Japan-South Korea Tensions Are Eroding Security in Northeast Asia
Tit-for-tat behavior between Japan and South Korea has continued following the publication of the following article in Forbes on July 31, 2019, which I co-wrote with Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies. In light of the latest development, South Korea’s non-renewal of its intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, we republish that column here:
Common sense suggests that the first joint Chinese-Russian air patrol through the sea that lies between Japan and South Korea should have drawn the two countries–both U.S. allies–closer together in opposition to threats from China and Russia. Instead, the intrusion into the sovereign air space of an island claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo and the subsequent protests they leveled against each other have revealed that an internal, rather than external, threat may now be the principle challenge to the U.S.-led security architecture in Asia.
The Chinese-Russian joint air patrol and Russian incursion into the sovereign air space of a disputed island barely deflected Japan and South Korea from a cycle of tit-for-tat actions and retaliations over historical issues that, if allowed to continue, will damage the foundations of the U.S.-led security architecture that has kept peace and enabled prosperity in Asia for over five decades.
The domestic polarization and political self-interest that dominate decision-making in Japan and South Korea render the current round of tensions between the two nations qualitatively different from previous incidents. These internal forces are eroding the security architecture in Asia by inducing a fixation on division, rather than on the cooperation necessary for Japan and South Korea to address their shared challenges.
The Moon Jae-in administration came into power pledging to follow a two-track strategy toward Japan that would separate historical grievances from future-oriented cooperation. But the Moon administration’s unwinding of the 2015 comfort woman agreement and the South Korean Supreme Court decision—albeit by a separate and independent judiciary—in favor of compensation for Korean forced labor under Japanese firms during wartime has put Moon into a political box.
South Korean domestic grievances resulting from Japan’s stance on history issues have been elevated above the need for a stable relationship with Japan. Moon is in the same box that his predecessor Park Geun-hye put herself into when she assumed office in 2013 and made resolution of the comfort woman issue a prerequisite for a normal Japan-South Korea relationship.
The failure of Moon’s two-track policy toward Japan has generated doubts among many in Japan who suspect that Moon’s aim is to revise the 1965 Japan-South Korea normalization treaty. Those doubts have led Japan to pursue countermeasures. It recently announced controls on the export of Japanese items sold to South Korean firms that are critical to the global manufacture of semiconductors by Samsung and LG Hynix, and threatened to remove South Korea from its “white list” of countries that do not require individual permits for export. These actions could initiate the economic decoupling of Japan and South Korea. Japan-South Korean economic cooperation, the glue that has long secured political cooperation between unwilling partners, has now become a solvent.
The United States should not stand by while Japan and South Korea take actions that lead to the dismantling of the alliance security architecture binding the three countries together, especially in the face of near-term threats from North Korea and the longer-term threat from China. Instead, the Trump administration should help Moon and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe escape the domestic political boxes they have constructed around themselves.
First, the United States should call on Japan to halt the decoupling of the Japanese and South Korean economies and treat South Korea as a trusted trade partner. Second, the United States should call upon South Korea to affirm the validity of the 1965 normalization treaty and suspend efforts to seize the assets of successor corporate entities to those that conscripted South Korean forced labor. This would allow Moon to uphold the South Korean Supreme Court verdict by using South Korean government funds to pay the claims while acknowledging the normalization treaty as the foundation of the Japan-South Korea relationship. Third, the United States should hold a trilateral summit among leaders of the three countries that produces a statement reaffirming the crucial importance of their security cooperation.
The United States must protect the alliance architecture in Northeast Asia from internal threats, so that it will be prepared if and when external threats come its way.
Scott Snyder and Brad Glosserman are the authors of "The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States."