The US wants to unite Japan and South Korea into an alliance against China and North Korea, but “history is in the way,” according to a South China Morning Post analysis from January 12th.
The author, John Power, claimed that a “long coveted strategy” in US foreign policy circles is a trilateral alliance with Tokyo and Seoul to present “a united front against common security concerns, including China’s growing influence.”
That plan is faced with an issue:
“South Korea and Japan just cannot seem to get along. Relations between Tokyo and Seoul, long strained by historical issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean peninsula, have soured further as the sides stumble from one controversy to the next.”
Most recently, Tokyo and Seoul clashed over an encounter between their militaries in international waters. Tokyo accused a South Korean vessel of locking onto one of its patrol aircraft with its targeting radar, a preliminary step before firing at an enemy. This prompted a response from Seoul and since then the rift has deepened and has turned into a public war of words over who’s wrong.
Historically, the issue of Korean forced labourers and “comfort women” pressed into sexual slavery during the second world war remains.
“The United States has long hoped that its two allies in Asia would work more closely together, bilaterally and trilaterally, with the United States to address and combat regional security threats,” said Brad Glosserman, the deputy director of Tama University’s Centre for Rulemaking Strategies in Tokyo. “There’s no opportunity for the system to snap back. It’s just one blow after another.”
The relationship between South Korea and Japan appears to be a continuous gauntlet of issues, which both sides seem keen on causing for each other.
On January 9th, a South Korean court seized the assets of a Japanese company to compensate victims of forced labour, following a related Supreme Court decision that Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, called “totally unacceptable.”
Furthermore, a 2015 deal which settled the issue of “comfort women” was undermined in November 2018, when Seoul announced it would disband a compensation fund that was the base of the agreement. The deal was opposed because some survivors criticize that it does not sufficiently assert Japan’s responsibility for its war crimes.
“The bottom line is that these two countries need each other and have diametrically opposed views in the function of their national identity,” Glosserman said.
In terms of things in common both South Korea and Japan are democracies and host US troops. Importantly, they appear to share the US view of order in Asia. “More importantly, both governments see North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes as a threat, and regard the prospect of Chinese hegemony in Asia with trepidation.”
“When it comes to security issues in international politics, usually when there’s a common threat that is extremely acute, that’s when you can get two sides to partition or segment different issues,” said Andrew Yeo, an associate professor of politics and director of Asian Studies at the Catholic University of America.
Domestic political pressures in both countries impede them from further cooperation.
“Last year, the Asahi newspaper reported that Seoul was sharing little military intelligence with Tokyo despite the countries signing a related pact in 2016. That agreement provoked a public backlash in South Korea, where memories of Japanese colonisation remain raw. Around the same time, Seoul knocked back a US proposal for three-way military drills involving Tokyo.”
Notwithstanding, the US has exerted great diplomatic efforts trying to bring the two sides closer. It is questionable how successful that has been.
“The US has done a great deal of work, but quietly, in ways that would antagonise neither side and be able to allow them to accuse Washington of taking sides in the dispute,” Glosserman said.
In 2014, Obama brought South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe together for their first face-to-face talks at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. The former POTUS praised the meeting as an example of common cause between the US, South Korea and Japan.
President Donald Trump has distanced US foreign policy from alliances abroad. “Yet it seems that Washington’s longer-term objective is still for Japan and South Korea to put aside their differences and cooperate on shared strategic goals.”
“The logical thing is it seems like they should be closely aligned,” Yeo said. “I am optimistic in the long run that these differences, even if they cannot be resolved, can be managed so that you can have all three countries working together to address security issues in East Asia.”