South Korea & Japan

Walking through Namsan Park on a balmy Seoul day, I stopped to look at a formidable tower. The March 1st Independence Movement Monument commemorates the ultimately unsuccessful Korean independence movement of 1919 against the “brutal” Japanese occupation. 

For an east Asia novice, it’s a poignant reminder of the colonial memories that shape South Korean attitudes towards Japan. Its subsequent economic miracle following independence in 1945 has not soothed old wounds. Nor has sharing strong ties with the US. 

In 2015, just 25 percent of South Koreans held favourable views of Japan. That’s compared with 61 percent thinking similarly about its supposed ideological adversary, China

This historical animosity is a problem for the US. South Korea and Japan are its closest and economically strongest allies in Asia. The former is a significant base for the US military with extensive forces throughout the country. 

The US’s loss is China’s gain. As the US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel elucidated at Chosun’s Asian Leadership Conference, it’s part of China’s grand strategy to ensure South Korea, Japan and the US never “get on the same page”. 

But recent events suggest change is in the air. Emanuel spoke enthusiastically about warming relations between the 2 US Treaty Allies. He reported that following Japanese Prime Minister Fumo Kishida’s recent visit to the US, his first call was to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. 

Political rapprochement is building momentum. After sinking to a nadir in 2019 over wartime compensation claims, the last 5 years have been a stark improvement. Its leaders are committed to overcoming historical grievances. While stopping short of a full apology, Kishida has expressed sympathy for the Korean victims of Japanese colonial rule. For his part, Yoon has openly embraced Japan as part of his foreign policy agenda. He said the country is “now our partner, sharing universal values and pursuing common interests”. 

Emanuel argues the populations are already further down this road. South Korea recently cemented its position as the top source of foreign tourists to Japan. Numbers reached a record high in April. Those visits are being reciprocated. The Japanese replaced the Chinese as South Korea’s top foreign visitors last year

And attitudes are shifting. A record 44 percent of South Koreans recorded positive impressions of Japan last year. That’s partly driven by political will but it’s also an organic demographic change. Younger generations’ sentiments are not tainted by colonial memories. 

(Of course, China will do its best to revive those fading memories. March’s Global Times article, Arrogant Japan must apologize for its colonial behaviors towards S.Korea, is a case in point.) 

But if that propaganda fails to reignite nationalistic impulses, South Koreans will increasingly look towards Japan as their natural ally in the region. Along with Taiwan, the nations are the only genuine and mature democracies in East Asia. Emanuel, known for his pragmatism, nevertheless contends that idealism helps bind the nations. “Freedom has a seductive pull on the imagination”, he asserts. 

The US foreign policy establishment hopes that idealism holds in the face of China’s transactional ploys. Other US treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines have traditionally displayed swaying allegiances on this basis. Pippa Malmgren claims China will try and do the same here. She talks of President Xi “slowly cutting deals with the Koreas…and Japan…to gently commercially seduce and subsume Taiwan without a bullet”. 

Last week’s tripartite summit between Japan, South Korea and China was something of a litmus test. Chinese Premier Li Qiang seeks their economic cooperation to keep supply chains stable in the region. He wants to avoid politicising trade and dangle the economic benefits to both countries in maintaining good relations with China. Yet the summit seems to have delivered little beyond vague promises of cultural exchanges. 

A strong South Korean-Japanese alliance would be a significant counterbalance in the region. Singularly, no country can challenge China’s hegemony (although the US tries to woo India in hope of its future potential to do so). But bigger nations pose a real challenge when united, rather than as detached US allies.  

In his 2017 book The End of the Asian Century, Michael Auslin bemoaned the “hub-and-spoke alliance model” in the Pacific. It’s not strong enough to contend with China’s military buildup or North Korea’s nuclear program. The US needs “to link together both its close partners and other important nations that increasingly share common concerns.” 

That’s now happening and the US will be delighted to see their allies forming tighter partnerships. President Biden will be keen to claim this foreign policy win but it’s equally something an incoming Trump administration will look to utilise. 

Influential national security strategist Elbridge Colby made that clear at the Asian Leadership Conference. Tipped for a major role if Trump wins, Colby’s realist strategy wants to free up US forces for a potential conflict with China. This means getting foreign allies to take greater responsibility for their own defence. In Europe, this involves withdrawing from Ukraine. And in Asia, it will force South Korea to focus on its own domestic security with regards to North Korea. 

This relies on South Korea accepting a role as part of a wider coalition in an ideological fight.  The US will no longer be a transactional guarantor of its security vis a vis the northern border but a key ally in something much bigger. 

Can a South Korea-Japan alliance hold in a world of realpolitik revival? China will still believe it can interrupt this budding bromance, particularly given how fragile relations were in such recent history. But ideological underpinnings give this partnership a better shot than China’s own ragtag alliance. In Russia, North Korea, Iran et al, disparate aims only breed unity in a shared distrust of the West.  

So expect plenty of olive branches as China deals with this thawing relationship. A united front is an unwanted check on its regional ambitions. 

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