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Active role for US unlikely in Korea-Japan row


By Kang Seung-woo

Amid growing voices from the United States on the importance of its trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan over North Korea and China issues, Seoul has offered conciliatory gestures to Tokyo to normalize their broken relationship, only to get a lukewarm response.

As a last resort, the South Korean government is now soliciting the U.S. to play a role in mediating their diplomatic dispute, as highlighted by Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, who said on Feb. 18 that South Korea and Japan might seek help from the U.S. if needed to address their protracted historical disputes. His remarks are raising questions over how much the Biden administration will get involved, and furthermore, what Japan's response will be.

However, despite its emphasis on the three-way alliance, Washington is less likely to proactively help get the historical issue-strained bilateral relations between its key Asian allies back on track ― even if its pressure would lead Japan to accept South Korea's fence-mending bid.

Relations between the neighboring countries have slumped to their worst level in years, sparked by Japan's imposition of export controls on three key materials critical for Korea's semiconductor and display industries, in apparent retaliation to a 2018 ruling by the Korean Supreme Court, ordering Japanese companies to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. In addition, the Seoul Central District Court ordered Japan to make reparations of 100 million won ($90,000) each to 12 wartime sex slavery victims in a ruling made in January, further turning the fractious relations hostile.

"I think that if the U.S. presses Japan to improve its soured relations with Korea, Tokyo will have to do so," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor of International Relations at King's College London.

Former President Park Geun-hye, right, and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands during a trilateral summit brokered by former U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. embassy in The Hague in this March 2014 photo. Korea Times file
Former President Park Geun-hye, right, and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands during a trilateral summit brokered by former U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. embassy in The Hague in this March 2014 photo. Korea Times file

"After all, Japanese foreign policy has traditionally followed the lead of the U.S. So with a Biden administration bent on mending ties with allies, Japan would have an incentive to improve relations with Korea if Washington insists, because this move would help Tokyo in its relations with the Biden administration too."

However, Pardo does not have high expectations about the U.S. playing an active role in improving the icy relations.

"I don't think that the U.S. will intervene openly to solve the historical dispute between Seoul and Tokyo," he said, adding that the Biden administration is expected to continue encouraging trilateral meetings with its two allies.

According to Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the U.S. is concerned about the continuing downward spiral of South Korea-Japan tensions and antipathy between the two nations affecting the security of all three countries at this historic moment of growing security threats and strategic uncertainty, when trilateral intelligence and security cooperation must be enhanced.

"The problem is that all politics are local, and both the Moon and Suga administrations respond to popular sentiment. I suspect the U.S. will strongly stress the importance of focusing on the future rather than being tortured by the ghosts of history," Manning said.

"I think the U.S. will likely try to mediate. There are some ideas of compromise floating around, and the U.S. will likely encourage a resolution that stresses the vital importance of that to both alliances."

Harry Kazianis, a senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, doubted the U.S. will want to get involved in their historical issues ― although the Biden team is already trying to mend fences between its allies because of the importance of a strong trilateral approach to issues, such as North Korea.

"Knowing that Seoul and Tokyo surely have different views on what to do on North Korea, and Washington does not even have a DPRK policy right now, I don't think we can expect too much of a trilateral love fest at the moment. The deck is just too stacked against it," he said.

Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong puts on glasses during a meeting at the National Assembly, Seoul, Feb. 18. Chung, who took office on Feb. 9, has yet to hold a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi, amid the ongoing diplomatic dispute between South Korea and Japan. Korea Times file
Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong puts on glasses during a meeting at the National Assembly, Seoul, Feb. 18. Chung, who took office on Feb. 9, has yet to hold a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi, amid the ongoing diplomatic dispute between South Korea and Japan. Korea Times file

Kazianis also suspected that, beyond phone calls and well-wishes, how much political capitol the U.S. would put into such an effort, as the U.S. is currently facing a heap of domestic issues and other international issues to deal with: the coronavirus, the Jan. 6 violent storming of the Capitol, economic recovery and China.

Due to relentless criticism of Japan from Korea over its refusal to acknowledge its wartime guilt and atrocities, which prevents the U.S. from trilaterally cooperating on security matters, there is speculation that the new U.S. administration may get exhausted and become critical of Korea for raising these historical issues. In other words, "Korea fatigue," a Japanese phenomenon from Seoul's hammering of wartime issues, could expand to the U.S.

"I think that the U.S. will stress the urgency of finding a path to a more stable South Korea-Japan relationship based on the rule-of-law and commitments made by both sides," Manning said.

"Neither Washington, Seoul or Tokyo can afford fatigue or malaise. North Korea may test a missile at any time. Or, given the domestic crisis and economic chaos in North Korea, anything is possible at any time, with little warning."

Pardo said that it would not be a big problem for the U.S. if South Korea works together with the Biden administration on issues of mutual interest, such as joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) against China or aligning with the U.S. on its North Korea policy.

"Surely, there will be those in the Biden administration and in Washington who will be critical of Korea for raising these historical issues. But on the other hand, compared to a few years ago, there are many more who are sympathetic toward Korea today," he said.

"At the end of the day, we are talking about sexual and labor slavery. As more and more groups across the world ask former colonial powers to address their past, this sympathy toward Korea will only grow."


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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