WASHINGTON – One of the biggest disappointments of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Asia policy has been his inability to facilitate stronger relations between Japan and South Korea — America’s two most important allies in the region.
For more than 20 years, Japanese and South Korean leaders have discussed building a “future-oriented” relationship, but fundamental historical differences remain an insurmountable obstacle. Seoul’s recent effective withdrawal from a 2015 agreement with Tokyo on the “comfort women” issue, as well as South Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate Koreans conscripted for wartime labor during Japan’s colonial rule, have aggravated historical tensions.
In March, South Korean shop owners launched a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods, with lawmakers from Gyeonggi province near Seoul even proposing that all such products be affixed with a “made by war criminals” sticker. Following last month’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka, where the extent of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s interaction with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was a perfunctory handshake during the formal welcoming ceremony, Japan imposed export regulations on South Korea that threaten to disrupt global supply chains of microchips and smartphone displays. In response, Samsung’s heir apparent and South Korean trade officials have engaged Japanese counterparts in Tokyo without success, and the Moon administration is preparing a case against Japan at the World Trade Organization.
Domestic politics also contributes to this paradoxical cycle of rapprochement and tensions. The two countries’ economic interdependence provides a safety net for leaders on both sides to parlay nationalist sentiments tied to historical differences into political leverage without fully severing their necessary relationship. A notable example is former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s ploy to “show the flag” against Japan with a visit to the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo islands in 2012, which saw his approval ratings nearly double in just two weeks. Tokyo’s and Seoul’s heated responses to an unresolved incident between a South Korean navy vessel and Japanese reconnaissance plane last December suggest that both governments remain willing to play nationalist politics no matter the broader strategic consequences.
Since the 1990s, the United States has tried to unite its two democratic allies by focusing on North Korea. However, while North Korean denuclearization remains a necessary focus of cooperation, the present contradictions in U.S., Japanese, and South Korean views on dealing with Pyongyang underscore the difficulty of forging a unified approach. North Korea by itself will not be enough to unite Japan and South Korea.
Instead, coordinated efforts to offset both countries’ tepid economic growth, aging demographics and economic overdependence on China may provide that focus. Despite (or perhaps in light of) Seoul’s failure to resist Beijing’s economic retaliation for accepting the U.S.-made Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in 2017, Japanese and South Korean views are increasingly aligned against China.
A case in point is South Korea’s mixed response to the U.S. boycott of Chinese 5G technology. Despite the South Korean government’s continued tolerance of Chinese 5G, a trilateral private sector coalition appears to be forming against Huawei. In October, Samsung joined with Japan’s NEC to develop a platform rivaling Huawei’s. And last month, Samsung, with the Trump administration’s blessing, announced a joint venture with AMD, America’s top graphics card producer, just as AMD was severing its relationship with Huawei. This loose alliance of Huawei competitors suggests there may be a groundswell of public support for trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation against Chinese economic coercion.
The U.S. can capitalize on this. One way forward is to promote further Japan-South Korea cooperation in high-technology sectors where interests align. Like Japan, South Korea faces an imminent population crisis that imperils its long-term economic prospects. Setting aside the boundless possibilities for co-innovation in the so-called silver market of geriatric health services and wellness goods, Tokyo’s and Seoul’s efforts to invest in emerging, high-growth markets overseas may provide an additional layer of opportunities for both countries to jointly bolster their individual domestic economic revitalization policies.
But while Moon’s New Southern Policy of rapid economic diversification into Southeast Asia is ambitious, South Korea’s public sector presence there remains weak. Japan, on the other hand, has been a leader in development assistance to Southeast Asian countries since the 1950s. Underscoring its commitment to the Indo-Pacific, Japan announced in 2016 a new “quality infrastructure” initiative for building roads, railways, bridges and ports in the region.
However, China’s dramatic technological advancement threatens Japan’s comparative advantage in infrastructure build-outs. Although Japan remains a leader in research and development, China has already surpassed Japan both in the quality and quantity of its scientific output. In 2015, Beijing dealt a significant blow to Japan, outbidding the latter’s state-of-the-art bullet train technology in an Indonesian tender for high speed rail. Although the “Belt and Road” initiative faces challenges, Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plans for global technological hegemony are proceeding apace — particularly in key industries like clean energy technology, semiconductors, advanced electrical equipment and artificial intelligence.
Today, the two countries promote energy access in vulnerable markets across the Indo-Pacific. For example, the Japan-U.S. Strategic Energy Partnership (JUSEP) aligns Tokyo’s $10 billion commitment to regional capacity building with Washington’s Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy) initiative. JUSEP is already helping to deliver liquified natural gas and other renewable fuels to India and Sri Lanka, countering China’s “string of pearls” strategy to occupy various military and commercial choke points in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
One U.S. approach to further cooperation in this crucial area of geopolitical competition is a trilateral business forum. Despite the ongoing strain on bilateral industry relations since the Japan-Korea Economic Association’s indefinite postponement of its annual business conference, originally slated for May, there are signs of considerable enthusiasm for this variety of summitry. Indeed, on a bilateral level, the Korea-Japan Cooperation Foundation for Industry and Technology has already advocated for private-sector cooperation in Southeast Asia since at least the early 2010s.
Even with the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington too remains committed to multiple high-profile projects supporting multilateral economic engagement in Asia. The Trump administration’s flagship Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the subsequent launch of the inaugural Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Washington last July, and Congress’s passage in 2018 of the BUILD Act (establishing the U.S. International Development Finance Corp.) and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (submitting a bipartisan vision for U.S. economic policy in Asia) all illustrate the U.S. government’s sustained zeal for trade facilitation and capacity building across the region’s developing markets.
As recently as May 2018, Keidanren helped organize a seventh Japan-China-South Korea Business Summit in Tokyo, bringing together the leaders of all three countries in a large meeting of senior policymakers and business influencers. That same month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Keidanren and the Federation of Korean Industries met to consider over-the-horizon opportunities in North Korea — reflecting broad private sector enthusiasm for coordinating in emerging markets. While the Blue House has been slow to pick up on this industry interest in tapping the developing world, it is high time the U.S., Japanese and South Korean governments came together to organize a similar trilateral conference of industry decision-makers.
Finally, the U.S. must help both countries tackle their history. Past bilateral efforts to address painful historical differences have been largely unsuccessful, particularly when Japan’s imperial legacy is intentionally distorted. Despite the country’s repeated formal apologies to South Korea for its activities during World War II, a research committee formed in 2002, comprising a dozen academics from both countries, was unable to resolve its differences — with the panel settling on “parallel histories” and skirting the most controversial areas of disagreement. Another joint task force begun in 2006, this time addressing historical differences with China, was similarly inconclusive about contentious topics like the Nanking Massacre.
In February, 226 Japanese intellectuals issued a statement expressing concern about the two countries’ persistent historical tensions, arguing that “mutual understanding” and “reflection and apology” were necessary for good relations. However, as younger, apology-fatigued Japanese forget the lessons of the nation’s wartime past, self-reflection becomes increasingly far-fetched. A sustained civilian-led dialogue, unbound from the trappings of public diplomacy, may thus be the only way to reshape a unified historical understanding needed for durable relations.
Accordingly, the U.S. should move beyond encouraging its two allies to pursue a fixedly government-led solution. A compensation fund, like the one set up with the agreement on the comfort women issue, can be revoked by any new administration. Likewise, no elite task force, however actionable its recommendations, can single-handedly overturn decades of entrenched cultural convictions.
Rather, what is needed is a lengthy and candid civic conversation bringing together a variety of ordinary citizens from both countries — including academics, educators, students, journalists and business leaders. No amount of geopolitical and economic statecraft, even centered on shared national interests, alone can bypass the undercurrent of mutual suspicion that festers between Japan and South Korea.
Andrew Injoo Park is the president of the Sejong Society and a nonresident James A. Kelly fellow at the Pacific Forum. Elliot Silverberg has worked in strategic advisory, political risk consulting, journalism, the legal field and think tanks in the U.S. and Japan. An earlier version of the article appeared on the Foreign Policy magazine.