North Korea has been making waves, yet again, with its threats to destroy the United States and its ally South Korea. The bellicose rhetoric has temporarily diverted attention from the various maritime disputes that have pitted a potpourri of Asian nations against each other and against China — opening the way for the United States to reassert a strategic presence in the region as part of its Asian pivot.
But amid the high-profile territorial claims, clashes and verbal bombast, two of America’s best friends in the region have also been quietly butting heads — putting the United States in an awkward position as it balances relations with Japan and South Korea while hampering its ability to tamp down hostilities elsewhere.
It would be difficult to classify the historical relationship between South Korea and Japan as an amicable one. Japanese interference in Korean affairs stretches back to the 16th century and ultimately reached a pinnacle with the brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. On the other side of the coin, the failed 13th-century Mongol invasion of Japan was launched from what is now South Korea, and the Japanese have since seen the peninsula as a strategic dagger aimed straight toward them.
Despite this history, for the last 60 years, South Korea and Japan have been among America’s closest allies in the Pacific Rim and lynchpins of U.S. military presence in the region. This has ameliorated some of the tension but has not helped to solve their fundamental disputes, as both countries increasingly find themselves at odds over their shared history and claims to islands in the Sea of Japan, which South Koreans refer to as the East Sea.
Those claims often take a backseat to the headline-grabbing rivalries in the South China Sea, but the dispute over a remote set of islets known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan inspires deep-seated animosity that could, at some point, boil over and entangle the United States. (Japan also has separate disputes with China and Taiwan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.)
“Two of America’s most important alliance partners, Japan and South Korea, are surrounded by … 1.25 million square kilometers of water. The East China Sea also creates a large maritime domain around Taiwan, to whose defense America has committed itself both morally and legally,” wrote Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute in a bulletin for the Center for a New American Security.
The decades-old dispute between South Korea and Japan flared in August 2012 as outgoing Korean President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented trip to the volcanic outcroppings, prompting Tokyo to recall its ambassador in Seoul in protest.
“The nationalistic sniping between two of Washington’s crucial allies over these specks of land serves as a reminder of the trouble that the United States faces as it tries to ‘pivot’ back to Asia,” wrote Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times last year. “The standoff contributed to South Korea’s decision to back out of an agreement, supported by the United States, to share military intelligence with Japan.”
The territorial disputes stem from a litany of grievances over Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula — with Americans partly to blame, because they never resolved complex sovereignty claims over islands in the Sea of Japan after Tokyo’s surrender in World War II.
Indeed, the islands whip up such fierce emotions not only because of possible mineral wealth under the seabed or fishing rights, but also because they symbolize the enduring bitterness over Imperial Japanese aggression — for which many South Koreans (and Chinese) think Tokyo has never fully atoned.
It’s often difficult for outsiders to grasp just how raw these emotions still are today. Embassy protests in both Seoul and Tokyo, for instance, are routine and occasionally get out of hand. In February, a South Korean man even hurled human feces into the Japanese Embassy to protest Japan’s territorial claims. In an earlier incident, the same man cut off part of his pinkie and mailed it to the embassy.
This enmity continues to smolder despite close cultural links. “Lots of Japanese people follow Korean dramas and pop stars so they are increasingly wondering why aren’t Koreans moving past their history,” said Devin Stewart, senior program director and senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “Both intelligence sharing and deeper trade ties between Korea and Japan have been hindered by tensions over territorial disputes and history.”
Yet tensions are unlikely to simmer down anytime soon with the election of two new leaders in South Korea and Japan — both conservatives and strident nationalists.
Shinzo Abe was elected Japan’s prime minister following his Liberal Democratic Party’s victory in general elections last December. He had previously served as prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007. A military hawk, Abe returns to office on the heels of a nationwide shift away from Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, Tokyo correspondent for the BBC, described Abe as “far more right wing than most of his predecessors” with “very right-wing views on the history of Japanese aggression during World War II.”
Abe, who has already increased defense spending, has repeatedly said he would revise Japan’s landmark 1995 apology for its World War II transgressions, although it’s debatable whether he’d risk provoking a region-wide backlash just to appease his hard-line base. He did, however, defend a recent visit by some of his top ministers to a controversial shrine that’s viewed as a symbol of Japanese militarism, drawing the ire of South Korea, whose foreign minister canceled a scheduled visit to Japan in response to the visit. And while serving as prime minister back in 2007, Abe made the dubious historical claim that thousands of so-called “comfort women” were not coerced into becoming sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army, rankling many South Koreans for whom the issue remains extremely sensitive. In fact, criticism over Abe’s hawkish posturing and his attempts to literally rewrite the history books in Japan contributed to his resignation as premier in 2007.
A week before the elections that ushered Abe back into power, Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president. No stranger to cutthroat politics, Park’s father ruled South Korea with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979, when he was assassinated by his intelligence chief. Park herself was first lady for five years after her mother was killed in a botched assassination attempt on her father.
Park has made it clear that relations with Japan will hinge on Tokyo coming clean about its past. At a meeting with Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, shortly after she was sworn in, Park was quoted by officials as telling Aso that “unresolved problems, including some dating back to history, are preventing us from developing future-oriented bilateral relations.”
“To build true friendship between South Korea and Japan, we need to face history squarely, we need to try to heal the scars of the past so they will not persist any longer, and we need to have heartfelt understanding of the suffering of victims,” she reportedly said.
For his part, Abe seems to be taking a more conciliatory approach toward South Korea. During a visit to the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in mid-February, the prime minister said that South Korea is Japan’s most important neighbor despite lingering controversies over history and territory.
“He evoked memories of his grandfather’s, former premier Nobusuke Kishi, close ties with President Park’s father and the common threats faced by North Korea. Some of this may fall on deaf ears in Seoul as lately tolerance for Japanese off-color historical remarks is at an all-time low,” wrote CSIS’s Victor Cha, Ellen Kim and Marie DuMond in a recent brief. “Nevertheless, the new South Korean president understands the importance of strong U.S.-Japan-ROK [Republic of Korea] ties at a personal level and has affinity for Japan. There is also a sense in Seoul that Abe will ‘behave’ on historical and territorial issues until the Upper House elections this summer.”
But Abe and Park appear to have different strategies when it comes to China. “Though South Korea and Japan share threat perceptions related to China, they differ in how they approach the challenge of a rising China,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He explained that Japan has sought to create a balance of power against China’s rise whereas South Korea is trying to ride the coattails of Chinese growth through increased economic cooperation.
But Stewart of the Carnegie Council points out that “Abe represents a new viewpoint — a bit bolder, more autonomous, independent from history despite being a product of the same old system.”
From the outset of his new government, Abe confirmed his hawkish security views on containing China. On the global commentary website Project Syndicate, he called for a “security diamond” to counter an assertive China.
“[I]ncreasingly, the South China Sea seems set to become a ‘Lake Beijing,’ which analysts say will be to China what the Sea of Okhotsk was to Soviet Russia: a sea deep enough for the People’s Liberation Army’s navy to base their nuclear-powered attack submarines, capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads,” wrote Abe.
His prescription is to “envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” Moreover, he is “prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.”
“It’s still very early,” said Snyder of the CFR, “but there is an emerging sense of the relationship with China and Japan being of a zero-sum nature.”
In contrast, Park’s approach to China has been one of building bridges, not security diamonds. As part of the South Korean president’s strategy of “trustpolitik” — building relations based on trust — her transition team sent its first special envoy to Beijing on Jan. 22, laying the groundwork for future cooperation with the economic giant, which happens to be South Korea’s top trading partner.
During her election campaign Park extended her philosophy of trustpolitik to North Korea, saying she would ease some of the hard-line policies of her predecessor, such as offering food aid and other basic assistance to the hermit kingdom.
But that policy has been put on indefinite hold in the wake of the North’s recent belligerence, which has pushed the region to the brink of war. Park has been quick to respond, warning Pyongyang of swift retribution for any attack and conducting military exercises with the United States in a joint show of force.
Japan, too, has stepped up its defenses in the area to gird itself a possible North Korean missile launch. Interestingly, though, Abe’s moves to bolster Japan’s military presence in the region have been greeted with suspicion by South Korea and other neighbors weary of Tokyo’s World War II legacy of domination.
On that note, Park and Abe aren’t the only new leaders in town. With North Korea’s young new dictator Kim Jong-un trying to prove his mettle and Xi Jinping taking the reins of the communist government in China, the region’s dynamics are entering unchartered waters.
The United States must navigate these leadership transitions while implementing its highly touted “pivot” in foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific, a center of global commerce.
But can the United States count on its two biggest allies to shore up its new regional strategy, or will squabbling and festering grievances between Japan and South Korea hamstring Washington’s ability to tackle challenges in North Korea and China?
In early January 2013, a high-powered delegation of officials from the White House, Pentagon and State Department visited Seoul and Tokyo after their respective elections. Prior to the trip, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated, “We want to see the new Japanese government, the new South Korean government, all of the countries in Northeast Asia working together and solving any outstanding issues, whether they are territorial, whether they’re historic, through dialogue.”
But many experts say the United States has limited options to get its two closest partners in the region working less rancorously together.
“All the U.S. can do is encourage Japan and Korea to try to move past their disputes,” cautioned Stewart. “A rising China can’t really change that.”
About the Author
Talha Aquil is a freelance writer in Toronto, Canada. Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.