South Korea and Japan just don’t get along. It’s a problem for Biden

Before Moscow’s unprovoked war, European countries were divided over issues ranging from Russian energy pipelines to Brexit, and — with lingering resentment dating back to Trump-era trade disputes and the Iraq War — some even appear to have rethought their relationship with Washington.

The stakes could hardly have been higher. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently called the rise of China “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” – and that was after the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted fifteen missile launches this year, and despite Pyongyang declaring a “major national emergency” last week over the Covid-19 outbreak, Washington believes its seventh nuclear test and further testing intercontinental ballistic missiles may be inevitable. – and possibly timed to coincide with Biden’s trip.

Hence Washington’s desire to unite Japan and South Korea.

Problem for Biden? While both countries are keen to get closer to Washington, when it comes to each other, the two countries just don’t get along. They have a historically acrimonious and rocky relationship that is rooted in the colonization of South Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and was inflamed by Japan’s use of sex slaves in wartime brothels—victims now euphemistically referred to as “comfort women.” Moreover, they are still embroiled in a 70-year dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands in the Sea of ​​Japan.

These differences are not historical curiosities, but live disputes. During one of the latest attempts at trilateral talks, in November 2021, a joint press conference was derailed when Japan’s deputy foreign minister objected to a visit by a South Korean police chief to the islands known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan. . Lawsuits against Japanese companies over their use of wartime forced labor remain unresolved. In recent years, there has been an increase in disagreements over security and economic issues.

Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat who has been in and out of government for the past 50 years, having served in both Korea and Japan, has watched strained relations undermine alliances for decades.

“If Tokyo and Seoul do not actively talk to each other, if they do not cooperate with each other, it will be very difficult for the United States to fulfill not only its obligations to them, but also its strategy of relations with China, relations with North Korea. ,” he said.

South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol delivers a speech in Gwangju on May 18, 2022, at a ceremony marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1980 pro-democracy uprising in the southwestern city.

thaw signs

Fortunately for Biden, Revere says he now feels more hopeful than ever.

Both South Korean President Yun Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are newly appointed leaders, and both have shown signs of hawking North Korea and China, as well as a desire to strengthen military ties with the US.
Japan’s still influential former leader Shinzo Abe has urged Tokyo to consider hosting US nuclear weapons, while South Korea’s Yoon suggested he would consider joining the Quartet, a loose US-led security group that includes Japan, India and Australia and which will host the summit that Biden will attend towards the end of his trip.

Importantly, the two new leaders also showed signs that the past is behind them. Last month, Yoon offered Japan an olive branch by sending a delegation to Tokyo ahead of his inauguration as part of his plan, outlined in a campaign speech, for South Korea to make a “new start” as a “global key state.” ”

His team personally delivered Yun’s letter to Kishida, a move reciprocated this month when Japan sent Foreign Minister Yoshimasu Hayashi to Yun’s inauguration with a reply letter.

New South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol called on North Korea to denuclearize in his inaugural speech

Upon receiving the letter, Kishida said that strategic cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea is needed “more than ever, given that the rules-based international order is under threat.”

But even if leaders see the benefit of putting the past behind them, they will be keen to avoid alienating voters who may not be as forgiving.

Professor Kohtaro Ito, Senior Fellow at Canon’s Institute for Global Studies, said that while Yoon showed signs of a change in approach by choosing Park Jin as foreign minister, who spoke both English and Japanese and was popular in the Japanese parliament. — any breakthrough during Biden’s trip is unlikely.

That’s because both sides have yet to go through upcoming local elections—South Korea will have local elections in June and Japan’s upper house elections in July—and neither leader wants to alienate nationalist, less inclined voters. to leave the past in the past.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a press conference in Tokyo on April 26.

Barrier of nationalism

This is far from the first time the two countries have struggled to overcome their differences. In 1965, they signed an agreement that normalized relations and was supposed to settle some of the most contentious issues, including the issue of “comfort women”.

But South Korea was under a military dictatorship at the time, and many Koreans never accepted the treaty. For some, subsequent apologies and deals from Japanese prime ministers still fall short of what they see as sufficient redress.

Choi Eunmi, a research fellow in Japanese studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said an alliance between Japan and South Korea would be vital to Biden’s coalition hopes, but believes his visit will do little to address those issues.

“It’s too delicate and too controversial, and America doesn’t have a place to deal with these issues,” she said.

There are voters to think about.

Revere highlights “nationalism, which often defines the perception of these relationships and historical issues in both capitals” as a factor that sours relations, and the role of South Korean courts, which – through their rulings on wartime disputes – “could lead to any reconciliation efforts.” crumble.”

For decades, the families of Korean victims of forced labor have fought through the courts for compensation, directly suing Japanese companies.

It’s a question that has infuriated Tokyo, which believes everything was settled by the 1965 treaty, and one Yun is unlikely to resolve without being accused of interfering with the independence of the judiciary.

Yoon also begins his only five-year term with the lowest approval rating of any new president. and must work with an opposition-dominated parliament.

In Japan, the older and generally more conservative generation largely supports a tougher approach to South Korea, and Kishida is well aware of this, Ito said, adding that the older generation voted far more than the younger generation.

However, Biden likely has one clear message that could dispel any lingering political doubts by Kishida or Yun: the importance of alliances and cooperation, as demonstrated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The US President has been instrumental in mobilizing the international community, mobilizing NATO allies and others to support Ukraine in its time of need,” Revere said.

“What better statement about the importance and value of alliances than what’s happening right now.”

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