Modern Diplomacy
America and the Squabbles of Its East Asian Allies

With the help of the trilateral format, Washington hopes to finally solve the problem that has been a headache for American diplomats for many decades: the long-standing conflict between Japan and South Korea and the chronic unwillingness of these two countries to cooperate directly with each other on military-political issues, Andrei Lankov writes.

On August 18, a trilateral summit of the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea was held at Camp David, the country residence of the American presidents. The final documents of the summit speak a lot about the need for cooperation between the three main democracies of the Pacific region. However, the real purpose of the summit was clear to all observers: it was aimed at strengthening military-political cooperation among the three countries, directed primarily against China, but also, albeit to a lesser extent, against North Korea and Russia.

A significant number of the summit’s decisions concerned the issues of military and political cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. In particular, decisions were made on regular joint military manoeuvres, on the creation of an intelligence exchange system, and on cooperation in security issues in cyberspace.

It is no coincidence, however, that the tripartite format was chosen for the meeting, just as it is no coincidence that such summits should become regular. With the help of the trilateral format, Washington hopes to finally solve the problem that has been a headache for American diplomats for many decades: the long-standing conflict between Japan and South Korea and the chronic unwillingness of these two countries to cooperate directly with each other on military-political issues.

Both Japan and South Korea are tied to the United States with military-political alliances that were formally established in 1960 and 1954, respectively, and in actuality existed even before that. However, despite the reality and significance of the American-South Korean and American-Japanese alliances, they remain extremely difficult in many ways.

The problems in relations between Tokyo and Seoul are often explained by the fact that, on the one hand, the Koreans cannot forget or forgive the crimes that the Japanese imperialists committed in 1910-1945, when Korea was a Japanese colony; on the other hand, the Japanese aren’t ready to sincerely apologize for these past deeds. There is some truth in these statements — Japanese rule indeed left a bad memory. However, in Taiwan, where the local inhabitants were hardly treated any better by the Japanese rulers then the Koreans, there is no serious anti-Japanese sentiment.
To understand the real roots of anti-Japanese nationalism in South Korea, it is much more important to keep in mind that at one time the South Korean elite considered Japan to be a convenient enemy, the existence of which and the memory of whose crimes could help mobilise the population under the useful banners of nationalism.

At the same time, until recently, problems in political relations with Japan should not have created problems for Seoul’s security policy. The South Korean political elite was convinced that an alliance with the United States was sufficient to ensure the country’s security. If we talk about economic relations, there have been no special problems in this area for half a century: for many decades, Japan has consistently been among the top three foreign trade partners of South Korea. Japanese concessional loans, as well as Japanese technology transferred to Korea, played a significant role in creating Korea’s modern, world-class industries.

South Korea and Japan: An Alliance Without Friendship
Kazushige Kobayashi
The bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has been a marriage of convenience, plagued by a perpetual deficit of trust and respect on both sides. Despite the fact that both nations are considered America’s primary allies in Asia-Pacific, they struggle to even agree on the name of the sea between them.

In the past 10-15 years, the issue of relations with Japan has become a point of contention in South Korean domestic politics. South Korea is a country with a stable two-party system, and, as is often the case in such systems, over time, differences between parties on fundamental issues are gradually erased. If we talk about foreign policy, then it is precisely the relations with Japan that remain among those issues on which there are still noticeable differences between the left and the right.

The leadership of the right-wing conservative camp believes that anti-Japanese nationalism, which was actively supported and cultivated by right-wing forces in the old days, has become obsolete, and that South Korea needs closer cooperation with Japan, including with respect to the military. For example, the right began to talk about the need to create a system for sharing information about North Korean missile launches in real time — the creation of such a system was announced at the August 18 summit.

On the other hand, the South Korean left continues to bet on anti-Japanese nationalism, at least in its rhetoric. The attempts of the right to improve relations with Japan are used by the left to accuse the right of insufficient patriotism.

The result of this confrontation has been a kind of pendulum in Japanese-South Korean relations. Right and left administrations replace each other regularly. In 1998-2007 and 2017-2022, South Korea was ruled by the left, while in 2008-2016 and since the spring of 2022, the right has been in power. Once in power, the right usually seeks to improve relations with Japan and reach an agreement on controversial issues. However, sooner or later, the right-wingers lose the elections, and the left-wing administrations that come to replace them work to aggravate relations with Tokyo, while rejecting the agreements that their predecessors had worked out, not without difficulty. Once again, Japan and South Korea quarrelled in 2017-2018 — as you might guess, at that time the left-nationalist administration of Moon Jae-in was in power in Seoul.

The rise to power of the right-wingers in the spring of 2022 would seem to have changed the situation: the current administration of Yoon Suk Yeol is doing everything to get as close to Japan as possible. It is characteristic that on August 15, in the traditional speech on the occasion of Independence Day, Yoon Suk Yeol abandoned the traditional invectives against Japanese imperialism and stories about its crimes. On the contrary, he spoke about the need for rapprochement with Japan.
The US has always been unhappy with the quarrels between its two main allies in East Asia. However, in the new situation, which has been created in the context of the deterioration of US-China and Russian-American relations, Washington increasingly needs to improve relations between its two main allies in East Asia. However, the United States remembers what has happened in Japanese-South Korean relations over the past quarter-century and is not optimistic about the future. Everyone understands that sooner or later the left will return to power in Seoul, after which the relations between Seoul and Tokyo will worsen again.

Under these conditions, the US has decided to try a new approach to the old problem — an approach that many experts have been talking about for several years. In Washington, the idea has become popular that the likelihood of another outbreak of the Japanese-South Korean squabble can be reduced by including Korea and Japan in a scheme of multilateral cooperation in which the United States should participate (and, of course, play first fiddle).

In the past, the South Korean left disliked the US as much as they disliked Japan, however by now there is little left of their former anti-Americanism. The rise of China, which both the left and the right are afraid of, as well as the success of the North Korean nuclear programme, have compelled South Koreans to treat the United States in a way that is beyond friendly.

Washington understands that in the future, after the left’s return to power, the administration is very likely to abandon the bilateral obligations that their conservative predecessors would take on regarding Japan. However, at the same time, the left does not want to spoil relations with the United States, and Washington hopes that the multilateral agreements, which are signed not only by the Prime Minister of Japan, but also by the President of the United States, will survive the “regime change” that will occur in Seoul sooner or later. The transformation of such summits into annual ones should also help. Are Washington’s hopes justified? Only time will tell.
Economic Statecraft
Reincarnation of the USA-Japan-South Korea Triangle
Alexander Vorontsov
Washington continues with indomitable energy to build a new global architecture of military-political alliances which are under its direct control, along the perimeter of the borders of Russia and China, uniting the security infrastructure from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean into a self-contained power infrastructure, writes Alexander Vorontsov.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.