Observing over the last several months the interactions amongst Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China and the United States has been frustrating, at times alarming and now, finally, somewhat hopeful.

The “somewhat hopeful” is from Tuesday’s meeting among the top leaders of the U.S., Japan and South Korea, namely President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye. Their meeting was actually a side meeting, as all three aforementioned nations were among the participants at the summit on nuclear security held in The Hague, Netherlands.

The frustration came from the stubbornness by Park and Abe to find any common ground over which to meet before the meeting took place at the insistence of the U.S.

Territorial disputes and the comfort women issue have long been irritants between the neighboring nations, but the issues have been especially vexing since Abe took office in December 2012. Part of it may have to do with Abe’s persona, which is more assertive and seemingly nationalistic than other recent Japanese prime ministers. (But if anyone should be nationalistic, shouldn’t it be a nation’s leader, whether it’s Abe, Vladimir Putin or Obama?)

Personally, I’ve found Abe’s leadership more refreshing than that of his most recent predecessors. His attempts to revive Japan’s economy have found some success and he’s not willing to roll over and cede Japan’s strengths and role in Asia to a rising China.

But that same pride in Japan has also rankled S. Korea, which seems to see Abe as completely unsympathetic to its grievances.

For that and other reasons, President Park had simply refused to meet with Abe since taking office in February 2013. She did meet, however, with Obama, Russia’s President Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.

The hopeful part comes now that the United States ‑ allied with both Japan and South Korea – got Abe and Park to be in the same room to discuss issues of real importance.

China’s declaration late last year of an expanded Air Defense Identification Zone that overlapped territory already claimed by South Korea and Japan demanded a united front from those two nations and the United States. But with both U.S. Asian allies at odds, China had seeming free rein to do what it liked, including claiming more disputed territory in conflict with the Philippines, Vietnam, etc.

Meantime, the more immediate and unstable player in the game has been and continues to be North Korea. It will remain as such for the foreseeable future. As if on cue, North Korea launched a pair of missiles as the three-way summit among the U.S., South Korea and Japan took place, as if to underscore the reason why such alliances and security agreements exist. If that’s not a wake up call to prioritizing Japan and South Korea’s interests, I don’t know what is.

It may be too much right now to ask that Japan and South Korea work out the past and look to the future. Another generation will likely have to pass away before some of that can happen. But from my Asian American perspective, the two nations have a lot more in common than not, if not on a political level then at the human level.

It makes sense that the respective governments do everything within their power to sustain and improve their relationship. Yes, there will always be differences. But I see them having more in common with each other than either do with China; if part of what brings them together is an alliance with the U.S., so be it. Meantime, until the North Korean regime eventually falls, then ties between South Korea and Japan can’t afford to wither.

Maybe Japan and South Korea will never love one another. But if they can like and respect one another, that’s good enough for the world, each other and America.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a trilateral summit. (Prime Minister's Office of Japan)
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a trilateral summit. (Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)

“Linsanity” Dept.: With the Lakers at their worst ever, wouldn’t it be great if they could reunite Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin with his former Knicks coach, Mike D’Antoni, who now guides the Lakers? (That’s presuming, of course, that D’Antoni makes it into next season.)

In the meantime, as noted in the March 26 issue of this paper, “Linsanity: The Movie” will screen on at 12:30 p.m. on Sun., April 13, at the OCBC gym, 909 Dale Ave. in Anaheim.

But if you haven’t seen the 2013 documentary directed by Evan Leong about the improbable rise of the Taiwanese American baller, and can’t make it to that particular screening, the good news is that if you are a Netflix subscriber, you can see it there. It’s also available via iTunes. I watched it and found it thoroughly interesting, including how the letter “t” in “Linsanity” was done as a crucifix, to highlight Lin’s religious convictions. Very clever.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.


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