Commentary / Japan

A chance to strengthen the weak link of Tokyo-Seoul ties?

by Shihoko Goto

The summit in Hanoi this week between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unexpectedly ended with no deal. There is still no road map for achieving denuclearization of North Korea. Nor is there a clear way forward for Pyongyang to ensure that sanctions are lifted so it can secure much-needed economic assistance in the future.

Whether the region is now more stable as a result of the negotiations breaking down remains to be seen. But equally important for the region is whether the trilateral relation between Japan, South Korea and the United States can be strengthened as uncertainties continue to persist in an increasingly unstable Northeast Asia.

Tokyo, Seoul and Washington all have a deep-rooted interest in pushing for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, the differences among the three in how and when that goal might be achieved has become more apparent since Washington’s leadership began to engage directly with Pyongyang under the Trump administration. Yet in spite of the differences in envisioning a future relationship with the Kim regime, the need for strong relations between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea in facing regional threats has only become all too apparent.

Still, the reality has been that as uncertainties prevail in dealing with a nuclear North Korea, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have only gotten worse. The inability of the two sides to see eye to eye on Japan’s wartime and colonial past, and reconcile issues related to Japanese military brothels during World War II, had long been a thorn in diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, expectations had been that the two countries would be able to put aside their disagreements of historical memory when it came to present-day economic and security concerns.

Those expectations of decoupling emotionally charged historical issues from current strategic interests have been thwarted as relations between Japan and South Korea seemingly spiral continually downward. The grievances now go far beyond that of social justice, and run the real risk of jeopardizing security as well as economic relations at a time when Asia is facing the prospect of upheaval in the established order.

Certainly, the dispute over whether a South Korean warship locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane last December remains a highly contentious issue, and has hurt security coordination efforts by the two sides. Meanwhile, South Korean court rulings against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., ordering them to compensate laborers conscripted to work at Japanese companies during the war could potentially open the floodgates to over a dozen similar cases that could involve about 70 companies.

In short, far from gaining greater legitimacy, the treaty of 1965 to restore diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea is being pushed to the test as it has never been before.

But perhaps no single recent document has spelled out the rapid deterioration in sentiment and political dynamics between the two countries more clearly than South Korea’s latest defense white paper.

The Ministry of National Defense document released in January was remarkable not only for no longer describing North Korea as an enemy state as it had in the past, but also for deleting the phrase that Japan and South Korea “share fundamental values of liberal democracy and market economy.”

Clearly, though, the strength that the two countries share is that they have both benefited greatly from the international liberal order and the rule of law that has prevailed since the end of World War II, and the two neighboring countries have a mutual interest in ensuring that framework in the future.

The latest setback at the Trump-Kim summit makes clear that security in the region remains uncertain, with no prospect of North Korea abandoning its standing as a nuclear power any time soon. Those uncertainties will make it crucial for the U.S. to work closely with its regional allies, which in turn will require a strong Japan-U.S.-South Korean trilateral relationship.

The need to quickly improve diplomatic, economic and security relations between Tokyo and Seoul is all too clear. Whether the uncertainties in dealing with a nuclear Pyongyang could act as the spark to trigger the political will on both sides to move forward remains to be seen.

Shihoko Goto is deputy director for geoeconomics with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program.