In late November, 2019, Japan and the Republic of Korea reached an agreement that their intelligence-sharing agreement GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) should be extended, while other contentious bilateral issues were to be handled in a more thoughtful manner. The respective foreign ministers also agreed to work toward a summit between Prime Minister Abe and President Moon on the side-lines of a trilateral meeting with China in December.
For Washington this was welcome news, a situation where two U.S. allies are at each other’s throats is not in the interest of regional stability and plays into the hands of both China and North Korea. However, it did not take long until the two sides began to take swipes at each other again. After having agreed upon in what manner the agreements should be announced and when, shortly after the initial agreement, South Korea claimed that Japan broke that promise and that Tokyo intentionally leaked and distorted information about the agreement, a claim that Japan vehemently denies.
The bilateral dispute has led to another boycott of Japanese goods in South Korea and a widespread “Korea fatigue” in Japan. Japanese decision makers have made statements to the effect that there is no use in continuing to hope for an improvement in bilateral relations, since South Korea keeps returning to complaints about Japanese actions during the colonial period, whatever Japan tries to do in building a state of normalcy in the relations. It is better, the Japanese argument went, to simply ignore Korea if no change of the ROK position is in sight and instead try to structure Japan’s future foreign, security and economic policies in a reality where South Korea is considered as a non-entity.
In the past there have been many ups and downs in the bilateral relations between the two Asian democracies and U.S. allies, but what has been particularly upsetting for the Japanese is the decision by the South Korean Supreme Court in October 2018 which ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation to pay huge compensation to South Korean workers for forced labor and unpaid wages during the war. Not long after, a similar ruling was applied to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
On the Korean side there have been similar expressions of frustration and claims that Japan never seems to realize what it has done in the past. President Moon Jae-in has even stated that “we will never again lose to Japan”, as if present tensions were caused by a Japanese attempt to return to its former colonial policies. The President has also claimed that the Japanese government has a clear intention “to attack and hurt our economy”.
Pressure from Washington
Although several representatives of the U.S. government have on a number of occasions repeated how it is in the interest of regional stability for the two important Asian democracies to bury their grievances and instead work on improving relations, mutual bitterness has been allowed to fester and gotten the upper hand. The U.S. ambassador to the ROK, Harry Harris, recently stated in an interview that the termination of the GSOMIA with Japan would affect America’s ability to defend South Korea, which “is our treaty obligation to your country”. He has also claimed that the ROK has elevated the bilateral conflict with Japan “into the security realm and … now it affects the U.S. and our ability to defend Korea and puts our troops at risk … that is why we reacted quickly and strongly in expressing disappointment at Seoul’s decision.”
President Trump, on the other hand, has largely focused on dialogue with North Korea. He has also, in various ways, threatened both Japan and the ROK with significant tariffs on their export products unless they give in to U.S. demands for new bilateral trade agreements. The U.S. president is said to have demanded a 500 percent increase in the ROK’s economic contribution to the stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea, a demand that at least temporarily has led to a breakdown of bilateral talks on the issue. Japan has faced a similar huge invoice, which would have serious implications for Japan if it were to honor it. These demands have already created resentment in the public opinion of both South Korea and Japan, and a strengthening of the negative views on the existence of American military bases in these countries. If the number of American troops would be reduced as a result of failed negotiations it would benefit North Korea, which has argued for years that the U.S. military presence in the region is an obstacle to peace.
The unstable situation thus created by the Japanese-ROK quarrel is probably also welcomed by China and Russia. Lack of a common Japanese-Korean security policy and strains in their defense cooperation do not necessarily create room for Chinese and Russian expansion in the Northeast Asian region, but by fanning tensions between the two U.S. allies, China and Russia can certainly undermine U.S. strategies and make it more difficult for Japan and South Korea to act in tandem. As if to make a case in point a Russian surveillance aircraft in July 2019 violated the airspace over the Takeshima / Dokdo islands, which are claimed by both Japan and the ROK, not once but twice. This incident led to South Korean warplanes firing hundreds of warning shots at the aircraft. Russia and China have also practiced joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan/East Sea.
Grave Consequences Ahead?
If Japan and South Korea should continue to undermine their bilateral relations after having been close to finding ways to reconcile, it would be a development that unfortunately could coincide with a return to a more aggressive policy on the part of North Korea. Kim Jong-un has repeatedly said that if a deal with the U.S. cannot be reached before the end of the year, North Korea would lose its patience and end its conciliatory approach. It has already returned to a more aggressive tone in its official statements.
All this, in combination with potential Chinese and Russian ambitions to exploit a coming regional volatility, make it hard to see anything but more uncertainty and instability in Northeast Asia in the coming year. If there was more synergy between the regional leaders, we may have seen talks about reconciliation, cooperation, common interests, global challenges and “future oriented relations”, however, with the current administrations this is far from the case.