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Japan and Korea: A tale of two elections

Japan and Korea: A tale of two elections

2012 will end with Japan and Korea both choosing new governments as the leadership on Asia policy changes at the State Department. All three transitions could have an impact on the president’s vaunted pivot to Asia.

In Japan the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just walloped the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the polls. On the one hand, this is nothing new. The last three Japanese elections (2005, 2009 and 2012) ended with lopsided victories as the frustrated Japanese electorate searched for leadership to get them out of their current doldrums. With the election of Shinzo Abe, however, the Western media and the left have hit general quarters. Time Magazine predicts dangerous new friction in Northeast Asia; the folks at Foreign Policy have featured analysis warning Japan could go nuclear; and within some quarters of the administration there is nervous chatter about whether Tokyo might provoke China too much. 

Abe is a nationalist, to be sure, and he has said less than helpful things this election cycle about elevating attention to Japan’s territorial dispute with Korea and revisiting a 1993 apology for treatment of the euphemistically-called "comfort women" who were sent to the rear areas of Japanese combat units during the war. On the whole, however, Abe is a good nationalist — which is to say that he wants to project a Japan that is far more resolute than the flip-flopping of the past three years under the DPJ. At a time when Beijing thinks it is winning in its campaign to coerce maritime states on territorial issues, Abe has promised to increase spending on the Japanese navy and coast guard, to relax constraints on defense cooperation with the United States, and to strengthen security ties with the Philippines, Australia, India and others in Beijing’s crosshairs. The United States should embrace this agenda. The problem is that any continuation of the nationalist rhetoric of the election campaign would drive a wedge between Japan and Korea, putting the United States and Japan in a weaker position to deal with a dangerous North Korea and an overbearing China. The administration should quietly explain the problem to the incoming team in Tokyo in exactly those strategic and national interest terms. In his last go as Prime Minister, Abe moved from nationalist to pragmatic statesman, improving ties with both China and Korea. As it became clear that LDP would win a landslide this time, he also began tempering his comments and stressing that he would rebuild the U.S.-Japan alliance and place importance on relations with China and Korea. His top advisors say privately not to worry. National security is all about worrying, though, so the administration will need the skill to construct a trusted private dialogue on the sensitive issues with Tokyo, backed by robust public support for Japan’s security.

Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday. Right now the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, has a lead in most polls, but just inside the margin of error. Her opponent, Moon Jae-in, appears to have slight momentum on his side (Korean law limits polling in the final days of the election). Both are trying to appeal to the center without abandoning their bases. Park is the former daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee, while Moon was chief-of-staff and heir apparent to the former president, Roh Moo-hyun. Park’s supporters are generally tougher on North Korea, more pro-U.S., and older. Moon’s supporters are generally softer on North Korea and younger, but not gripped by the same anti-Americanism that helped Roh get elected in 2002. The younger voters’ conversion is typified by Psy, the Gangnam-style rap artist who recently apologized for his crude anti-American songs from a decade ago. Moon himself is a pragmatist who appears to have learned the political and security consequences of the Roh administration’s initial anti-Americanism. The problem is that Moon has surrounded himself with hardcore leftists who still believe that the right approach to North Korea is to buy their confidence with economic aid, even after (or they would argue especially after) Pyongyang has tested long-range missiles and possibly begun preparations for a third nuclear test. Needless to say, that policy would create considerable dissonance with Washington. Even Park, whose pro-alliance credentials are solid, has hinted that she will not be quite as tough with either Pyongyang or Beijing as the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, has been.

Just as Japan and Korea enter these transitions, the Obama administration is losing its best stewards of Asia policy — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her assistant secretary for East Asia (and, truth in advertising, good friend to a number of us at Shadowgov), Kurt Campbell. There are other solid Asia hands in the administration, to be sure, but State has been particularly instrumental in managing U.S. alliances in the region. It is not hard to imagine an incoming team at State deciding that the highest priority in the second term must be modifying the harder edges of the pivot and quietly reassuring Beijing that the U.S. does not fully support Japan’s new trajectory — or worse, publicly walking away from a declaratory policy on the contested Senkaku Islands that suggests the U.S. is completely neutral (for three administration’s the policy has been neutrality on the territorial claims, but clear signals that the United States would not be neutral if there were any military coercion by China). There are hints that some in the administration have already been shifting their public statements in this direction. Similarly, Korea-U.S. relations have prospered in the last four years, not because the Obama administration came in with any particular strategy for strengthening relations with Seoul, but because the President was personally captivated by President Lee Myung-bak’s commitment to globalizing Korea’s role and restoring trust in alliance relations with Washington. It is one thing to react to a dynamic ally, but quite another to put in the hard work of strengthening alliance ties when there are disagreements over North Korea policy or uncertainties in Seoul about how to deal with China in future.

The good news is that any new team will have to face confirmation hearings. In private calls and hearings, the Senate should be sure to take some time off from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to verify the nominees’ fundamental thinking about our alliances in Asia. These alliances do not run on auto-pilot, nor are they always easy. But as Lord Carrington once said about us as allies in the face of European criticism in the 1980s, "Yes … yes … all your complaints are true, but they are the only Americans we have."