Japan-Korea Spat Complicates US Task in Asia

Tensions between Japan and Korea have been incrementally building, reaching their height over the past couple years under the watch of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Tokyo and Seoul’s deep-rooted historical problems have thus far prevented any chance a comprehensive bilateral partnership between Washington’s two key allies in East Asia. This presents a significant obstacle for the US which is looking to coordinate between its allies in the Asia-Pacific in order to add heft to the Obama administration rebalancing strategy.

Historical Grievances

The one inescapable image coming from the 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] leaders’ summit in Bali was that of a daydreaming Japanese Prime Minister hunched over in his chair next to a visibly indignant President of South Korea. The frigid personal relationship between Abe and Park however is merely symbolic of the fractured bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea.

Indeed, ties have become so strained over the past year that Park even indicated that a summit with Abe would be “pointless.” Meanwhile, Park’s refusal to entertain a summit with Abe over the past year appears to be somewhat vindicated after Abe’s controversial – and provocative – decision to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, burial place of World War II war criminals – in late 2013.

The stumbling blocks to a Japan-Korea rapprochement are not new to most in Washington. The most important of these issues are an acceptable resolution of the “comfort women” saga, including a strong reaffirmation by Japan of its historical statements on the pain it caused Korea before and during World War II; Japan’s whitewashing of its unsavory war history through its text books; and finally managing tensions surrounding the sovereignty of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands.

In late December 2013, Abe made the controversial pilgrimage to Yasukuni shrine. Abe reportedly made his decision to visit mainly due to his personal convictions. If that wasn’t enough, Abe obstinately refused to listen to pleas from his advisors and allies to avoid the controversial visit claiming that ties with South Korea and China were already at an all-time low.

According to Yomiuri Shimbun, Abe dismissed such warnings, telling aides that “even if I pay a visit to Yasukuni, [ties with South Korea and China] won’t deteriorate further. Japan has established a good relationship with Russia and other countries aside from those two countries.”

The Yasukuni visit resulted in significant blowback. China and South Korea pointed to the trip as more ammunition for their arguments that Tokyo remains recalcitrant on coming to terms with Japan’s role in World War II. The Chinese foreign ministry even went as far as decrying Abe as “celebrating the Nazis of Asia” through his visit. Seoul used less bombast in its condemnation but still levied a thinly veiled accusation at Abe for “digging up wounds of the past.”

The move may also derail recent efforts to progress on trilateral free trade talks between the three countries. North Korea’s state news agency meanwhile, in its predictably over-the-top manner, labeled the decision as an “act of war on Asia.” But worst of all, Abe’s decision has bailed out both China and South Korea, which were receiving flak from Washington for their recent policies of aggression and isolation, respectively, towards Tokyo.

To make matter worse for Japan, the visit resulted in an unusually stern rebuke from the US which denounced the decision as “disappointing” and one that could “heighten regional tensions.”

But the visit to Yasukuni was not the only blow to diplomatic ties with Korea. Despite its consistent approach to Seoul for a bilateral summit, the Abe government made a number of gaffes and clumsy remarks that further discolored the diplomatic skies. The most harmful were those addressing historical issues.

For example, Abe helped contribute to a rocky start with Park when he heralded the relationship between his beloved grandfather – former Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi – and Park’s father, former South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The seemingly innocent sentiment betrayed the political realities and pressures that Park faces as the daughter of the former dictator – who also served in the Japanese Imperial Army. Further inflaming this comparison is the role of Kishi during World War II [accused, but acquitted, of class-A war crimes during the Tokyo Tribunal].

Abe similarly angered Seoul when he questioned the use of the term “war of aggression” to describe Japan’s role during the war. And then there was the case of Taro Aso, Abe’s deputy, who further riled Seoul when he suggested that, in looking to revise Japan’s post-war constitution, the Abe government should replicate the Nazi approach in changing the Weimar Republic’s constitution in the 1930s. Abe also had to deal with blowback from South Korea after a Japanese politician outside of his party seemingly noted approval of Japan’s military using “comfort women” during the war.

The Abe government also ratcheted up pressure on Seoul on the Dokdo-Takeshima row. In February 2013, Abe dispatched a parliamentary secretary to Shimane prefecture to attend “Takeshima Day” ceremonies.

“Given the fact that Takeshima is an inherent part of the territory of Japan, it was decided to dispatch a parliamentary secretary to attend Takeshima Day, as a means of demonstrating the government's stance on this issue,” said Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide at the same time. “The government hopes that the people of Japan will broadly pay due attention to the Takeshima issue and wishes the success of the ceremony being held today by Shimane Prefecture.”

But while the move was escalatory, it also should be viewed in context. Abe had pledged during his campaign to elevate Takeshima Day to a national event and there were some that believed he would send senior Cabinet officials to partake in the ceremony. His choice of lowering this selection to a parliamentary secretary was a concession – even if moderate – to Seoul.

The Abe government and many of its predecessors believe Japan has already taken significant and comprehensive efforts to acknowledge Seoul’s concerns on historical issues. As Gerald Curtis, long time Japan scholar at Columbia University, recently noted: “I think a lot of Japanese are really perplexed by this development.”

For example, the Kono and Murayama statements both are lucid and firm affirmations of Japan’s sincere apology for Korean atrocities both before and during World War II. Yet, while these statements are indeed solid, Abe has inspired little confidence in Seoul because of remarks on the need to revise or issue new statements on Japan’s role during the war. Curtis noted that that Japan and its neighbors are heading towards opposite ends on historical issues.

“There is a loss of memory in Japan and an intensified memory in China and Korea,” Curtis said. “The Koreans and the Chinese don’t let this history go; they think it somehow benefits them to bash Japan and its wrong. They’re helping to make the nationalist sentiment stronger in Japan.”

Importance of Strong Japan-Korea Ties for Washington

These histrionics, along with some misplaced Korean concerns on Japan’s recent security and defense reforms, have overshadowed positive diplomatic developments. Most notably, the trilateral FTA negotiations with China continued to move forward despite the absence of high-level meetings between the three states. The economic hurdles, including agricultural subsidies and intellectual property rights, remain steep but this should not discount the positive momentum.

Another example of cooperation is continued trilateral work with the US and Japan on North Korea. At the end of last year, the three parties signed a long-discussed, and much needed, trilateral information sharing agreement focused on the North’s WMD and missile programs. While the pact should be heralded, it is important to note its limitations and the failure of Tokyo and Seoul to agree to this agreement bilaterally due to perceived political sensitivities in Korea.

This political divide has significant consequences that transcend the significant economic relationship between the two. The most often pointed to is the effect on trilateral efforts with the US to maintain a united front against North Korean provocations as well as adequately preparing contingencies for potential conflict or regime collapse in the North. But there are long-term strategic implications that go beyond the deterrence of Pyongyang. For example, the broken relationship between Japan and Korea has also opened the door for stronger ties between Seoul and Beijing.

Abe’s stance on history, along with other factors such as Beijing’s disenchantment with North Korea, has further brought South Korea and China together. The absence of high-level talks between Japan and South Korea has also indirectly resulted in Beijing taking a more emboldened stance against Tokyo, as China continues to see less vocal resistance from Seoul to its provocations in the East China Sea.

Greater trilateral security cooperation between the United States, Japan, and Korea is critical for several reasons. First, this cooperation can serve to strengthen Washington’s extended deterrence commitments to both Japan and South Korea, which have a shared interest in containing future provocations from Pyongyang. Second, while not aiming to contain China, this cooperation can provide a more reliable hedge against Beijing’s efforts to exploit any fissures in the U.S. alliance network. And third, this trilateral cooperation can serve to work on non-traditional security areas –such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and Search and Rescue efforts –that will complement the US rebalance in other areas of the Asia-Pacific.

This is reprinted courtesy of The Asia Foundation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of foundation.

J. Berkshire Miller is chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group with the Pacific Forum CSIS. Miller is also a fellow on East Asia with the EastWest Institute. He regularly attends track 1.5 and track 2 dialogues across the Asia-Pacific region on security and intelligence issues. Miller is a regular contributor to several journals, magazines and newspapers on East Asian security issues including the Economist, Foreign Affairs, Forbes and Newsweek. He has also been published in other outlets including Foreign Affairs, the National Interest, Global Asia, Jane’s Intelligence Review, CNN, the East Asia Forum and the Asahi Shimbun. Contact him at: jbmllr@gmail.com.