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South Korea – Japan Tensions Complicate U.S. Efforts to Leverage Allies in Competition with China

South Korea – Japan Tensions Complicate U.S. Efforts to Leverage Allies in Competition with China
 Scott W. Harold
Visiting Fellow - Asia Program

As laid out in the U.S. 2017 National Security Strategy, the Trump administration’s top priority is marshalling America’s strength for an era of renewed great power competition with China.The Pentagon’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report emphasizes that America’s greatest "asymmetric advantages" are its alliances and partnerships which, together with increases in American military capabilities and the "promotion of a networked region," are described as the key to winning competition with China. A recent RAND Corporation report that I led found that many of the Indo-Pacific region’s key actors—Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Vietnam—have been taking substantial steps in recent years to expand defense cooperation with each other, in effect "thickening" the web of intra-regional security ties in ways that contribute to U.S. national security and bolster America’s interests and values. Yet the rapid deterioration of ties between U.S. allies South Korea and Japan not only undercuts America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it also increases the risks to U.S. allies and partners in the region. Just how consequential is the growing South Korea-Japan tension for U.S. strategy and what is Washington doing to address the issue?
The disputes between Seoul and Tokyo have complex origins, many of which predate the Trump administration, though staffing gaps such as the absence of a confirmed ambassador to the ROK between January 2017 and June 2018, and a confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs from January 2017 until June 2019 certainly hampered U.S. focus and influence somewhat. Perhaps more important, as former NSC Senior Director for Asia Mike Green has contended, was the "lack of attention to the Korean Peninsula as a fulcrum of great power rivalry." The 2017 U.S.-Korea summit in Seoul highlighted these issues. Instead of focusing on the need for trilateral cooperation against the growing North Korea threat and a China that was waging economic warfare against the South over a missile defense battery and threatening Japan, the U.S. allowed the administration of President Moon Jae In to turn the American president into a prop for its complaints over historical and territorial disagreements with Japan.

The Trump administration’s top priority is marshalling America’s strength for an era of renewed great power competition with China.

Since that time, the Moon administration has picked fights with Japan by setting terms that made it impossible for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force to participate in a Korean-hosted naval review; dissolving the Japanese-funded Healing and Reconciliation Foundation for Korean "comfort women;" feuding over allegations that a South Korean warship had locked fire-control radar on a Japanese maritime surveillance plane; and allowing former civilian forced laborers to file suit against Japanese firms despite previous administrations having agreed with Tokyo that such claims were already settled under the 1965 normalization treaty between the two countries.

Throughout the spring of 2019, the Moon administration began hinting that it might withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that Seoul had signed with Tokyo in 2016, and in the wake of a major corruption scandal engulfing its nominee for Justice Minister, the South pulled out of the arrangement. Shortly thereafter, the ROK announced it would conduct its largest-ever military exercises around Dokdo (a set of islands also claimed by Japan, which refers to them as Takeshima). 
Throughout this period of spiraling negative events, U.S. efforts to urge restraint and bring the allies together have largely taken place behind closed doors by competent but insufficiently authoritative officials. By late August 2019, this had led to a situation that threatened to undercut overall U.S. strategy. Following the South Korean withdrawal from GSOMIA, U.S. officials began speaking out more forthrightly and at a much higher level. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver, for example, clarified on August 28, that the U.S. was "not forewarned" that the Moon administration was going to withdraw from GSOMIA. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford expressed their "disappointment" at the Moon administration’s decision, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus Tweeted that the Moon administration’s action will "make defending #Korea more complicated and increase risk to U.S. forces." Yet to date, the most consequential figure in the U.S. government, President Trump, has declined to insert himself publicly into the issue, commenting that "it’s like a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea" before adding that "if they need me, I’m there." 

Indeed, when the dispute between Seoul and Tokyo initially blew up in July following Tokyo’s decision to remove South Korea from a "white list" it uses to facilitate trade, the Moon administration did request U.S. involvement, though the request was widely interpreted as Seoul requesting Washington’s help against Tokyo. At that time, Washington refused to "mediate" and instead counseled dialogue and restraint; dissatisfied, the Blue House proceeded to retaliate against Japan, including by ending GSOMIA and conducting high-profile military exercises on contested territory. When the U.S. concluded that South Korean actions were imperiling U.S. national security interests and expressed its disappointment about the Blue House’s decision to end GSOMIA, ROK Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Cho Se-young summoned U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris, Jr. to ask Washington to"refrain from public comments about GSOMIA."
Going forward, the U.S. seems to face three key problems in striving to encourage South Korea and Japan to return to a path focused on positive and proactive bilateral and trilateral cooperation.
First, the U.S. focus on cooperation for the purpose of countering China’s growing regional influence holds limited appeal for policymakers in South Korea. Despite China’s hostility to the U.S.-ROK alliance as revealed by unilateral economic sanctions Beijing placed on Seoul following the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery in 2017, many South Korea leaders still regard Beijing as a difficult partner whom they must nonetheless maintain cooperative ties with in order to maintain economic growth, restrain North Korea, and ultimately facilitate (or at least avoid any veto on) unification.

Many in South Korea see the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept as appealing in principle but problematic in practice, both for its potential to alienate China and for its origins in Japanese strategic thinking about the region’s development. One analyst argued that the Indo-Pacific concept is "of little direct relevance for South Korea."

The U.S. will face a major challenge if it seeks to move Japan to make additional concessions to South Korea.

Second, North Korean propaganda has long derided the South as a puppet of the U.S. and as the successor state to the Korean elites who did not resist, and in some cases facilitated, Imperial Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910-1945. As a South Korean progressive, Moon and his top advisors hold to a somewhat similar critique of South Korea’s conservatives, and reflect a worldview that sees foreign powers—including both the United States and Japan—as largely responsible for Korea’s colonization, division, and continuing separation. Indeed, some key Korean progressives suspect that the U.S. prefers Korea divided, dependent, and under the domination of conservative and/or undemocratic forces; such progressives are loathe to help advance U.S. policy goals that they see as a distraction from intra-Korean reconciliation. For these core Moon supporters, reconciliation with Japan to confront China and North Korea at the cost of ignoring the demands for justice of former labor and sex slaves is unthinkable.  
Finally, the U.S. will face a major challenge if it seeks to move Japan to make additional concessions to South Korea. Many Japanese believe that it is Korea’s turn to take steps to improve ties. Despite Japanese leaders’ numerous expressions of "deep remorse and… heartfelt apology,""sincere apologies and remorse," and "most sincere apologies and remorse" for some of Imperial Japan’s past actions, some in South Korea have been unsatisfied with Japan’s sincerity, while others have argued that the apologies are insufficient because they did not include forced laborers. From Japan’s perspective, setting up the Asian Women’s Fund and the aforementioned Healing and Reconciliation Fund to communicate remorse, and reaching the 1998 Obuchi-Kim Joint Declaration, the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, the 2016 GSOMIA arrangement were all efforts to build a "future-oriented relationship." Japanese across the political spectrum believe that Korean progressives’ unwillingness to accept Japan’s expressions of remorse for the past, highlighted by the Moon administration’s refusal to block the court case on forced labor, have called into question the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations
Going forward, the U.S. will have an opportunity at the upcoming 74th annual meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly for President Trump to meet with President Moon and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The U.S. could seize this opportunity to encourage Seoul and Tokyo to agree to meet trilaterally again in Washington in November 2019 to discuss action plans for what they can collectively do to rebuild Korea-Japan cooperative relations and reestablish some bilateral trust. Such a step could be critical to ensuring that the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy does not founder on allied disputes and a lack of proactive alliance management.


Copyright : Jung Yeon-je / AFP

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