On Wednesday in Beijing, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan convened like feuding officemates compelled to make amends. The air around them vibrated with resentment, which had built up over months of verbal slights and legal and economic assaults, and was rooted in old histories of colonization as much as recent jockeying for regional stature.
Taro Kono of Japan posed a question to his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha: What did Seoul plan to do about the bilateral intelligence-sharing pact that the two countries had signed in 2016 and was coming up for renewal? Ms. Kang replied that she did not know. But by the time her flight landed back home on Thursday, her boss, President Moon Jae-in, had made his decision. South Korea would withdraw.
It was the latest proof that these two powerful Asian nations, uneasy partners in the best of times, have now become open adversaries. Their rivalry has escalated sharply, with repercussions for all of us around the world.
Seoul’s pullout from the agreement did not come as a complete surprise. The South Korean president had threatened to do as much weeks ago, when Japan instigated what many have called a “trade war,” patterned after President Trump’s economic belligerence toward China. Tokyo tightened controls on key chemical exports to South Korea and removed the country from its “whitelist” of preferred trading partners, ostensibly for security reasons, saying that some commodities from South Korea were making their way to North Korea. In response, South Korea demoted Japan in its own hierarchy of trading partners and encouraged its citizens to undertake a boycott of Japan. “No buying, no traveling, no losing to Japan,” the now ubiquitous South Korean banners read.
Yet the State Department and the Pentagon, and most commentators in the United States assumed that South Korea would back off and do what a good American ally should do: subordinate its national interests to international (meaning, American) concerns. I read in countless tweets and editorials that Japan and South Korea, “two of the United States’ closest Asian allies,” should shelve their considerable differences for the sake of containing North Korea — and, by extension, China. That, after all, is Washington’s main interest in the region. These same commentators are nearly apoplectic now that South Korea has said it will exit the bilateral pact.
This parting of ways, however, is mostly symbolic. South Korea and Japan both have close military relationships with the United States; a trilateral information-sharing agreement is also in place. So if either country has serious intelligence on North Korea or other threats, it would still be relayed, via Washington, to the other.
It’s true that the frayed bonds between Tokyo and Seoul signal a kind of weakness to Pyongyang. North Korea no longer faces a completely united front between and among South Korea, Japan and the United States.
But when was this ever really the case?
One answer might be, “before Trump.” Before President Trump, Japan and South Korea, who have collectively hosted tens of thousands of American troops since World War II, were expected to act in lock step with Washington. They had their differences, to be sure, but the United States regarded them, fairly or not, as stewards of American interests and security. The Trump administration, however, despite its “America First” rhetoric, has discarded traditional alliances all over the world and with them, certain advantages for American security. In East Asia, the steady triangle linking the United States with Japan and South Korea is showing wear.
And so issues long papered over are now surfacing in dramatic ways.
Here are the roots of Japan’s trade-turned-security war with Seoul: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is angry that South Koreans continue to demand reparations for victims of the colonial era. He is angry that South Koreans claim Takeshima as the Dokdo Islands. He is angry that Japan has been excluded from recent nuclear summits with North Korea. He is intent on proving the rectitude of his worldview: that previous generations of Japanese did nothing wrong, and that the “peace constitution” imposed by the Allies after World War II, which prohibits Japan from maintaining a larger standing army, should be scrapped.
South Korea sees all this as fundamentally irreconcilable with its own view of past and present. As Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional law professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, recently told me, South Korea considers its colonization by Japan fundamentally illegal. A liberal president like Moon Jae-in can approach past settlements — waiving the rights of military sex slaves and forced industrial laborers — as invalid.
With so many historic grievances and contemporary conflicts colliding, it is difficult to see how Japan and South Korea can ever rebuild trust.
For its part, North Korea continues to test missiles and rebuff diplomatic entreaties from Seoul and Washington, as the United States launches rockets of its own. And Mr. Abe and Mr. Moon may use the current deadlock to distract from various pressing domestic issues: How many South Koreans, for example, have taken their minds off the fact that Mr. Moon’s nominee for justice minister is caught in a corruption scandal?
I am saddened by these opportunistic nationalisms. I do not wish for angry boycotts, and I worry that the longer this fight continues, the more alienated the people of Japan and South Korea will be from one another — a tragedy given how few Japanese actually support Mr. Abe’s most bellicose, revisionist policies. If the United States or other countries can intervene productively, such help should be welcome.
But Americans should not expect automatic obedience from either of these countries. Japan and South Korea have reasons for their discontent and legitimate national interests. If the United States wants allies in the region, it will have to earn them.
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