koreans and others from around Asia, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
The plight of the so-called comfort women stirs deep emotions in South Korea. Two years into her presidency, Park Geun-hye has yet to hold a summit with Abe, a nationalist who raised hackles when he visited a controversial Tokyo shrine in December 2013 where war criminals are among those memorialized.
Obama will get another shot at impressing the importance of reconciliation when Abe visits Washington in late April, and when Park follows, likely in June. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel urged both sides this week to try to improve strained bilateral ties, calling the tension between them a "strategic liability" for all three countries.
South Korea wants Japan to take legal responsibility for its military's mistreatment of the comfort women, but Tokyo says it's unfair to make that demand as issues of compensation were settled between the two governments when they resumed diplomatic relations in 1965.
Richard Lawless, a former undersecretary of defense for the Asia-Pacific, said he sees little chance of improvement in Japan-South Korea relations in the next two years.
"Left unattended, this situation is going to get worse," he said.
A senior State Department official said U.S. officials don't see the two countries as wanting a special envoy and even question whether an envoy would lead to a breakthrough. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic discussions, said both Seoul and Tokyo have welcomed U.S. advice but believe it's up to them to reach a resolution.
The risks of weighing in on highly charged issues of history was apparent after a recent speech about Northeast Asia by Wendy Sherman, the fourth-ranking U.S. diplomat, provoked heated debate in Seoul. Without naming a particular government, Sherman criticized political leaders who earn "cheap applause" by vilifying old enemies. South Korean politicians and media questioned whether she was siding with Japan.
For its part, Japan took offense when the U.S. criticized Abe for visiting the Yasukuni shrine, and it has bristled at Korean-Americans setting up monuments to comfort women on U.S. soil and drawing attention to wartime atrocities.
Despite the rift, U.S. officials and experts say Japan and South Korea are still willing to cooperate on a working level.
Late last year, they signed a trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement with the U.S. to exchange information on North Korean nuclear and missile threats. And this weekend, the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea will hold their first meeting in three years, which could help tamp down political tensions.
--Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.