Editorial Board, ANU
US President Joe Biden has put priority on mending US alliance relationships in the Asia Pacific region, bringing US allies together in a united approach on China and restarting US negotiation to denuclearise North Korea. Deepening US–Japan–ROK trilateral cooperation is a key mechanism, critical to his agenda. But the current tensions and deep-seated complexities of the Japan–South Korea relationship continue to be serious stumbling blocks.
The stakes are high for Japan and South Korea to repair their economic, diplomatic and security cooperation. They are both economically advanced democracies whose prosperity is rooted in a free and open global trading system and with important roles to play as leaders in the region.
Japan and South Korea are both important US allies in East Asia and efforts on alliance deepening, bolstering deterrence capabilities, reducing the US security burden and persuading the United States to stay engaged in the region would be better channelled trilaterally.
Japanese and South Korean efforts to engage and shape China as a responsible and constructive regional stakeholder, such as through the China–Japan–ROK trilateral, would be more effective if Japan and South Korea were working together with common purpose.
US–Japan–ROK trilateral contingency planning vis-a-vis North Korea is imperative given the need for US troops based in Japan and the Japanese Self Defense Forces logistical support in case a major crisis were to erupt on the Korean Peninsula.
Yet history, identity and territory issues continue to spoil Japan–South Korea cooperation and the closing of the US–Japan–ROK triangle. South Korea’s historical wounds go as far back as Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s attempts to invade Korea between 1592–1598, and Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his turtle ships used to repel Japan feature prominently in the discussion of South Korean national identity today. Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910–1945 evokes bitter memories about assimilationist policies, the forced conscription of labourers and the involuntary recruitment of ‘comfort women’ for soldiers in Japanese military brothels.
The territorial dispute over the Dokdo islets, referred to in Japan as Takeshima, has been politicised by nationalist politicians on both sides and continues to be a thorn in the relationship.
In 2019, Japan–South Korea relations reached their lowest point since normalisation in 1965. The rot set in as Japan started a trade war by imposing restrictions on the export of three chemicals critical to the South Korean economy used in manufacturing semiconductors and smartphone display screens.
Japan insisted that the restrictions were purely in relation to security concerns regarding South Korea’s inadequate re-export control management and the risk that military dual-use chemicals could find their way to North Korea. South Korea saw the move as retaliation for the Moon government’s cancellation of the domestically unpopular 2015 ‘comfort women’ agreement as well as rulings by its courts for Japanese companies to compensate the families of Korean wartime forced labourers.
In South Korea, the dominant narrative became one of Japanese high-handedness heaping on historical injustice. In Japan, the narrative on South Korea claims that the country can’t stick to international agreements, including the 1965 Japan–ROK Basic Treaty under which the Japanese government insists that all pre-1945 legal claims between the two countries were settled.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been working to bring the two sides together. An opportunity for a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall was missed, as Suga spurned South Korean advances after it came to light that the South Korean Navy would hold its regular military drills near Dokdo on 15 June.
Some progress has been made as the three countries conducted an official-level trilateral meeting on 21 June, where they agreed to continue cooperation toward denuclearising North Korea.
As Daniel Sneider points out in our lead article this week, history shows us that Japan–South Korea cooperation is possible under the right conditions. In particular, three key elements are needed: political leadership in both countries, the right strategic and tactical conditions, and support from the United States.
All three elements, Sneider argues, were present when Japan and South Korea normalised their diplomatic relations in 1965 and when they concluded the ‘comfort women’ agreement in 2015.
‘The strategic situation … lends weight to those who argue that the threat from China and North Korea should bind them together. In Washington, the broad effort to encircle China requires close ties to allies and between them. Both Tokyo and Seoul nominally support trilateral cooperation’, says Sneider. With Donald Trump out and Biden in, Sneider argues, ‘the US role has also shifted back toward bringing Tokyo and Seoul together’.
But the missing ingredient is political leadership. ‘The Moon administration has signalled, but not manifested, a desire to step back from its opposition to the 1965 treaty and the 2015 agreement. But Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, confident in his alignment with Washington on China policy, has so far not reciprocated’, says Sneider.
Barring an Olympic breakthrough, we may have to wait for a change in leadership with Japan facing an election in September and South Korea electing a new president in March 2022.
If political leadership is to have a longer-lasting effect, it needs to be rooted in a broad and bipartisan commitment in both countries to refrain from politicising nationalistic issues for short-term domestic gains at the expense of long-term cooperation and regional stability.
That requires, at the very least, that leaders in both countries consistently and publicly articulate the importance of cooperation. It may also necessitate a deeper conversation and clearing of the air about the relevance and legitimacy of the 1965 treaty in the 21st century.
*About the author: The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum