ROK-Japan relations alarm U.S.It has been axiomatic for post-war U.S. foreign policy strategy in Asia that the health of Korea-Japan bilateral relations has a direct impact on America’s position in the region. When Korea-Japan relations are tense, pressure on North Korea is diminished, other big powers are tempted to isolate the U.S.-Japan alliance, and trilateral defense cooperation necessary for the security of the Korean Peninsula falters. It’s fair to say that in the second Obama administration, one of the highest priorities in Asia policy has been to help Seoul and Tokyo find a way to improve relations. For that reason, Seoul’s harder line against Japan in various diplomatic meetings this past week came as a real shock.
When Shinzo Abe won the LDP presidency and control of the Japanese government in 2012, the Obama administration didn’t conceal its concern at his provocative statements on Japan’s culpability for wartime aggression and treatment of the people of East Asia. For some commentators in the United States, this was a moral question, but for most foreign policy professionals it was a matter of national interest that Japan not put a wedge in relations with Korea. For example, a group of leading Asia experts published a report at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2012 supporting a more confident Japanese security and foreign policy, but urging Tokyo to put a priority on relations with Korea, with particular reference to questions of history.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration sent quiet but strong signals to the new Abe administration that gratuitous Japanese gestures, such as revising the 1995 Murayama statement apologizing for the war, would have a direct impact on U.S. national interests and potentially for support for the U.S.-Japan alliance in Congress.
While some officials and experts worried that Abe would become bolder on these issues after a landslide victory in Japan’s July 2013 Upper House election, the opposite occurred. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary confirmed that the government would stick with current statements of remorse for the past; Abe and his most senior ministers did not go to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in August as some had expected; and Abe put off constitutional revision, making it clear that his highest priority would be revitalizing Japan’s economy.
Even the narrower goal of recognizing Japan’s right of collective self-defense has been delayed to next summer by Abe, an indication that the Japanese government wants to win more support from its pacifist coalition partner Komeito, and neighboring countries. The U.S. government welcomed Japan exercising its right of collective self-defense under the UN charter, as the U.S.-Japan “two-plus-two” statement indicated last week, since the main purpose would be to strengthen bilateral U.S.-Japan joint planning and operations. On the whole, it seemed that the Japanese government had heeded U.S. advice and at least returned to a status quo ante that might be the basis for steadily improving relations with Seoul.
Last week, however, the administration realized that while they had been working on Tokyo, the Korean side had dug in further. The Blue House decision to publish a detailed rebuke by President Park Geun-hye at Secretary of Defense Hagel’s request to her for improvement in ties with Tokyo after their Oct. 1 meeting was the first blow. Then reports that Park and Abe barely looked at each other during the APEC summit in Bali earlier this week revealed that the leaders’ personal chemistry would not solve the impasse. The Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese culpability and editorials attacking the U.S. for supporting Japan’s decision to move forward with the right of collective self-defense added to the complexity of the problem for Washington.
The most vexing aspect of the current impasse is that, unlike Japan-China relations, nobody in either capital seems to have a scenario for moving forward. Progressive Japanese politicians who had once been critical of Abe for his statements on history and eager to move forward with Korea now say that Abe has done his part and the ball is in Seoul’s court. Senior Korean political figures explain that once President Park has made a point of principle - in this case that Abe must do more - she rarely bends.
Americans are in no position to lecture others about such issues, given the ongoing self-destructive stand-off between the White House and Congress over the U.S. government shutdown. But the administration will have to think of something, because the current situation between Tokyo and Seoul will eventually begin to take a toll on both the U.S.-Japan and the U.S.-Korea alliances.
*The author is the senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green