East Asia’s Alliances Are Falling Apart

2019 strained old ties to the breaking point.

An anti-Japan protest in Seoul
A South Korean man wearing a traditional costume gestures as others perform prior to an anti-Japan protest marking the 97th Independence Movement Day in Seoul on March 1, 2016. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

2019 was a tough year for established alliances in Northeast Asia. Between the ongoing diplomatic spat between Japan and South Korea, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s upending of decades of U.S. policy toward both treaty allies, old relationships seemed ready to crumble, while new ones are only just being shaped.

The timing and pace of tensions between Japan and South Korea—which involve multiple disputes concerning past agreements, trade, and security—testifies to a new climate of what some have called “geopolitical recession,” marked by heightened great-power competition, a breakdown of international rules and norms, growing trade protectionism, and negligence regarding prior diplomatic commitments. It’s a leaderless climate that experts argue has been accelerated by Trump’s transactional attitude toward the United States’ collective security arrangements in Europe and hub-and-spokes alliance system in Asia, as well as by his forgoing or renegotiation of international agreements such as the Paris climate accord, Trans-Pacific Partnership, North American Free Trade Agreement, and U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

Japan-South Korea relations began unraveling in May 2017, when South Korea’s then newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, walked back a 2015 agreement with Japan on the sensitive issue of South Korea’s so-called comfort women, who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Tensions escalated in 2018, after South Korea’s Supreme Court and other high courts ruled in favor of colonial-era forced labor claims that may impact 284 Japanese companies. An unresolved dispute over rules of engagement between a South Korean Navy vessel and Japanese reconnaissance plane flared in December 2018 and January 2019, interrupting regular bilateral military exercises and delaying an annual joint business forum.

In July 2019, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe placed export controls on strategic goods critical for the production of South Korean semiconductors and smartphones, accusing Seoul of contravening United Nations sanctions by allowing their shipment to North Korea, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. Japan next removed South Korea from its white list of preferred trading partners. South Korea returned the favor, setting off a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods, which led to plummeting sales by companies such as Asahi, Toyota, Nissan, and Fast Retailing, and sparked declines in South Korean tourism to Japan.

This past August, Seoul announced it would terminate an intelligence-sharing agreement, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), with Japan, which the United States helped negotiate in 2016. It later backed down after mounting pressure from Washington, agreeing to conditionally push back the deadline for renegotiating GSOMIA hours before it was due to expire in November 2019.

Tensions persist despite Japan’s partial removal of export controls ahead of the Dec. 24, 2019, Moon-Abe summit in Chengdu, China, with both sides still unwilling to take steps to reset relations.

Through all of this, Tokyo’s basic position concerning the recurring historical differences that triggered the expanded dispute has been to uphold three key diplomatic accords: a 1965 treaty normalizing relations with South Korea, a 1998 joint declaration affirming the 1965 agreement as the basis for future cooperation, and the 2015 settlement establishing a $9 million joint fund for the surviving comfort women and promising to “irreversibly” settle all compensation issues.

Japan has made clear that Moon’s jettisoning of the 2015 comfort women agreement is proof of Seoul’s unreliability as a negotiating partner––and Tokyo has a point, to the extent that South Korean national politics tend to be divisive. All of its living former presidents are serving or have served prison sentences at one time or another.

With the 2015 agreement, Tokyo had intended to conclude years of diplomatic wrangling over revelations in 2005 that the Park Chung-hee government, which ratified the 1965 treaty, did not disburse most of Japan’s original $800 million in restitution to any actual victims, instead earmarking the funds for industrial projects. Tokyo signed the 2015 agreement while disavowing ownership of the disbursement problem, essentially compromising and simultaneously underwriting its fundamental position that all issues concerning property and claims (including by comfort women) were settled in 1965.

From Japan’s perspective, Moon’s subsequent enforcement of the forced labor rulings thus solidifies his bad faith in diplomacy, contributing to Tokyo’s rejection of Seoul’s interest in consummating a new grand bargain.

Abe’s determined opposition to the forced labor issue is born of an additional dilemma: that the Blue House’s actions set a dangerous precedent for other countries to reopen their wartime claims, at a time when China and North Korea continue to use history as a diplomatic cudgel against Japan. Indeed, by expanding the potential universe of contestable historical issues, the forced labor rulings work in Beijing’s favor by distracting from Abe’s efforts with other Asian leaders to fashion a new architecture of free and open economic and security institutions for the Indo-Pacific.

On the South Korean side, Moon has staked a claim as a populist leader determined to reverse the policies of his corrupt, disgraced predecessor Park Geun-hye. It’s a position that compels him not only to undo the perceived wrongdoings of the previous government but also to be extra mindful of public opinions. Moon has been able to underwrite these changes because the brief period of renewed U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation preceding his administration did not have the backing of the South Korean public––instead, it alienated outspoken civic groups such as Japan’s wartime victims who felt unrepresented at this summitry and came out strongly against Park during the Candlelight Protests.

Indeed, the 2015-2016 diplomatic achievements of U.S. administration under President Barack Obama, which played an important role in bringing Park and Abe to the negotiating table, have been overshadowed by the anti-Park demonstrations of 2016 and 2017. This progressive movement, which cast the comfort women agreement as a breach of democratic civil society’s basic right to political representation, outweighed the realpolitik objectives of serious policy thinkers in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul who hoped GSOMIA would build trust, further bridge state-level differences, and pave the way for a stronger regional security architecture capable of addressing threats such as North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.

This sidelining of strategic interests persists under Moon. The South Korean president does not appear to have a clear approach for dealing with U.S.-China competition. His New Southern Policy, which attempts to reposition Seoul as a major economic player in Southeast Asia, creates new potential synergies with Japan and the United States. The other half of Moon’s foreign policy––a New Northern Policy mirroring China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s New Eastern Policy visions for Eurasian connectivity––reveals additional pathways toward cooperation with Tokyo and Washington. However, Moon administration officials initially rejected any notion of aligning with Trump’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which piggybacks on Japan’s own Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy plan. Formal discussions to integrate South Korea into the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy only commenced in mid-2019 when Moon began to face pressure from Trump in the context of hardball negotiations over an annual defense cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement, as well as mounting U.S. concern regarding GSOMIA.

Moon is now entering the lame-duck half of his constitutionally limited five-year presidency, the recent uptick in his approval ratings belies a growing disillusionment with his scandal-hit government, impasses in inter-Korean talks, and the failure of his left-leaning economic policies to shield South Korea’s cooling economy from the U.S.-China trade war. Moon is also gearing up to shepherd his party through potentially damaging national assembly elections in April, with his promises to boost incomes, drive innovation, and reduce inequality ringing increasingly hollow.

Sensing Moon’s weakness, the Abe government has plenty of reasons to continue tightening the spigots on his administration heading into 2020, despite the toll exacted on Japanese companies in South Korea. Seoul’s eleventh-hour decision to renew GSOMIA, while eliciting a sigh of relief from Tokyo, has not softened Japanese views of Moon. Despite multiple attempts by South Korean lawmakers to begin defusing tensions, Abe has reportedly told close advisors that he expects the situation to remain difficult for years.

Last month, Tokyo deployed a new ambassador to Seoul, Koji Tomita, who analysts believe will signal a new resolve to draw on the United States’ clout to corner Moon. A well-respected Japanese interlocutor in Washington who was Abe’s special ambassador in charge of coordinating the recent G-20 summit in Osaka, Tomita previously served as head of the Japanese foreign ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau and might be expected to draw on his lengthy rolodex of American contacts. Tomita’s access to Washington and his particular expertise dealing with military and intelligence matters—he also directed the foreign ministry’s national security division—make him a unique choice for navigating the complex security environment of the Korean Peninsula.

Still, Washington’s ultimate role in rehabilitating Japan-South Korea ties may be limited. Even with a new round of U.S.-facilitated diplomacy, the underlying fault lines of public opinion that catalyzed the current row will likely persist. Though a new generation of politicians in Tokyo and Seoul might hope to wash away history’s grim legacy, the same was expected of today’s crop of leaders––who have presided over otherwise robust economic and people-to-people ties that have achieved noticeably little in terms of mitigating recent disagreements.

Young Japanese and South Koreans are increasingly disengaged from politics, unaware of the finer points regarding the comfort women dispute in particular, and therefore just as likely to be accommodating of or swayed by elite nationalist opinions as they are to overlook historical differences for shared cultural or economic interests. One result has been that many young South Koreans oppose Abe for his perceived nationalist views and believe he should personally apologize to all surviving comfort women––a position that even moderate Japanese who might otherwise dislike Abe may find untenable given Japan’s 50-odd official apologies for World War II.

As complicated as these disputes are, Trump has fomented additional uncertainty in Tokyo and Seoul with his indiscriminate threats to authorize new tariffs and troop withdrawals, his unnecessarily aggressive demands for both countries to shoulder larger defense budgets and new missile deployments, and his casual speculation that the United States would be “better off” if Japan and South Korea protected themselves––even to the point of setting off a nuclear arms race.

Tokyo and Seoul both already support boosting military expenditures and developing their own defense industry hubs. If Trump must prioritize the Special Measures Agreement burden-sharing negotiations with South Korea and Japan, as is now the case, his administration should look for ways of making these negotiations less coercive and taxing on scarce diplomatic resources. With South Korea, for example, Trump could push Seoul to purchase U.S. defense equipment, providing new capabilities that would allow its military to respond more effectively to nuclear and missile threats. These purchases could be deducted from the fivefold increase in defense spending that Washington is currently insisting for the next Special Measures Agreement, thus ameliorating the bitterness caused by the demand in South Korea while additionally supporting U.S. companies. In expanding South Korea’s military capabilities, these purchases would also free Washington to justifiably support an accelerated schedule for the transfer of wartime operational control from United States Forces Korea to the South Korean Armed Forces––something Moon and other South Korean progressives who advocate for military sovereignty would welcome.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is the latest in a long line of strategic thinkers to make the case for alliances. As Washington reinserts itself into the ongoing talks regarding GSOMIA, Trump should use this opportunity to test a new approach to alliance management reflective of these uncertain geopolitical times. Otherwise, the United States could be in real danger of securing immediate gains from Tokyo and Seoul––only to alienate them later.

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.

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.

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