04 Jan 2019

As we start the new year in 2019, the geopolitical chessboard in Northeast Asia couldn’t have been more different from exactly a year ago.

Sanctions against North Korea were all the rage in early 2018, with US military options on the hermit state routinely bandied around.

A Trump-Kim summit in June 2018 has caused the North Korean missile and nuclear threat to largely subside, with serious talk of an impending, second Trump-Kim summit in 2019.

The bigger problem in Northeast Asia today seems to be the deterioration of the Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship.

Two weeks ago, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate Koreans forced to work at factories and mines during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula – a judgement that Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said “worried me”, while the Foreign Ministry said it was “extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable”.

This is problematic as the 1965 compensation treaty that the Supreme Court has invalidated serves as the legal basis for the bilateral ties between the two countries.

Earlier in November 2018, Seoul sent an official notification to Tokyo on the dismantlement of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation intended to support Korean ‘comfort women’ – a term used for the victims of Japanese wartime sex slavery – reigniting the long-running controversy deemed to be closed after an agreement was signed in 2015.

More worryingly, Japan has since produced evidence to justify its accusations that a South Korean navy destroyer targeted a fire control radar system toward a Japanese military surveillance aircraft – accusations that Seoul has vehemently refuted so far. Tokyo has strongly protested this act, denouncing it as “extremely dangerous” and “extremely regrettable”.

The series of recent diplomatic and military setbacks has precipitated a deep freeze in the relations between the two nations, particularly disheartening juxtaposed against the warming ties earlier this year as a result of US leadership bringing its allies together to counter the North Korean threat.

The question is whether a Japan-South Korea rapprochement is possible in the long run. Three observations suggest that there is room for optimism to safeguard – and indeed strengthen – the bilateral ties between two of Washington’s closest allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Unity against the China Threat

First, the presence of a common China threat should force them to concentrate their efforts toward enhancing mutual military and diplomatic cooperation.

The rise of Chinese economic, diplomatic and military power in the region is undisputed. Recent developments have also starkly highlighted Beijing’s exercise of its new-found power against its neighbours.

In what appears to be an increasingly routine move, Beijing flew military reconnaissance aircraft close to Japanese and South Korean airspace on 27 December, prompting the scrambling of fighter jets to track the Chinese aircraft.

These moves are said to be part of a larger strategy strengthening Beijing’s surveillance of Tokyo and Seoul.

Another example of China flexing its considerable economic muscle was its year-long diplomatic impasse with South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, where Beijing froze diplomatic and economic ties with Seoul to express its deep dissatisfaction over its apparent leaning toward Washington.

Neither Japan nor South Korea can unilaterally stand up to China.

A cool-headed analysis of the geopolitical status quo will show that they need each other and the US’ assistance to achieve a sustainable balance of power in Northeast Asia.

Recognition that they need to work more closely with each other – instead of against each other – to secure themselves against Beijing is likely to drive future Japan-South Korea rapprochement, especially if China rachets up its hawkishness against Washington and its allies in the years to come.

Washington’s Unpredictability

The second factor that leaves the door open for Japan-South Korea reconciliation is the tendency for the US to ‘abandon’ its allies.

Indeed, the unpredictability of US foreign policy in Asia, certainly in the Trump administration, should instil fear of abandonment in the minds of Japanese and Korean policy-makers, given the strategic importance of the US nuclear umbrella and armed forces supporting Tokyo and Seoul’s defence.

Such fears would have been accentuated by the resignation of the US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, widely touted to be a stabilising force in the President’s Cabinet advocating the strengthening of policy and defence engagement with US allies.

While the administration has so far remained steadfast on key security issues such as pushing back against perceived Chinese coercion and denuclearization of North Korea, Tokyo and Seoul must be cognizant that there are no absolutes when dealing with Washington.

Indeed, the best way to protect themselves against an erratic US foreign policy establishment and the omnipresent threat of US withdrawal from the Indo-Pacific is security via an alliance with their closest neighbours.

Therefore, concerns about the reliability and consistency of US policy in the region is likely to bring Japan and South Korea closer together to protect their national interests writ large – particularly for the remainder of the Trump administration’s term in office, given the expected geopolitical turbulence.

Stemming the Haemorrhage of Bad Blood

Third, there is confidence in Tokyo and Seoul’s ability to stem the haemorrhaging of bad blood because rapprochement has happened before, albeit only momentarily.

Issues such as visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine honouring war criminals, and territorial disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets, have in the past threatened to derail bilateral ties. Tokyo and Seoul have managed to find ways out of the diplomatic gridlock through appeasement measures, in view of their wider security and economic interests.

There is reason to expect the same this time.

It is critical for both the Abe and Moon administrations to avoid stirring nationalistic sentiment against their neighbour. They should also err on the side of caution when it comes to provocative military manoeuvres that could inadvertently raise the security temperature between the two nations. Similarly, conflict involving Japan’s wartime past should be downplayed or discussed privately out of the public glare.

Doing so will allow the respective governments some breathing space to reconstruct better relations, instead of having to align their conduct of foreign policy with domestic public opinion.

What’s Next for the Japan-South Korea Relationship?

While the above suggests that the bilateral relationship is likely to recover from its current nadir, it remains an untenable solution for the two sides to be united by a common security threat, or fear of abandonment by their larger ally, or ad-hoc measures that smoothen the periodic unhappiness between Tokyo and Seoul.

A more fundamental solution would be to address – once and for all – the historical animosity and distrust that the Japanese and Korean people feel toward each other, over Japan’s perceived wartime atrocities on Korea and the unhappiness of the Japanese on how Koreans have yet to forgive (and forget) Japan’s World War II acts over the last seven decades.

Until the peoples of the two countries can finally let go of the mutual hostility, episodic inflammatory acts by the respective administrations are unfortunately likely to continue – given the enormity of the task of resolving the root issue.

Nonetheless, both nations must endeavour to do so – for their own national interest and ultimately to preserve the peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

Photo: Maina Kiai, cropped from original