Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rapprochement between Korea and Japan? Don't hold your breath.

My very first post on this blog was about how Korea and Japan can both improve their bilateral relations with one another. For those who don’t wish to read the whole thing, it came down to one essential idea – “Don’t feed the trolls.” It was my first post and it was a somewhat lighthearted attempt at writing about a complex issue between two countries whose historical relationship with one one another has had more downs than ups.

Although Seoul-Tokyo relations have always been thorny, it has taken a turn for the worse and has not gotten any better since 2012 when President Lee Myung-bak became the first sitting Republic of Korea president to have visited Dokdo.


Since then, Japanese lawmakers’ annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government’s attempt at historical revisionism, the issue over the euphemistically called comfort women, Japan’s claim about Dokdo being part of its territory, its increase in defense spending, and the possibility of reforming Japan’s pacifist Constitution have done nothing to help to improve Seoul-Tokyo relations.

Furthermore, Abenomics, which is just a Japanese name for Keynesian economics (it is Japan’s attempt at jump-starting its economy via monetary and fiscal stimulus packages), which has had little affect on improving Japan’s economy but has had significant negative effects on Korea’s economy, has exacerbated matters even further.

For its part, Korea has done little to help matters either. Until recently, President Park has refused to meet with Prime Minister Abe until he has expressed “sincerity” in regards to the issue of comfort women despite the fact that both leaders had been elected to their respected offices for a year. She has since reaffirmed that she would not meet Prime Minister Abe again.

Roboseyo has written a thoughtful piece about Korea’s desire for Japan’s “sincerity” on the issue (though it is most likely not a popular one among Koreans).



Secondly, Koreans have been insisting that the Sea of Japan be renamed the East Sea; and have begun to include American state legislatures over this matter. Furthermore, the construction of a statue of Ahn Jung-geun in China, of all places, cannot be seen as anything else besides Korea’s willingness to do as much as it can to sabotage relations with Japan. Whereas Japan may be being blithe about its history and the feelings of its neighboring countries, Korea, for its part, seems to be showing all of the classic symptoms of PCSD (Post-Colonial Stress Disorder).

In a supreme example of unreasonable emotionalism, public outrage forced Korean peacekeepers in South Sudan to return 10,000 rounds of ammunition to Japanese Defense Forces after the commanding Korean officer asked the Japanese commander for ammunition when the Korean peacekeepers there faced an imminent threat from local militias. Apparently Koreans prefer to see their own soldiers placed in harm’s way than to show even a bit of cooperation with Japan.

Though it is more than likely that President Obama has various agendas that he would like to hit upon in his Asia tour, there is very little doubt that one of the things that he will discuss behind closed doors is his desire to see both Korea and Japan move on from the past in order to concentrate on the now and the future. As much as the United States has tried its best to remain above the bickering between the two countries, it must surely be an annoyance to have two of its closest Asian allies failing to be cordial with one another.

The question, of course, then becomes how effective President Obama will be. My advice: Don’t hold your breath.


Of the two countries, the United States will have an easier time exerting its influence on Korea. With the United States’ negotiations with Korea over sharing defense costs, the transfer of wartime control, and even negotiations about Korea’s missile range, combined with Korea’s need to purchase more American military hardware as well as from other countries to combat what appears to be North Korea’s drone fleet, the United States has quite an array of diplomatic tools to convince Korea to play nice at the negotiations table.

Its diplomatic tools when negotiating with Japan, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. Although Japan has had some heated clashes with China over the Senkaku Islands, unlike Korea with its erratic northern neighbor, Japan is not under the constant threat of existential annihilation. Furthermore, it was just announced that President Obama has stated that the defense of the Senkaku Islands is covered by the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which means that the United States is obligated to come to Japan’s defense should an armed conflict ever arise between Japan and China over those islets.

Seeing how Japan is an ally and a trading partner (whose interests, most importantly, do not clash with those of the United States’) as well as that it is also the second largest holder of US debt, the United States does not have nearly as much influence over Japan as it does over Korea as evidenced by a Japanese cabinet minister and about 150 lawmakers visiting Yasukuni Shrine a day before President Obama arrived in Japan.

And, of course, all three countries are painfully aware of these facts.


As a result, any attempt at mediating between Korea and Japan will likely backfire for the United States. Korea will resent being treated like the lesser partner in the trilateral relationship, which could push Korea toward China’s sphere of influence as was evidenced by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se’s statement about how Korea should consider forging a pact with China on sharing military intelligence, which is a shocking statement considering that Korea scrapped a similar pact with Japan, a country which shares a mutual alliance with the United States, before it could even be signed after a public outcry in 2012.

Though there isn’t a single Korean (who isn’t clinically insane) who believes that Japan would ever pose a military threat to Korea as it did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hatred toward Japan is so intense that some Koreans are seriously considering forming closer military partnerships with the People’s Republic of China, a country that is known for being, among other things, North Korea’s only ally!

(That being said, China is also Korea’s largest trading partner and Korea is rightly wary of being entangled in a possible new Cold War with the United States and Japan on one hand, and China on the other.)

Though the United States would not have to worry about losing Japan as a key military ally, it does need Japan to fully commit to the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order for it to be viable, which could become the world’s biggest free trade agreement. However, the United States needs the TPP more than Japan does. Japan has already signed many bilateral trade agreements with the countries that are interested in joining this FTA; as has the United States. However, the United States needs the TPP more precisely because it is one of the central pillars that is needed for President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” to work. Japan can make things much harder for the United States (as it has already done) if the United States overly pressures Japanese leaders to “lose face” by having to apologize to both Korea and China over its wartime atrocities yet again.

Korea does have legitimate grievances with Japan. However, there is another reason why Korea has become more abrasive with Japan in recent years than it has in the past. Rightly or wrongly, Koreans believe that their time has come.

Whereas Japan’s economy has not been able to escape from its thirty-year-old deflationary trap, this was about the same time, despite the financial meltdown of 1997, that Korea experienced the Miracle on the Han River. It would seem that K-pop has overtaken the once unbeatable J-pop juggernaut. Whereas Toyota, Sony, and Panasonic used to be household names until the 1990s, these days, those names have been replaced with Hyundai, Samsung, and LG.

Of course, Japan is now the third largest economy in the world and Korea ranks fifteenth. Korea has a long way to go before it can even hope to be Japan’s equal when it comes to raw economic power. However, and despite the irony that Koreans appear to be the unhappiest lot in the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), it would appear that Koreans are more optimistic about their future in relation to Japan.


With the ascendancy of the nationalists in Japan following decades of deflationary economics and a voting public that is more willing for Japan to be more assertive in its international affairs on one hand, and the economic rise of a former colony on the other, both sides have begun more and more to look at each others’ relationship as a zero-sum game.

(How and why the nationalists became more popular in Japan requires another and much more thoughtful analysis than I am qualified to write about.)

I have entertained the possibility of there needing to be a third party that poses a mutual threat to both Korea and Japan for both countries to bury the hatchet. However, such a scenario is overly simplistic as it conveniently ignores the inner political and economic dynamics of each country.

For the foreseeable future, at least, it would seem that the power dynamics in East Asia is not conducive for a rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo. For good or for ill, it would seem that the relationship between both Korea and Japan will stay frosty.