The Next Steps for U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateralism
Troubled relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan have been a perennial obstacle for trilateral cooperation between the United States and its two allies in Northeast Asia. Many disputes date back to the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, but ROK-Japan relations have chilled further in recent years. Olivia Truesdale interviewed Jennifer Lind (Dartmouth University) to assess the current status of the bilateral relationship and explore potential steps forward for U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateralism.
What is the outlook for the trilateral relationship between the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan?
In many ways the relationship between Japan and South Korea is close and very positive (e.g., in trade, science and technology, education, popular culture, and so forth). However, they engage in much less security cooperation than the United States would hope and less than many observers would expect. A productive trilateral security relationship between these rich, technologically advanced, liberal U.S. allies has always been a U.S. goal. American officials and diplomats speak persuasively about how well-functioning trilateral relations would benefit all three countries.
Japan and South Korea, though, see things differently. Tokyo appears most worried about a maritime threat from China’s increased assertiveness in East Asia—particularly, related to its territorial claim to the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China). And dating back to the years after World War II, Japan has always been horrified at the idea of being drawn into a war on the Korean Peninsula.
For its part, Seoul is most worried about a ground and WMD threat from North Korea. It does not have significant territorial disputes with Beijing, and China has become South Korea’s most important economic partner. South Korea also highly values China as a key actor in managing North Korea. All of this creates a delicate situation for Seoul, which is caught in the middle (as the Koreans would say, “a shrimp amongst whales”) between neighboring China and longtime ally the United States. As I have previously argued, South Korea can reassure Beijing that it is not balancing against China by distancing itself from Japan. In short, observers often characterize Japan and South Korea as having shared interests, and thus see their lack of strategic cooperation as perplexing. However, the extent to which either of these is true is debatable.
The ROK-Japan relationship has long been tense, but it appears to be getting even more contentious. What factors are exacerbating the tensions in the relationship? Why are relations worse today than in the past?
Tensions are indeed high right now. The events that Koreans remember, and the anger and hurt that they feel when Japan denies or downplays those events, are very real. Yet across time there has been huge variation in the extent to which South Korean leaders have chosen to emphasize these issues rather than adopt a more forward-looking, cooperative approach toward Japan. For example, toward the end of the Park Geun-hye administration, the government concluded an agreement with Japan on the “comfort women” issue.
Following Park’s more pragmatic approach, we see under liberal Moon Jae-in a stronger emphasis on historical issues and a lack of concern for how this sours relations with Tokyo. In fact, under his leadership, the ROK seems to be taking the position that the 1965 treaty did not settle reparations claims. Sparked by a court decision, it is considering seizing some assets of Japanese companies in South Korea as reparations for forced labor during World War II. While a decision to do so has been delayed so far, if South Korea goes through with this plan, it would send relations with Japan into a tailspin. An expropriation carried out in the name of historical justice could also do much wider damage to South Korean trade relations.
Why are relations so bad now? Domestic politics are a key factor. Conservative governments are typically more concerned about security, and so tend to be more willing to adopt a pragmatic approach in the interest of promoting military cooperation. But the international environment matters too. At times of heightened threat, when there is advantageous cooperation on the line, countries are more likely to be willing to put the past behind them. According to this view, the ROK and Japan will have the most productive relations, with minimal focus on history, when there is a conservative South Korean government and a more threatening or unstable North Korea.
What impact might Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden resignation have on the bilateral relationship?
Abe is known for his conservative nationalism whereby he prefers to emphasize the proud aspects of Japan’s past while downplaying the troubling aspects. He sometimes crossed the line between promoting a positive history and denying past atrocities, which was highly damaging to relations with South Korea as well as other countries. For example, early on, Abe undermined the landmark 1993 Kono Statement in which Japan had accepted government culpability in its program of wartime sexual slavery—an issue very important to Koreans. Abe also harmed relations with South Korea and other countries in 2012 by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, in which a handful of convicted war criminals are honored.
Japan’s increased concerns about China suggest that its leaders should be increasingly interested in coalition building, including through maintaining good relations with South Korea. A smart leader would thus avoid divisive gestures and statements about Japan’s wartime past and instead seek to promote a narrative that other countries could sign on to. Abe himself seemed to realize this. Later in his term he abstained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, and upon the 70th anniversary of World War II, he gave a conciliatory speech that followed the model of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s approach toward greater acknowledgment of past violence. Abe’s successor would be wise to follow this path.
What is the United States’ role in mediating tensions between the ROK and Japan or encouraging healing from historical grievances?
Given the sensitivities involved, I do not see a heavy-handed American role as useful or welcome. But the United States can act as a friend and major stakeholder in trilateral relations, and as a country with a lot to both contribute and learn on issues of historical reconciliation.
In the military sphere, the United States, as the key ally for both countries, can provide leadership by identifying shared threats and challenges and can point out areas where Japan-ROK cooperation would make all three countries safer. For example, Washington pressured Moon not to abandon an intelligence-sharing plan after his announcement to do so. In the economic and other realms, too, U.S. officials can highlight the gains from cooperation and emphasize the costs incurred from failures to cooperate. In terms of promoting greater understanding and encouraging a more reconciliatory narrative, American civil society and academia can partner with people in Japan and South Korea to engage in research and dialogue.
How would you contrast the sentiments in South Korea and Japan about the forced labor and “comfort women” issues?
Overall, in South Korea we see a strong victim identity, whereas in Japan there is a lot of resistance to atonement. This makes for quite an unhealthy combination. As Victor Cha has written, “anti-Japanism” is a big part of Korean nationalism, and hurt and anger toward Japan make up a key aspect of South Korean identity. The past is also a highly complex landscape for Koreans to navigate because of Koreans who benefited from or worked for the Japanese occupation or were complicit in Japanese atrocities.
As for Japan, its war memory is also complex and hotly contested. Liberals and conservatives struggle for control of the narrative presented in textbooks, memorials, and so on. As happens in most countries, liberals tend to want to emphasize and so learn from the wrongs the country has done, whereas conservatives ideologically favor a more “patriotic” history that plays down past human rights violations and encourages national pride. For the first few decades after the war, Japanese leaders glorified Japan’s empire as bringing prosperity to Asia, specifically to Korea. This is common among great powers: consider, for example, the idea of mission civilisatrice that glorified European colonization, or Manifest Destiny in the United States.
Over time, a combination of factors (e.g., liberal Japanese who encouraged a historical reckoning, U.S. influence, engagement with South Korea) pushed Japan to do more to face its past violence. This reckoning with the past has grown over time but has been highly uneven—proceeding in fits and starts, with some Japanese leaders and educators committed to truth-telling, while others advocate what they see as a more patriotic approach—sometimes even actively denying past events. All in all, we see complex national debates, with a lot of passion on both sides.
How do memories of the past serve as a barrier or asset to recovering a bilateral relationship?
Observers of Japan and South Korea often say that the past stands in the way of bilateral cooperation and that the two countries need to solve their history problems before they can cooperate. I disagree. As I have shown in my research, when countries have a strategic need to get along, leaders figure out how to do so—even if they have trauma in their past. Cooperation requires figuring out a common narrative (as mediator Fred Korman describes it, “Not your story or my story, but a ‘third story’”) that is acceptable to both sides.
In this way, many countries have engaged in political, economic, and military cooperation despite past trauma. West Germany and its Western European neighbors agreed to cooperate in the 1950s, only a few years after the Germans had rampaged across Europe and before they began to atone. Japan and the United States also became allies not long after fighting a vicious war. They began with narrow cooperation (basically between Washington and the Liberal Democratic Party) that over time expanded into a true national reconciliation.
In sum, countries that have a strategic need to cooperate negotiate a narrative of the past that does not stand in the way of cooperation. Japan and South Korea’s failure to do this tells us that they don’t perceive a strategic need to cooperate. As Victor Cha has argued, at times when they have perceived such a need, Seoul and Tokyo have successfully figured out ways of moving relations forward.
Can historical grievances between South Korea and Japan be settled in a way that satisfies the Korean community and builds trust in the relationship? What policies could Japan, South Korea, and the United States enact to build trust trilaterally?
Japan and South Korea will cooperate when they believe they have a vital reason to do so. Each side will compromise on historical issues when it feels this is important to furthering the national interest, as we saw in the 2015 agreement, which involved significant compromises on both sides.
What might precipitate this? First, Chinese behavior may grow so threatening that South Korea abandons its hedge and decides to join the Indo-Pacific side. South Korea’s decision to stay out of the Quad, despite being a close U.S. ally and a democracy, is notable. A South Korean decision to “quint” the Quad would require compromise on historical issues on the part of both Seoul and Tokyo.
Second, the United States might decide to withdraw from its East Asian alliances. This scenario sounds dramatic, but recent years have brought big changes to the U.S. strategic situation. China is growing more powerful, so flashpoints between the United States and China (e.g., Taiwan and territorial disputes with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines) become much more dangerous. Furthermore, North Korea is developing the ability to attack U.S. cities with nuclear weapons. This should lead to a debate in the United States about whether the dangers of the alliance with the ROK now outweigh the benefits, particularly given South Korean hedging toward China.
Because of these monumental strategic changes—even without bringing in what many people see as mismanagement of U.S. alliances by the Trump administration—it is unsurprising that U.S. allies should question the United States’ long-term commitment to the region. The key point here is that at times of growing doubts about U.S. staying power, Japan and South Korea have sought to improve their relations and make progress toward historical reconciliation.
In a debate I once participated in, my take on the future of Japan-ROK relations was called the “optimistic” view. Perhaps it is indeed optimistic to identify a set of circumstances under which we could see progress in historical reconciliation between Japan and South Korea. Yet those circumstances would mean we would be in a very different and much more dangerous East Asia.
Jennifer Lind is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. She is also a Faculty Associate in the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. She is the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (2008) and is currently writing a book about how countries rise to great power.
This interview was conducted by Olivia Truesdale, an intern with NBR’s Political and Security Affairs group.