August 06, 2023

South Korea-Japan Inching Closer

B Arjun

THE latest Hollywood blockbuster "Oppenheimer" is not likely to hit theaters in Japan. The release of “Barbie,” the second superhit of the year, is also under a cloud as Japanese people are irked by social media comments which have combined the two movies as Barbenheimer.”

It is certainly difficult for Japanese audiences to digest a movie eulogising Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who led the project of making atomic bombs. Moreover, this would be unacceptable to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose political constituency is in Hiroshima. Kishida had chosen Hiroshima as the venue for this year's G7 summit to highlight the dangers posed by the use of nuclear weapons that had come back into the international security discourse after the war in Ukraine.

Japan’s ambiguity on nuclear weapons is perplexing. It professes to dislike nuclear weapons and believes in positioning Hiroshima at the vanguard of the global disarmament movement. Yet, it remains totally dependent on the US security umbrella. Japan is a US security ally and has even allowed the US military base to thrive in Okinawa. The contradictions in Kishida’s pacifism and commitment to nuclear abstention are further exposed by his actions that are promoting greater militarisation of Japan by doubling Tokyo’s defence budget over the next five years.

The Americans feel that if their diplomacy and soft power can make Japanese people prioritise security over trauma, then they can also resolve the differences between South Korea and Japan. America wants South Koreans to forgive and forget Japanese atrocities – the use of forced labour and sexual slavery – during the Second World War and work to serve American hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.

The US has employed its diplomatic force to get Japan and South Korea on the same page to bolster the region against China as well as to secure their cooperation against Russia. US President Joe Biden is expected to host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in a trilateral summit at Camp David in the month of August.

Both Korea and Japan are close US allies but suffer strained bilateral ties. Years of disputes over historical issues and economic frictions have kept the two apart. The increasing American commitment in Asia against China demands a considerable reduction in tensions and mistrust between its two East Asian allies. The Biden administration is using all its diplomatic might to reshape the diplomatic map of East Asia and ensure that stronger economic and defense ties develop between South Korea and Japan. At the Camp David meet, the leaders are expected to discuss trilateral cooperation across the Indo-Pacific, threats posed by North Korea, and efforts to keep Southeast Asian nations away from Chinese influence.

It would be a landmark achievement for the Biden administration if, at the end of the summit, the two leaders issue a joint statement affirming that their security is interconnected. South Korea getting closer to Japan would certainly be bad news for China, which has been relying on animosity between Tokyo and Seoul to balance America in the region.

The US is using the growing Chinese and Russian military cooperation as a reason to get the East Asian neighbours close. The US is more concerned about China-Russia's "no limits" friendship. During the Quad summit in Tokyo, Chinese and Russian strategic bombers – Russian Tu-95MS strategic missile carriers and Chinese H-6 bombers – flew over the Sea of Japan to make a statement that Russia backs China in the East and South China Seas.

Both Korea and Japan have shown willingness to let mutual security interests guide their relationship. In March this year, Japan and South Korea began "a new era" of diplomatic relations when they held the first summit in 12 years, and they agreed to resume intelligence sharing. Security experts in South Korea feel that they cannot win a war in the Korean Peninsula without assistance from Japanese airfields and ports. Both countries see the Quad security grouping – US, Japan, Australia, and India – as an Asian "NATO." Last year, Japan and South Korea, not NATO members, were invited to join the NATO summit convened as part of US-led efforts to build a coalition against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

At the trilateral meet, Yoon is likely to move with caution to avoid backlash. For South Koreans, the 1965 treaty that resolved all claims related to Japan's 1910-45 occupation is illegitimate. Japan is equally unsure about South Korea's commitment to any new agreement to settle historic issues. In 2015, when Kishida was foreign minister, a vain attempt had been made to bring the two neighbours together by resolving the issue of South Korean "comfort women" forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during the Second World War.

The deal crumbled after a few years when the apex court in South Korea ordered a Japanese company to pay reparations to victims of forced labour. Tokyo retaliated by imposing export controls on chemicals vital to the Korean semiconductor industry.

America is also encouraging Korean companies to join the US-led "decoupling" from China. Washington is luring scores of Korean chipmakers and electronic goods producers to move away from China by offering them billions of dollars in subsidies. While South Korea's conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, has shown little restraint in blaming China for destabilising the region, others in his government are unwilling to discard China and put all eggs in the US basket. Yet, the US policy is succeeding because, according to the Financial Times, the annual value of Sino-South Korean trade was over 300 billion dollars in 2022. However, South Korea exported more goods to the US in 2022 than it did to China for the first time since 2004.

At this juncture, it is certainly advantage America. Yoon believes that Japan has moved beyond its colonial aggressor mindset and has turned into a partner with similar universal values. This is largely because the dominant elite in Japan and Korea are beholden to saving American hegemony. However, as America's power goes down further, the new elite are not likely to remain loyal to Washington.