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Argument: The United States Needs Japan-South Korea Reconciliation The United States Needs Japan-South Korea ...
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.
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