The United States Needs Japan-South Korea Reconciliation

This weekend's G-20 efforts are likely to flop as old quarrels emerge.

A woman holds a portrait of a former South Korean “comfort woman,” one of those who were forced by Japan’s military into sexual slavery during World War II, at a rally to mark National Liberation Day in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Aug. 15, 2018.
A woman holds a portrait of a former South Korean “comfort woman,” one of those who were forced by Japan’s military into sexual slavery during World War II, at a rally to mark National Liberation Day in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Aug. 15, 2018. CHUNG SUNG-JUN/GETTY IMAGES

One of the biggest disappointments of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Asia policy has been his quiet failure to draw South Korea into the informal maritime security alliance known as the “Quad,” currently comprising the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Initially proposed by Japan in 2007, at a time when Japanese leaders were also advocating a foreign policy based on universal values and closer relations with like-minded countries, the Quad’s potential to formally align Asia’s democracies offered the potential to shift the balance of power with undemocratic counterparts in the region like China and Russia.

Still, despite South Korea’s strategic value as a mature democracy and advanced industrial economy, Seoul is largely neglected in the United States’ overarching approach to these opponents of liberal values and rules-based governance. Under Trump, relations between Japan and South Korea—both important U.S. allies—have deteriorated. And while most Japanese understand the importance of partnering with South Korea, recent events demonstrate how tough dealing with the structural constraints on their relationship will be.

For more than 20 years, Japanese and South Korean leaders have discussed building a “future-oriented” relationship, but fundamental historical differences remain a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Seoul’s recent effective withdrawal from a 2015 agreement with Tokyo on wartime sexual slavery, as well as South Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate the families of Koreans indentured during the Japanese occupation, has aggravated historical tensions. In March, Korean shop owners launched a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods, with lawmakers from Gyeonggi province near Seoul even

Domestic politics also contributes to this paradoxical cycle of tensions and rapprochement. Economic interdependence provides a safety net for leaders from both countries to parlay nationalist sentiments tied to historical differences into political leverage. 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 Dokdo/Takeshima Islands in 2012, which saw his approval ratings nearly double in just two weeks. Tokyo’s and Seoul’s heated responses to an unresolved dispute over an incident between a 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 Korea remains a necessary focus of security 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 is not enough to focus Japan-South Korea cooperation.

Rather, coordinated efforts to offset both countries’ tepid economic growth, aging demographics, and economic overdependence on China may provide that focus. Despite Seoul’s failure to resist Beijing’s economic retaliation for accepting the U.S.-made 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 mobile 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, striving to stay competitive in the race for 5G, joined with NEC (Japan’s leading IT company) to jointly develop a platform rivaling Huawei’s. And this 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 that there may be a groundswell of public support for trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation against Chinese economic coercion.

The United States can capitalize on this. One way forward is to promote further Japan-South Korea cooperation in high-technology sectors offering solutions to shared domestic challenges. Like Japan, South Korea faces an imminent population crisis that imperils its long-term economic interests. 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 President Moon Jae-in’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 overseas 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 Shinkansen 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 (AI).

In the meantime, Seoul’s policy discourse regarding the extended national security implications of so-called critical infrastructure sectors such as energy, digital, and cybersecurity is underdeveloped. Even in South Korea’s considerable civil nuclear domain, its security debate is strategically narrow in its focus on nonproliferation rather than energy sustainability. Japan and the United States, meanwhile, have been wrestling with the broad implications of energy insecurity since the 1973 oil embargo. 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 the United States’ 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.

Washington and Tokyo’s critical infrastructure policies venture beyond energy security. The Lower Mekong Initiative—carried over from U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration—supports cooperation in education, disaster management, conservation, agriculture, and food security. Likewise, Japan’s Society 5.0 effort to lead the way in AI, the internet of things, blockchain, and other vital technologies is principally a response to China. In February, Francis Fannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for energy resources, visited Seoul and Tokyo to discuss the potential for building on the successes of initiatives like Asia EDGE and JUSEP. These high-level discussions should pave the way for additional multilateral economic norm-setting.

One U.S. approach to further cooperation in this crucial emerging 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. In 2013, a Korean chaebol delegation met with Japanese businesses in Thailand to learn about Japan’s commercial successes there. And in 2014, an exploratory committee including Samsung, Hanwha, Hyosung, Lotte, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Mitsui, and All Nippon Airways.

Even with the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington has 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 Corporation) 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, the Japan Business Federation (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, the Keidanren, and the Federation of Korean Industries met to consider over-the-horizon opportunities in North Korea—reflecting broad private sector enthusiasm for coordinating trilaterally in emerging markets. While the Blue House has been slow to pick up on this industry interest in jointly tapping the developing world, it is high time that the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean governments came together to organize a similar trilateral conference of industry decision-makers.

Finally, the United States 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 Nanjing 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 World War II, 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 United States should move beyond encouraging its two allies to pursue a fixedly government-led solution. A victim compensation fund, like the one set up with the agreement on wartime sexual slavery, 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. He is a political consultant in Washington and a former interpreter with the U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command in Seoul.

Elliot Silverberg has worked in strategic advisory, political risk consulting, journalism, the legal field, and think tanks across the United States and Japan. He is a U.S. government-sponsored National Security Education Program fellow, a Huffington fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.