Putting Japan–Korea Relations into Perspective: Lessons from the Pyeongchang Olympics


As the North Korean delegation returns triumphant from its “charm offensive” in Pyeongchang, Tokyo and Seoul should be thinking about stepping up their own public-diplomacy game with the goal of uniting to counter the growing North Korean threat.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang was a testimony to the enduring importance of South Korea to Japan's security. It had been rumored that Abe would snub Seoul’s invitation after the government of President Moon Jae-in appeared to renege on a 2015 bilateral agreement declaring the “comfort women” issue “finally and irreversibly” resolved. But cooler heads prevailed. Now as in the past, “The Republic of Korea is Japan's most important neighbor that shares strategic interests with Japan.”(*1) At an official reception in Pyeongchang, Abe posed with President Moon and US Vice President Mike Pence in a symbolic affirmation of the Japan-US-Korea security partnership.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and US Vice President Mike Pence pose for photographers during a reception marking the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 9, 2018. (© Jiji)

A Deepening Chill

Pyeongchang notwithstanding, a certain listlessness has pervaded the Abe administration’s South Korea diplomacy of late. In his annual policy speech to the Diet in January, the prime minister made only a terse and vague reference to Japan–South Korea relations, promising to “build on the international agreements between our two nations and on our mutual trust,” from “a future-oriented perspective.” He made no mention of Japan’s shared strategic interests with South Korea, as in the two previous years. Abe seems far more enthusiastic about “stepping up high-level visits between Tokyo and Beijing” and rebuilding the Japan-China “strategic partnership.”

For decades, strategic concerns have bound Japan and South Korea in a cooperative relationship despite historically rooted tensions and animosities. But those ties have frayed as the awareness of shared strategic interests (not to mention basic values) has dissipated. Unless our governments move quickly to reinforce those bonds, the consequences could be dire.

It is strange to recall the fanfare and lofty sentiments that prevailed 20 years ago, when Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung declared the dawn of a new “partnership towards the twenty-first century,” built on “such universal principles as freedom, democracy, and the market economy.” Today we find ourselves mired in mutual suspicion, each questioning whether the other can be trusted as a partner. In Japan, popular attitudes toward South Korea have shifted dramatically in recent years, causing the government to steer a narrow diplomatic course for fear of provoking a nationalist backlash at home. Of course, each country must pursue its own strategic interests, and there will always be points of divergence. But a sound foreign policy calls not merely for wise conflict management but also for active efforts to expand the scope of cooperation on the basis of shared interests and values.

When it comes to security, Japan and South Korea continue to be of critical importance to each another. A conflict on the Korean Peninsula could pose an existential threat to Japan. At the same time, the Japan-US Security Treaty and American F-35 stealth fighter jets deployed on the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture are vital to the defense of South Korea. Under the circumstances, our leaders must summon the political will to redefine Japan–South Korea relations in a security context—specifically, the Japan-US-Korea security triangle. They must take active steps to mold opinion at home and abroad and convince the public of the importance of the Japan–South Korea relationship at a time when its significance is no longer self-evident to all.

Moon’s Impulsive Overtures

Desperate for a peaceful backdrop to the Pyeongchang Olympics, Seoul has shown itself overly eager to engage with Pyongyang, and the North has taken full advantage of Moon’s weakness with its “charm offensive.” The coup de grace was Pyongyang’s proposal, conveyed by special envoy Kim Yo-jong (sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) for an inter-Korean summit meeting, to which President Moon quickly agreed in principle (later clarifying that it would hinge on the reopening of talks between Pyongyang and Washington). Even in South Korea, many fretted that Moon was losing sight of the important issues. Criticism mounted when it was learned that Moon never once raised the nuclear issue despite sitting with North Korean officials for hours over the course of three days.

Of course, Moon acknowledges that the two Koreas are past the point of “dialogue for its own sake.” He has said that the ultimate purpose of talks with the North is denuclearization. But talks do not have the same weight as negotiations. Washington’s position is that it will enter into full-fledged negotiations with Pyongyang only if the North takes measurable steps toward dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Under the circumstances, the South needs to be wary of weakening Washington’s bargaining position. Before setting off for Pyongyang, he should be sending special envoys to the United States (and to Japan) for close consultations to keep the three security partners on the same page and make it clear that no options—including the threat of military action—are off the table. If the “trump card” is removed from play at the outset, the game is up, and any chance of changing North Korea’s strategic calculation and behavior once and for all could vanish.

For the same reason, it is vital to maintain “maximum pressure” on all sides through consistent implementation of tough sanctions against the North. Unfortunately, just when those sanctions were finally beginning to bite, South Korea decided to make exceptions in order to facilitate the North’s participation in the Olympics. This makes it difficult for the UN Security Council and like-minded countries to call out China or Russia to enforce the existing sanctions, and to take further actions for preventing the circumvention of sanctions through ship-to-ship transfers and other loopholes.

Dialogue is pointless without continuous pressure backed by hard power. Will the United States and South Korea promptly hold the joint exercises they postponed for the duration of the Olympics? Or will Pyongyang induce Seoul to delay them further as a condition for an inter-Korean summit? President Moon is approaching the moment of truth, when he will be forced to decide which comes first—the obligations of allies or the bonds of ethnicity.

(*1) ^ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diplomatic Bluebook 2017.

Targeting the Weak Links

If a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, then what is the weakest link in the Japan-US-Korea security triangle? The easy answer is “South Korea, because of its ethnic bonds with the North.” But if we define a link as the connection between two things, then the choice is between the Japan-US connection, the US-Korea connection, and the Japan-Korea connection. Of these, the last would have to be called the weakest link.

Writing back in 1999, Victor Cha, a former US national security advisor and expert in Korean affairs (and President Trump’s erstwhile nominee for ambassador to South Korea), used the term “quasi-alliance” to describe the Japan-Korea relation—”quasi” because Japan and South Korea have never concluded a full-fledged security treaty despite the fact they have a common enemy, North Korea, and a common ally, the United States.(*2) In 2016, Tokyo and Seoul did conclude a General Security of Military Information Agreement, thereby laying the groundwork for what we might call a “virtual alliance.” But how much closer have we come to building such a relationship?

Among the most critical strategic assets in any contingency on the Korean Peninsula are the American B-1 and B-52 bombers on Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force has taken part in drills using these assets, and so has the Republic of Korea Air Force. But the three have never drilled together in formation. This is not the way a three-member team should practice. Moreover, while Japanese officials at least pay lip service to the Japan-US-Korea security partnership, the only time one hears the phrase “Korea-US-Japan” on the lips of South Korean leaders these days is when they are assuring Beijing that they will never enter into such an alliance.

As tangential disputes distract us from the fundamental purpose of the relationship, those that stand to benefit from our divisions naturally target these weaknesses. Thus, even the appearance of cracks in the Japan-US-Korea security triangle can send wrong signals. Chinese rhetoric extolling China and Korea’s “historical joint struggle against Japanese aggression” is nothing but a thinly disguised attempt to drive a wedge between its adversaries, and Japan should be responding to the so-called history war accordingly.

But this is not the partnership’s only vulnerability. As Victor Cha explains, Japan and South Korea both suffer from the two types of insecurity common to junior partners in an alliance: “fear of abandonment” and “fear of entrapment.” Both of these anxieties have been exacerbated by President Trump’s unpredictable style of leadership.

Fear of abandonment has surfaced in the form of simmering concerns as to whether Washington can be counted on to defend Tokyo and Seoul even if Los Angeles and New York find themselves within range of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. Then there is the fear that Washington will strike a deal with Pyongyang focusing exclusively on North Korea’s ICBMs, leaving Japan and South Korea unprotected and vulnerable to an attack from North Korean Scuds or mid-range Nodong missiles. Fear of entrapment pertains to concerns that the United States, in an effort to knock out the North’s nuclear capability, might launch a preemptive “bloody nose” attack without consulting its allies, embroiling them in an unnecessary and potentially devastating conflict. Seen in this light, the Japan–South Korea relationship is not the only weak link in the security triangle.

Refocusing on the Big Picture

“One picture is worth a thousand words” is a truism that bears repeating when it comes to public diplomacy. The image of President Barack Obama comforting an A-bomb survivor during his first-ever visit to Hiroshima was enough to win over the Japanese people, despite the lack of a clearly articulated apology (or any talk of compensation to survivors). Such images, along with those of Prime Minister Abe’s subsequent visit to Pearl Harbor and his address to US Congress, will remain enshrined in both nations’ collective memories as potent symbols of historical reconciliation. Even between allies, diplomacy needs to mobilize the tools of public relations, particularly the use of iconic images.

Surely such considerations are all the more important for Japan and South Korea, which have never formally cemented an alliance. Yet this aspect of diplomacy has been sorely neglected. Time and again, our leaders have relied on verbal expressions of regret and forgiveness to move the relationship forward. But in the absence of stirring images to persuade the public at an emotional level, the goalposts for reconciliation just keep moving back.

One reason Japan is so often compared unfavorably with Germany is that it has failed to win over hearts and minds with memorable images; it has nothing comparable to the iconic photo of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees in a gesture of repentance at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.(*3) Perhaps the biggest boost to Japan–South Korea relations in recent years was provided by the image of speed skaters Kodaira Nao and Lee Sang-hwa embracing after they took the gold and silver medals, respectively, in the women’s 500-meter final in Pyeongchang.

By the same token, a carefully chosen picture could boost the image of the Japan-US-Korea partnership. One candidate is the military drill, referred to as a hand-off, in which South Korean fighters take over from their Japanese counterparts (or vice versa) in escorting US bombers through international air space, between the Japanese and South Korean air defense identification zones. The very term hand-off, derived from American football, conveys the idea of teammates, at least from the US point of view. Although the political atmosphere may be hostile to trilateral exercises inside South Korean territory, photos and videos of a hand-off, widely disseminated by the media, could at least help facilitate a reevaluation of Japan–South Korea relations against the “bigger picture” of regional security.

The power of such imagery is underscored by the findings of a joint study in which I recently took part, together with Tago Atsushi of Kobe University and Kobayashi Tetsurō of City University of Hong Kong. The study focused on right-leaning voters in Japan and left-leaning voters in South Korea, groups that tend to oppose greater security cooperation between Japan and South Korea. We found that we were able to change their perception from predominantly negative to significantly positive merely by showing them a 38-second video (produced by the US Pacific Command) highlighting the role of US-Japan-Korea security cooperation in countering the North Korean threat.

What this tells us is that, while Japan–South Korea relations may appear hopelessly “stuck,” we do have the power to move things forward with the aid of well-thought-out PR efforts targeting key segments of the population. It is time for some smart public diplomacy on both sides.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 23, 2018. Banner photo: Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (bottom, second from right) attends the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, along with US Vice President Mike Pence (immediately to his left), South Korean President Moon Jae-in (bottom, second from left), and Kim Yo-jong (top, second from left), the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. © Jiji.)

(*2) ^ Victor D. Cha, Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle. Stanford University Press, 1999.

(*3) ^ Jennifer Lind, Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Cornell University Press, 2008.

security North Korea South Korea US