Can Japan-Korea Ties Be Mended?

The Japan-Korea Impasse and the Security of Northeast Asia


Regional stability in East Asia is being threatened not just by a rising China and a reckless North Korea, but also by friction between Japan and South Korea. Michael Green looks at the tactical and strategic aspects of this impasse.

Increased Friction at a Dangerous Time

Historians will look back upon the current friction between Japan and South Korea perplexed at the strategic setbacks that Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo imposed on themselves at a time of growing peril in East Asia. In the summer and fall of 2019, the threats to the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances mounted. China and Russia conducted their first ever combined bomber exercises over Japan and Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zones. Instead of coordinating responses to this brazen coercion, Korea announced it would suspend the GSOMIA intelligence sharing agreement with Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea continued expanding its nuclear weapons capability and testing SLBMs in ways that should have prompted a tightly aligned US-Japan-ROK response of pressure and deterrence—yet Korea and Japan were unable to conduct even the most modest defense exchanges, while US-ROK bilateral defense exercises continued to be hampered by agreements made with North Korea at the Singapore Summit of 2018.

And then there was US President Donald Trump, who demanded that Korea agree to a stunning 500% increase in Host Nation Support (called the “Special Measures Agreement”) by December, raising the specter of a sudden presidential tweet promising the withdrawal of US forces from Korea. And instead of working together with allies in Washington to preserve this forward defense line so essential to Japan’s own security, Korean and Japanese officials visiting Washington focused primarily on winning American support for their respective positions in the fight between Seoul and Tokyo.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? One has to answer this at two levels: the tactical and the strategic. At the tactical level there is a broad consensus in Washington and other allied capitals like Canberra or London that Moon Jae-in is largely to blame. I have interacted with Moon on many occasions during my time at the White House and at CSIS. I personally do not believe that Moon is instinctively anti-Japanese, but the Blue House is full of progressive figures who intend to weaken all the structures of conservative rule in Korea, including the chaebol, the Foreign Ministry, the US-ROK alliance, and relations with Japan. In a sense the progressives’ overall assault on conservative institutions is similar to Ozawa Ichirō’s attack on conservative institutions during the 2009–10 administration of Hatoyama Yukio, when the targets were Keidanren, Japan’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the US-Japan alliance.

Korean Blows to the Relationship with Japan

Moon has either permitted or facilitated four attacks on the Japan-ROK relationship. The first was the Korean Supreme Court decision holding that plaintiffs can sue Japanese companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries despite the Korean government’s waiving of all reparations and claims in the 1965 normalization treaty with Japan. Korean officials claim that the agreement violated Korean citizens’ rights, and the case was complicated by the investigation of the prior Supreme Court chief justice and the fact that Koreans on the left consider the 1963–79 Park Chung-Hee government that made the treaty illegitimate and undemocratic.

Yet while many governments and citizens around the world may feel some broad sympathy for South Korea as the victim of imperialism, no government will support the contention that diplomatic agreements can be overturned so easily. Indeed, cases in the United States, the Netherlands, and other countries against Japanese corporations for wartime damages have all been rejected in amicus briefs from the governments explaining that all such reparations were waived under peace treaties with Japan. The Moon government prepared no such amicus brief, arguing with some validity that the Supreme Court had already ruled the 1965 Treaty as a violation of citizens’ rights, but nevertheless the government could have taken a clearer stand than it did.

The second blow to Japan-ROK relations was the radar lock-on incident in late 2018. The incident involved a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force P-1 and a ROK Navy destroyer; both governments claim the other has misrepresented the incident. On this issue the US government has been somewhat more circumspect, rather than trying to arbitrate or investigate the incident, but the encounter and subsequent blame game between Seoul and Tokyo added further to the deterioration of relations.

The third blow from Moon’s government was the decision to suspend the Japan-Korea GSOMIA agreement. This move elicited the first strong response from the Trump administration, with Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver and other senior officials calling on Seoul to reverse its decision. This stronger US response took place because GSOMIA directly impacts American security interests—and because the US secretary of defense was told by his Korean counterpart that GSOMIA would not be affected by political troubles between Seoul and Tokyo, immediately before the Blue House overrode its own Defense Ministry and forced a suspension. US officials have been clear that GSOMIA will have a negative operational impact since US officers will now be forced to convey military information between Japan and Korea through the Trilateral Information Security Agreement—a dangerous and cumbersome mechanism that will prove too slow in response to missile launches and close to useless in cases where North Korean torpedoes or missiles are detected heading toward Korean ships by Japanese forces when US forces are not around to play the middleman.

And the fourth blow was Moon’s threat to withdraw from the 2015 agreement between Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and then President Park Geun-hye regarding the comfort women issue. Of the four moves, however, the Supreme Court decision has been the most damaging and the most vexing.

Japan’s moves, meanwhile—particularly the removal of Korea from the export control “white list” for certain technologies—have been based on actual violations and are consistent with international rules, even though there is not a single official in Washington who believes the argument from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry that the timing of the decision is entirely unrelated to Korean steps.

For all these reasons, the consensus is that the Moon government bears primary tactical blame for the current deterioration in Japan-Korea relations. Indeed, the Moon government is losing its confrontation with Japan on a tactical level and finds itself in the weaker political, economic and diplomatic position as the dispute continues.

Different Thinking Needed on the Strategic Front

But what of the strategic level? Japan may win the diplomatic, economic, and political collision with Korea, but the more important competition in Asia by far is the strategic competition with China. And the ultimate winner of the Japan-Korea confrontation is clearly Beijing, which seeks a weakening of US bilateral alliances as the sine qua non for Chinese hegemony in Asia and Xi Jinping’s vision—articulated in April 2014—for an Asia where security is managed by Asians, meaning by China, without the United States.

Put differently, the most effective way that the United States and Japan can impose a cost on China for its gray-zone coercion in the South China Sea is to demonstrate that Beijing’s coercion is causing America’s bilateral alliances in Asia to metastasize into a collective security organization that would contain Chinese hegemonic ambitions. That warning signal is being sent by the US-Japan-Australia-India Quad to some extent, but for Beijing the Korean Peninsula is the most strategically sensitive region—as it has been for Japan historically and should be in the future. And on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing thinks it is winning. The same is true for the North Korean nuclear threat, where the most effective mechanism to pressure China to contain North Korea is tightening US-Japan-ROK defense cooperation. That is not something Beijing fears right now—and not surprisingly, Chinese implementation of sanctions on the North is slacking as a result.

This is not to say that Japan’s position is wrong with respect to the Korean Supreme Court decision on international legal grounds or technically mistaken with respect to export control rules. But these should not be the totality of Japan’s Korea policy given China’s longer-term hegemonic ambitions over the peninsula. It should be possible for the Japanese government to maintain a principled position on the respective issues at play while seeking creative ways to signal good will toward the Korean people, speak out on the importance of the US-Korea alliance to Japan, or emphasize less political areas for enhanced cooperation such as development, women’s empowerment, or research on 5G technologies, where any non-Huawei system will be stronger if NEC and Samsung continue their cutting edge work together. It is important to remember that many Koreans deeply lament the current state of affairs, including the military establishment, the chaebol, and many conservative politicians. Japan’s stance should be aimed at empowering those forces.

The feeling among prominent LDP leaders is that the best thing to do is just freeze relations and wait for Moon to leave office. It is hard to understand this position given that Japan is skillfully proposing unconditional dialogue with Iran, Russia, and even North Korea—states that all pose significantly greater challenges to the international community and Japan’s own security than democratic South Korea. The same wisdom of investing in relations despite difficulties could be applied to Korea.

The Need to Stick With Korea

Experts in Washington are generally stunned that the Trump administration has demonstrated so little interest in taking steps that would prevent the further deterioration of Japan-Korea relations—beyond calling most recently on Seoul not to suspend GSOMIA. Career officials in the Departments of State and Defense have been unable to convince their bosses to get involved—perhaps reflecting President Trump’s own disinterest in forming a team of allies to advance US interests overseas (he clearly prefers dividing countries and pressuring them independently over transactional issues).

There is also an ideological dislike of Moon’s progressive government within the Trump administration and a concomitant affection for Japan’s conservative government. I know that feeling well, since my boss, George W. Bush, had a close and trusting relationship with Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and a scratchy ideological relationship with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. But President Bush went out of his way to endure President Roh’s wobbly attitude toward Pyongyang and frequent criticism of the United States and Japan because he understood that US geopolitical interests meant we needed to keep Korea on our side.

And Korea is on our side. Korean public opinion of China has deteriorated with Beijing’s boycott of Korean companies over the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense systems in South Korea to defend against the growing North Korean missile threat. The Korean public supports the alliance with the United States by a large majority. And Koreans share with the United States and Japan a commitment to democratic norms.

It may be that Japan cannot make progress with Korea as long as Moon Jae-in is President—or at least before the April 2020 National Assembly elections in Seoul, but that strikes me as a surprisingly passive attitude at a time when China and North Korea seek to neutralize South Korea and then focus all their respective firepower on the US-Japan alliance. The Chinese and North Koreans are not taking a time out until Moon is gone—and so neither should Japan or the United States. The other factor requiring urgency is President Trump’s clear interest in pulling troops off of the Korean Peninsula, combined with the danger of the Special Measures Agreement negotiations going badly and the president declaring in a third summit with Kim Jong-un that he has achieved peace and will pull the troops out. This would be disastrous for Japan. The vast majority of members of the US Congress would oppose the president in this scenario—but they would be better positioned to do so if Japan and Korea were speaking with one voice.

Reaching for a Compromise

As I speak with Japanese and Korean business, military, and diplomatic leaders who are deeply committed to restoring better bilateral relations, I consistently hear quiet support for a new otoshidokoro—a mutually acceptable point of compromise between two sides that have been at loggerheads so far—even though few are prepared to explain this publicly. The otoshidokoro would have three elements, two of which would involve the United States. Number one: The United States, Japan, and Korea would organize a trilateral export control meeting to help the Korean government put in place measures that would allow full return to the white list. While this could notionally be done on a bilateral basis, the US role would be politically useful. Number two: The United States, Japan, and Korea would convene a senior-level trilateral intelligence policy meeting to improve GSOMIA and give Korea a face-saving way to maintain the agreement beyond the mid-November deadline. Number three: Korea would form a wisemen’s committee to study the overall wartime forced labor issue (a proposal by the distinguished former Korean diplomat Wi Sung-lac) that would buy time for passions to calm and give the courts in Korea a reason to hold off on distributing Japanese assets to the plaintiffs. Eventually, that group would do well to propose a funding scheme for the plaintiffs from the Korean government and industry (something supported in much of the Korean private sector) in parallel with a voluntary fund that Japanese individuals, foundations, or companies could choose to contribute to if they wanted in order to strengthen bilateral understanding.

I do not see any political leader in Seoul or Tokyo taking the risk of proposing this way forward in the near term. It may be that the best that can be done for now is a strategy of kicking the can down the road to at least forestall the highly damaging next step of distributing Japanese assets—an escalation that could only invite Japanese retaliation and further escalation. But passivity should not be an option.

(Banner photo: South Korean President Moon Jae-in, at right, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō hold talks at a New York hotel on September 25, 2018. The two leaders have not held a summit meeting since then. © Yonhap News/Aflo.)

East Asia South Korea Japan-Korea relations