While many focus on the drama of President Donald J. Trump’s meeting with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, a far more worrisome transformation in Northeast Asian geopolitics is underway. Washington’s two allies are in a downward spiral. Japan’s announcement this morning of export restrictions toward South Korea’s tech industry is only the latest blow in the two countries’ economic relationship over the past year.
In this round of antipathy between Japan and South Korea, history has taken the blame as usual. But history is not the culprit. In the Asia that is emerging, leaders in Seoul and Tokyo seem far too tempted to privilege nationalism over realism.
Much of this dispute has to do with the growing role of South Korea’s courts in adjudicating the grievances of those left out of the 1965 peace treaty between Japan and South Korea. The constitutional court first became involved in 2011 when it called on the Lee Myung-bak government to reopen talks with Japan over its responsibility for acknowledging the suffering of women who were compelled to work in Japanese wartime brothels—the so-called “comfort women.” Late last year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled against Japanese companies, ordering them to compensate Korean workers for forced labor during the period of Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The Abe cabinet, frustrated at what it sees as a constant reopening of past agreements reached with Seoul, lost patience with the Moon government when it abandoned the painfully negotiated “comfort women” agreement Japan had reached in 2015 with President Park Geun-hye. Tokyo responded to the more recent Supreme Court decision on forced labor by arguing that it violated the terms of the 1965 treaty, which had been accompanied by a host of side agreements designed to address such complaints over forced labor. Where Seoul saw the courts as acting independently from the executive branch, Tokyo saw a comprehensive effort to undermine bilateral relations.
But this round of antagonism over the past had a new twist. The militaries of both countries, long quiet during these political storms, became entangled in the growing animosity. Last December, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force alleged that a South Korean naval vessel targeted a Japanese surveillance aircraft with its fire-control radar as the aircraft approached a search and rescue exercise. Where in past disputes, diplomats might have stepped in to descry the misperception, repeated meetings between the two foreign ministers only resulted in a stalemate. South Korea denied the veracity of Japanese video of the incident; Japan refused to consider limiting its surveillance activities. In the past, senior military officers, cognizant of the operational necessity of military cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, had largely sought to avoid the nationalistic impulses of their politicians. Now they became just as sensitive to perceived slights and to the hardening attitudes of their publics.
Prime Minister Abe and President Moon Jae-in barely spoke during the Group of Twenty summit in Osaka, coming together only for a requisite photo opportunity. Today's announcement by Japan of export restrictions on materials used in display and semiconductor production adds another layer of animosity. This is not the first time Japan has used economics means to show displeasure. In 2015, the Abe cabinet let a currency swap agreement with South Korea expire during a period of tension.
But this antipathy can no longer be isolated from other arenas in which the Japan-South Korean relationship operates. During the Obama presidency, the United States played a critical role in facilitating diplomacy between its two allies. The president organized a trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Abe and then President Park at the Hague, which jump started bilateral efforts to end a particularly difficult episode of estrangement. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also initiated trilateral consultations on global areas for cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
No such effort exists today. Differences between Seoul and Tokyo over the North Korea problem have only deepened. Japan’s interests rarely overlap with South Korea’s when it comes to negotiating denuclearization. Only in the 1990s, when Secretary of Defense William Perry led a trilateral, alliances-first approach to negotiating with Pyongyang did Seoul and Tokyo seemed to find common ground. The Six-Party Talks a decade later revealed considerable angst in Tokyo over its interests in a regional solution.
Today, Trump’s insistence on sidelining those who could reassure Tokyo and Seoul of a shared strategy has created a zero-sum outcome for U.S. allies in the region. While cabinet officials work hard to reassure allies that their interests are defended in the president’s meetings with Kim, Trump’s next steps are not always in step with what his aides predict. After the Singapore Summit last year, the U.S. president’s announcement that he was reducing U.S.-ROK military exercises—and in fact buying into Kim Jong-un’s position that they were “provocative”—may have been tolerable for the Moon administration, as South Koreans hoped for some give in the U.S. position. But the idea that allied defenses could be bargained away as part of a deal between Trump and Kim gave Tokyo chills.
Similarly, Moon’s desire to relax sanctions on Pyongyang to move negotiations forward runs counter to Abe’s insistence on maintaining an international coalition to force Kim Jong-un to end his nuclear program. Tokyo has worked hard to persuade a coalition of UN members to support sanctions and work to ensure they are complied with. The United Kingdom, France, Australia, and Canada have all worked with Japan to monitor sanctions implementation through maritime patrols and surveillance. For Tokyo, abandoning this hard won international coalition would be tantamount to giving up on the UN’s role in international security—a premise of multilateral cooperation that is a pillar of Japan’s own national strategy. Seoul and Tokyo want different things from Washington when it comes to negotiating with North Korea, and unfortunately, how the United States engages with North Korea is inevitably perceived as privileging one ally’s security over another’s.
The larger difference that shapes Seoul and Tokyo’s relationship, however, is over China. On the surface, it might seem that both nations would want to double down on deterrence and on their alliances with the United States. And yet each sees the other as amplifying each other’s vulnerabilities in their long-term ability to manage China. When Seoul and Beijing join in their criticism of Tokyo’s prewar behavior, it grates deeply in Japan.
To be sure, both Japan and South Korea depend on access to China’s market for their own economic success. Both also have suffered from Beijing’s use of economic pressure during critical national security decision-making processes. Seoul had to contend with direct pressure over its decision to deploy the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system, while Tokyo faced a ban on rare earth exports during its clash with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2010. Nevertheless, Seoul and Tokyo see their long-term security differently when it comes to China. Japanese leaders can and will challenge China, but South Korean leaders see opportunity for peace in a less confrontational posture. Reunification of the Korean Peninsula, after all, will require Beijing’s acquiescence, if not approval.
Today’s deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations thus should not be seen solely through the prism of historical memory. Asia’s postwar settlements are all coming under considerable scrutiny as the balance of power shifts. Acrimony over historical legacies reflects a complex and growing array of interest groups in South Korea. Japan and South Korea seem to want to carve out separate futures.
Now that Washington’s grip on the alliances has loosened, Tokyo and Seoul seem destined to follow their own worst impulses. Bound in alliance with the United States for so long, diplomats and politicians in both capitals today seem less interested in relying on Washington to keep their differences in check, and the Trump administration has shown little interest in trying to build bridges.
Perhaps there are no bridges to be built. The desire to rewrite the postwar settlements largely dictated by the United States generations ago is palpable in Seoul and Tokyo. For so long, alliance management for officials in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul meant putting shared strategic purpose above nationalist politics. But what if our strategic interests are no longer shared?What, in fact, would happen if Seoul and Tokyo decided that their animosity was more meaningful than their affinity? What if all of our thinking about how the United States will manage deterrence and strategic change in Northeast Asia is premised on a relationship that can no longer be managed?
Perhaps this is the defining problem that will confound U.S. policy in Northeast Asia, and perhaps this presents the United States with a deeper dilemma than Kim Jong-un. It is time to confront the possibility that our allies in Asia can no longer be cajoled into friendship for the sake of strategic collaboration.