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South Korea—Japan Diplomatic Freeze Problematic for US Alliance Network in East Asia

Jack Butcher

If you have been following recent developments in East Asia, you would know South Korea-Japan ties have entered a deep freeze. Such a freeze should not be underestimated as its effects could be disruptive for the United States and its allies.

South Korea and Japan have always been uneasy bedfellows. The Japanese colonisation of Korea from 1910-1945 was brutal and many South Koreans feel strong contempt for Japan. This history still dominates contemporary South Korean politics and has been an underlying factor in its foreign policy directives towards Japan.

Many in Japan share the same sentiment. Issues regarding the Liancourt Rocks dispute, denial of Japanese war atrocities, South Korea's seemingly never-ending requests for compensation in the form of "war reparations" and discrimination against Zainichi Koreans, still dominate discussion in Japan increasing mutual distrust.

Despite the animosity, South Korea and Japan are aligned in many respects. Both are liberal democracies and allies to the United States (US), face threats from North Korea's nuclear weapons program and are coming to terms with China's rise. Still, relations seem as tense as they have ever been.

They even previously managed to put historical issues aside to work closely on foreign policy and regional security initiatives. Together they conduct annual joint naval exercises from 2012 and releasing a trilateral statement on enhancing regional security in the same year. However, what little has bound them together has now been put into serious doubt by recent tensions.

South Korea and Japan have adopted divergent foreign policies in recent years. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has favoured rapprochement with North Korea and strengthening ties with China. Japan sees North Korea's nuclear program as the main threat to its national security alongside Chinese assertiveness. Such a divergence has led Japan to express its opposition to South Korea's attendance at President Donald Trump's proposed expanded G-7 summit claiming Moon's foreign policy is "out of lockstep" on China and North Korea.

Relations have even worsened regarding mutual security. In 2019, South Korea proposed to cut the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) between the two nations over trade and historical atrocities, only to reinstate the pact four months later with intervention from President Trump. If relations continue to nosedive, there is a possibility that the GSOMIA, which is vital for intelligence sharing between South Korea, Japan and the US could be cut, putting both countries' national security at risk from states seeking to disrupt the US' alliance network in East Asia.

Nations who see US influence in East Asia as malevolent, like North Korea, may see an opportunity to turn South Korea further against Japan, and potentially the US, over their shared history. China may also use the divergence between the two as a tactic to further expand its influence in the region.

East Asia is undergoing a rapid power shift with China emerging as a prominent player in the region. It's becoming increasingly assertive regarding domestic and foreign policy. As a result, the US sees China as a strategic rival, not representing the status quo. The consensus among major US allies, most notably Japan and Australia, is that nations who share similar political values should step-in to preserve US-led 'rules-based' order in the region.

South Korea and Japan are established liberal democracies and anchors of the US deterrence strategy in Northeast Asia. Policymakers in the US and Australia need to be aware of the animosity between the two states and work closely together with both. It is not about solving historical disputes, but ensuring the gap does not breach further.

There should be a shift from ‘common values’ between South Korea and Japan to a common strategic vision, that they both face similar security dilemmas. Overcoming differences is challenging, but that the changing geopolitical dynamic in East Asia requires unity if they wish to see a continuation of US influence. If South Korea and Japan remain divided to the extent they are, the US will find it more difficult to rally two major allies which are vital to its objectives in the region.

Jack Butcher is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Adelaide, freelance journalist and editor currently located in East Asia.


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