The Deterioration of Relations Between Japan and South Korea and Security in Northeast Asia

The South Korean government does not understand that the American military commitment in East Asia cannot work effectively without security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, even if the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo continues to be tense, writes Yuichi Hosoya, professor at Keio University in Japan.

There are three key elements that we need to focus on in order to understand the current deterioration of the relationship between Japan and South Korea.  First, Seoul’s Moon Jae-in government is distancing itself from previous Conservative administrations.  President Moon tends to believer that the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and other agreements with Japan, including with regards to former comfort women, do not represent the sentiments of the Korean people.

Democratic Conflicts: Japan, South Korea, and the Alignment of Distrust
Kazushige Kobayashi
It is ironic that bilateral agreements between Japan and China have been more stable, because Chinese leadership rarely changes, and when it does, the continuity is (more or less) assured by the hegemony of the Communist Party. This is one of the reasons why Tokyo is not so enthusiastic about the prospect of democratization in China, because Chinese democratization is likely to replicate the ongoing problem of Japanese-Korean relations in a yet larger scale

Second, President Moon, under the progressive left-wing government, feels that they ought to represent the Korean people, not major firms or elites. Therefore, they assume that the previous Korean settlements with Japan have not sufficiently reflected the sentiments of the victimized people. Third, as Korean left-wing activists are basically nationalists who prioritise the unification of the Korean peninsula, some of these left-wingers in the Blue House seemingly consider the GSOMIA and the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation to be a barrier to future national unification.  Additionally, Japan’s government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assumes that the South Korean government does not sufficiently respect the rule of law, as it has easily neglected or brushes aside previous bilateral agreements.

It is reported that senior American officials are irritated by the fact that Moon’s government does not understand that American military commitment in East Asia cannot work effectively without the GSOMIA between Japan and South Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed disappointment regarding the South Korean government’s recent decision to abandon the GSOMIA.  While US Army forces are based in South Korea, a large proportion of American naval and air power together with US Marine Corps forces are stationed at US bases in Japan.  The US Army forces in South Korea need support from its Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.  President Moon and his advisors did not understand that the GSOMIA is an indispensable part of the American command structure in Northeast Asia. 

To maintain security in the region, the American government needs to reaffirm that its military force is willing to stay in the region. President Donald Trump should not send a wrong signal that the US is leaving the region.  Second, Japan and South Korea need to recognise that the two powers are major allies of the US, and they need to cooperate in order to restore peace and stability in the region, at a time when North Korea is still willing to instigate provocations.

Although the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo continues to be tense, each of the countries sends the other millions of tourists and visitors every year.  At the cultural and social level, the relationship between the two countries basically remains friendly, and young people do not care much about the aforementioned political tensions.  There are several reasons why we should remain optimistic and that the two countries may soon begin to repair the damage done by their respective governments in recent years.  The countries’ diplomats and military officers largely maintain friendly exchanges, and they share a basic understanding regarding regional affairs in Northeast Asia.

Just Another Trade War? Tensions Drive Wedge Between Japan and South Korea
Irina Korgun
The trade dispute between Seoul and Tokyo is starting to resemble a full-blown trade war. The restrictions imposed by Tokyo will push Seoul to further increase technological self-reliance, and attention will be paid to those sectors which continue to be reliant upon Japan.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.