n October 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies that used forced labor during the colonial period should compensate the victims. The Japanese government argued that the issue was resolved in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, while the Korean government contended that the individuals’ claims are still valid. In response, Tokyo announced that it will remove Korea from the “white list” for exports of key semiconductor components.
After a mix of contradicting responses from American officials, President Donald Trump offered on July 19 to help ease the tension in the Korea-Japan dispute.
In order to mediate effectively, American policy-makers need to be aware of certain region-specific factors that affect the bilateral relationship. In particular, they need to grasp potential Japanese motives for the recent move. The U.S. will likely have to address the tension as Korea and Japan are key American allies in the region—the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy depends on a united front of liberal democracies against illiberal autocracies. Furthermore, a sustained trade row will have grave consequences for the global high-tech supply chain, ultimately impacting the American economy. Without a profound understanding of Korea-Japan relations however, it will be difficult for Washington to be a fair mediator as the global hegemon and close friend of both countries. The Korea-Japan tension is not purely based on historical animosity but also on different strategic outlooks.
To achieve de-escalation and protect its strategic interests, the U.S. government must carefully analyze two possible scenarios regarding Japan’s intention; American policy prescription will be contingent on them.
In the first scenario, Japan’s official explanation is truthful. Tokyo genuinely believes that Seoul has repeatedly reneged on past agreements, namely the 1965 treaty and the 2015 comfort women agreement. Japan also suspects that Seoul has been undermining, or at least turning a blind eye on violations of international sanctions on North Korea. It can no longer trust South Korea, and therefore keeping Korea on the white list for sales of key strategic chemicals—which can be used to produce chemical weapons if transferred to North Korea—is no longer a viable choice.
In this case, the adequate U.S. response would be to work on restoring mutual trust. In particular, Washington should focus on managing both South Korea and Japan’s sanction implementations, not least because easing pressure on North Korea weakens its leverage vis-a-vis Pyongyang. In recent weeks, Korea and Japan exchanged incriminating accusations of sanctions violations; this war of words can be resolved through an international investigation or a third-party inquiry.
The dispute on history is much more complicated, as domestic political calculations and powerful nationalistic sentiments render any compromise difficult. On both historical contention and North Korea, the U.S. should put a strong emphasis on the rules-based order—a key pillar of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy—and compliance with international norms. International law and interstate agreements should be respected in any circumstances, even in the face of domestic opposition.
Washington needs to devise a face-saving mechanism that can bring leaders of the two countries together. For example, former U.S. President Obama convened a trilateral meeting with then-President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at The Hague in 2014. The meeting was held at the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit to discuss North Korea, giving Park and Abe a pretext for a direct meeting without political blowbacks. The Trump administration should consider convening a trilateral summit at the UN General Assembly in September. In the long term, the U.S. needs to help facilitate more people-to-people exchanges between Korea and Japan, both at political and civilian levels.
In the second scenario, Japan views Korea as a geo-economic, political challenge rather than a partner for cooperation. Japan’s recent moves are just part of its long-term, calculated strategy to challenge Korea’s semiconductor industry. Japanese officials fear that Korea will eventually fall into the Chinese sphere of influence, rendering Seoul a liability—if not a threat—rather than an asset to the liberal regional order.
Shogo Suzuki, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, argues in his paper Japanese revisionists and the ‘Korea threat’: insights from ontological security that South Korea poses a “powerful threat to the right-wing revisionists’ perception of Japan”. Korea’s criticism of Japan’s historical atrocities disturbs their narratives of the past, which they need for their “own vision of national identity”. Korea’s vibrant democracy and its growing economy destabilize a century-long Japanese superiority over Korea. Therefore, the revisionists have been criticizing Korea’s emotive ‘national culture’, while labelling it an ‘undemocratic’ state.
In both scenarios, it is critical that American policymakers understand Japanese right-wing revisionists’ perception of South Korea. They exercise considerable influence over the diet, the cabinet, and the Prime Minister’s office. Prime Minister Abe himself is a special advisor to Nippon Kaigi, an ultranationalist group that promotes “patriotic education” and constitutional revision. Their views are clearly reflected in the 2015 Diplomatic Bluebook, which removed the phrase “South Korea is a neighboring country that shares basic value such as freedom, democracy and human rights” from the previous year. The 2019 edition explicitly states that Japan will “demand an appropriate response from South Korea” on what it views as a series of violations of international laws.
Such perceptions helped solidify foreign policy divergence between Korea and Japan beyond the history issue. Despite many shared interests and values, Seoul and Tokyo continue to disagree on some of the most important geopolitical issues at hand. Japan is more willing to challenge and confront China, while Korea is less assertive, particularly due to its economic reliance on China and the need to garner Beijing’s support to achieve denuclearization and reunification of the Korean peninsula. The South Korean government also hopes to relax sanctions on North Korea to accelerate progress in dialogue, while Japan has been insisting on full enforcement of sanctions, hosting an international coalition to monitor illicit maritime ship-to-ship cargo transfers. Perhaps most importantly, Japan aspires to lead a “concert of democracies” in the Indo-Pacific in the era of uncertain U.S. commitment. While sharing Tokyo’s fear of American departure, the Korean government is reluctant to participate in Japan’s initiatives which it fears could be a cover for a full-fledged remilitarization.
The U.S. needs to examine the region and Korea-Japan relations more closely in order to formulate an effective, fair approach. There is a concerning tendency in western media to portray Korea-Japan tension simply as a manifestation of unresolved grudges on the past. In reality, there are more fundamental and profound contemporary factors that should be considered.