Japan and South Korea in the Era of Trumpian Diplomacy


Kimura Kan examines the widening rift between Japan and South Korea against the backdrop of domestic political currents and the erosion of traditional alliances under Donald Trump.

On July 1, 2019, the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō announced that it was tightening restrictions on exports of semiconductor-manufacturing chemicals to South Korea. While the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry insisted that the new controls were a response to security concerns and had been under consideration for some time, there is little doubt that the real impetus was Tokyo’s ire over Seoul’s diplomatic handling of recent rulings by South Korean courts ordering Japanese corporations to compensate Koreans for forced labor before and during World War II.

There was much speculation in the media regarding the timing of the announcement, which came in the midst of campaigning for the July 21 House of Councillors election. While this is scarcely a bread-and-butter issue for the average Japanese voter, it may have had the effect of energizing Abe’s own base, centered on right-leaning nationalists. Certainly the announcement did not hurt the ruling Liberal Democratic party; a majority of voters surveyed in various pre-election opinion polls voiced their support for the policy.

The problem is that popular support for punitive measures like this could end up limiting the government’s options and its ability to hammer out a constructive solution. Encouraged by hardline public sentiment, the Abe cabinet is gearing up to remove South Korea from its “white list” of favored trading partners. This will intensify anti-Japanese feeling in South Korea and add steam to the boycott underway there. At this point, the two countries seem headed toward a serious rupture, with no resolution in sight.

Why Now?

Why have relations between Japan and South Korea deteriorated so rapidly in recent months?

First, we need to keep in mind that South Korea has always clung to the position that the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, which marked the beginning of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, was illegal from its inception (something the Japanese government has never acknowledged). This is a basic tenet of the national ideology, as suggested by the preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, which specifically references the March First Movement (an early uprising against Japan’s colonial rule). It was also the basis for the South Korean Supreme Court’s October 2018 ruling on forced labor.

Yet while officially embracing this interpretation of history, successive South Korean administrations have worked to keep the lid on claims to which that view naturally gives rise. Given South Korea’s heavy dependence on Japanese aid, investment, and trade, along with Japan’s important role in regional security, the stakes were simply too high to risk a serious rupture with Tokyo.

But South Korea has developed rapidly over the past few decades, and Japan no longer looms as large. The prevailing view among South Koreans today seems to be that the nation can maintain its economic vitality and international prestige even if it incurs Japan’s displeasure. It can afford to stand up to Tokyo.

A public opinion poll conducted on July 3 by the South Korean research outfit Realmeter found that only one-fourth of all South Koreans see negotiations with Japan as the best answer to the new export curbs. Among supporters of President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party, that share is considerably smaller—a mere 5%. Conscious of this sentiment, President Moon has repeatedly denounced Japan for its unilateral action.

Moreover, at a time of increasing political polarization in South Korea, this seems to be one of the few points on which both sides agree. The conservative media and the opposition parties may insist that President Moon bears some blame for the current crisis and rail against his “inaction,” but no one is defending Tokyo or calling for compromise.

Big Business Muzzled

Another reason Seoul has become less conciliatory toward Japan of late is that South Korea’s big corporations have lost much of their political and social clout. A survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries, South Korea’s most influential business association, found that almost half of its members (48%) favored “diplomatic dialogue” with Japan to address the current crisis. This is only to be expected, given that the export curbs will directly impact businesses’ bottom line.

The problem is that industry lacks the wherewithal to sway even its traditional conservative allies, let alone the progressive ruling party. The country’s business community forfeited much of its influence in the wake of the scandal that brought down the administration of President Park Geun-hye, which was found to have taken bribes from some of South Korea’s biggest corporate groups. As a result, warnings about the economic impact of the export restrictions have been relatively muted.

Trump and the Rise of Strong-Arm Diplomacy

But it is also possible to see this latest turn in Japan–South Korea relations as a reflection of larger trends in international diplomacy. In the foreign media, Tokyo’s export curbs have been compared to the tactics of US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly used economic coercion in an effort to bring other countries into line.

Is Abe simply borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook? The reality, I think, is more complex. Through his coercive, unilateral approach to economic and political disputes, Trump has undermined the authority of such multilateral frameworks as the World Trade Organization and fostered a climate in which other governments feel justified in behaving similarly. In fact, the WTO has found that Group of 20 countries imposed a record number of new trade restrictions during 2018, and such unilateral measures have continued to proliferate at an alarming rate. In this sense, at least, the Japanese government seems to be in step with international trends.

In another sense, however, both Tokyo and Seoul have missed a crucial aspect of Trumpian diplomacy.

From the start, there seems to have been an assumption among the Japanese that the Trump administration would take Tokyo’s side in the current dispute. Although both Japan and South Korea are allies of the United States, the conventional wisdom here is that Abe has gained the advantage by building a strong personal relationship with Trump, while the Moon administration has stumbled and is finding itself increasingly isolated. The Japanese were mystified, therefore, when Seoul actively sought Washington’s mediation in the trade dispute.

But the Moon administration has a completely different take on things. It views itself as a vital partner in Trump’s bid to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem. That diplomatic initiative is still alive, as evidenced by Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un on June 30 (a day before Japan announced its export curbs). Moreover, some government figures in Seoul speak dismissively of the relationship between Abe and Trump, noting that Tokyo was caught off guard by Trump’s initial decision to meet directly with Kim. In short, many South Koreans are skeptical of Tokyo’s claim to have outmaneuvered Seoul in wooing the Trump administration. As a result, both Seoul and Tokyo keep upping the ante in the expectation that Washington will ultimately settle the dispute in their favor.

The Irrelevance of Alliances

This perception gap between Japan and South Korea is secondary to a shared misperception concerning the Trump administration’s basic approach to security in Northeast Asia. Trump has consistently minimized the importance of Japan and South Korea to US geopolitical strategy—most recently on the eve of the Osaka G20 summit, by complaining about the “unfair” burden of the Japan-US security arrangements. As far as the current US administration is concerned, neither bilateral alliance is engraved in stone. Washington’s stance toward one country or another depends entirely on its own interests in the situation at hand.

Nonetheless, Japan and South Korea continue to act as if each were the linchpin of Washington’s Northeast Asia policy. As they see it, the Trump administration will back the country that it regards as more essential to its grand design—assuming that such a design exists. They are competing for the favor of a White House that no longer exists. Their confusion is understandable; after all, it was barely four years ago that the administration of President Barack Obama, anxious to shore up trilateral security cooperation in the region, brokered an agreement between Tokyo and Seoul to resolve the “comfort women” dispute.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is not similarly motivated. And so, the game of “chicken” between Tokyo and Seoul continues. Ultimately, we may be witnessing the final chapter in a long era of Northeast Asian security cooperation centered on the United States and its bilateral alliances with Japan and South Korea.

What will emerge in its stead? Will Seoul cozy up to Beijing, while the US-Japan alliance assumes the full burden of regional security? Such a scenario is unlikely.

Rather, the shape of things to come can be inferred from the Trump administration’s recent response to attacks on oil tankers (including one belonging to a Japanese company) in the Strait of Hormuz. On July 9, Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, unveiled a US plan to put together a “coalition of the willing” to safeguard commercial shipping in the waters off Iran and Yemen.

Foreshadowing this announcement was a tweet posted by Trump on June 24. Specifically citing China and Japan (in that order), Trump asked why the United States is “protecting the shipping lanes for other countries” at a time when America itself has no need of Middle Eastern oil. Tellingly, the statement erases any distinction between China and Japan (a US ally) as countries meriting the protection of the United States.

Under the reign of Trumpian diplomacy, America’s longtime allies are losing their favored status. The progress of the latest flare-up between Tokyo and Seoul reflects this larger and more troubling trend. It may be time to reframe the bilateral dispute with these broader issues in mind.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: South Korean President Moon Jae-in [front, second from left] and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō [front, second from right] at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, June 29, 2019. © Jiji.)

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