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South Korea and Japan: A Mutual Loathing the U.S. Can’t Fix

In Washington, there is only one foreign policy position: America must do more. More of what doesn’t much matter. Just more. More money. More troops. More pressure. More sanctions. More wars.

Such has been the reaction to the unseemly squabble between the Republic of Korea and Japan. Diplomatic hostilities have exploded, with Washington’s two closest allies in East Asia sanctioning each other. Most recently, Seoul has said it plans to withdraw from a bilateral intelligence sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which comes up for renewal in November.

The Trump administration has criticized both sides, urging them to “get along.” Alas, these efforts have gone nowhere. So now Washington is being blamed. Complains Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “no U.S. official, certainly not Donald Trump, has intervened to hold [Tokyo and Seoul] together.” Stanford’s Daniel Sneider tells Kaplan that “what’s happening is a consequence of the vacuum of leadership in Washington.”

But this is no small brush fire that anyone can put out. In 1965, Japan and South Korea normalized relations. Today, Tokyo argues that the resulting agreement barred private claims growing out of the occupation, in this instance, forced laborers used by Japanese companies. (A separate yet equally emotional issue involves the “comfort women” forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army.)

South Korean judges have long blocked such cases, but the ROK’s Constitutional Court recently reversed course. That could result in large damage awards against Japanese concerns, perhaps totaling in excess of $20 billion. (As part of the 1965 process, Tokyo provided aid worth roughly $8 billion in today’s dollars.) Japan’s government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, responded with the economic equivalent of a nuclear weapon: trade restrictions that threatened large South Korean firms.

Both nations are acting irresponsibly. Both are market-friendly democracies and American allies potentially threatened by North Korea and China. They should work together to promote regional stability and security. Instead they are treating each other as enemies. The basic problem is that Japanese and Koreans are highly nationalistic. And nationalists don’t always like each other.

In this case, residents of South Korea have better historical reason to be angry. Japanese traditionally viewed Koreans as inferior, having seized control of their peninsula after defeating China in 1895 and Russia in 1905. Five years later, Tokyo formally colonized the Korean Peninsula, during which it attempted to suppress Korean culture, even pressing Koreans to change their names and religion. The first presidents of South and North Korea, political activist Syngman Rhee and military guerrilla Kim Il-sung, respectively, worked for independence.

I first visited South Korea in 1989 and North Korea in 1992. In common was their mutual loathing of Japan. Tokyo treated Korean workers brought to the home islands and their descendants as second class citizens—which is one reason that many ethnic Koreans in Japan later listened to North Korean propaganda and emigrated to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, too late discovering the truth about their new home. Reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the South and Japan was reluctant, not enthusiastic. Yet over the years, Japanese officials have reopened nationalist wounds by praising Tokyo’s rule over Korea.

Unsurprisingly, confrontation brings political benefits, something Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, bedeviled by a weak economy and lack of progress in denuclearization, desperately needs. A majority of South Koreans support ending intelligence cooperation with Japan. Abe is stronger politically but conciliating South Korea offers him no political benefit.

In fact, reciprocal hate is not unusual in international relations, and it rarely dissipates quickly or smoothly. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain did not come naturally. The Revolutionary War included a bitter civil war against Loyalists, many of whom were driven from America. A generation later, the U.S. and Britain fought again in the War of 1812. In succeeding years, Washington targeted British influence in the Western hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine.

Our two nations almost came to blows during the Civil War. During the latter part of the 19th century, Washington and London squabbled over South American boundaries. And there was plenty of grassroots opposition to America’s entry into World War I, especially among ethnic Germans and Irish, who were not fans of John Bull. Tensions between the two governments persisted into the 20th century, erupting during peace negotiations after both world wars and later when the Eisenhower administration thwarted British military intervention in Egypt.

Brutal nations sometimes strong-arm weaker countries into cooperating. For instance, Nazi Germany turned both Hungary and Romania into allies against the Soviet Union. But that just papered over hostilities. Budapest has not yet forgotten its loss of territory in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon after World War I. The status of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, meanwhile, remains a point of contention.

Perhaps the most powerful incentive to forgive if not necessarily forget the past comes from necessity. In particular, external threats provide a good reason for frenemies to cooperate. During the early 20th century, France, desperate to enlist allies against rapidly industrializing Germany, settled colonial conflicts with Great Britain and set aside revolutionary differences with Imperial Russia. Fear of war proved to be a powerful adhesive.

This highlights the problem with the argument that by “doing more,” Washington could bring Seoul and Tokyo together. The bilateral gulf is vast. After Moon announced his decision on the GSOMIA, his government undertook military maneuvers on the Liancourt Rocks (known as the Dokdo and Takeshima islands by Seoul and Tokyo, respectively), over which both countries dispute ownership. The U.S. State Department said South Korea’s action was “not productive.” Indeed.

Last Friday, Moon offered to “embrace and cooperate with Japan” if it “returns to the table.” However, Tokyo can ill afford to back down without some South Korean concessions. Seoul claims it can do nothing to overrule the courts, but my recent discussions with South Korean officials in the Blue House suggested they weren’t inclined to try very hard. Worse, Japan now has even less incentive to move.

An anonymous State Department official noted that “the most recent action on the part of Seoul directly affects U.S. security interests. This is something we can’t sit quiet for.” Yet under these circumstances, what, precisely, should the Trump administration do? Further expressing its opinion is likely to achieve little. Despite Uncle Sam’s pretense of omniscience and omnipotence, foreign governments often pay little attention to American pronouncements.

President Trump has little to offer diplomatically since he is currently pressing Japan to make trade concessions and increase military contributions and South Korea to provide greater host nation support. Giving away his agenda would sacrifice his legacy and political fortunes. Moreover, the Seoul-Tokyo dispute has nothing to do with the U.S. America can be blamed for many things, but not the mistreatment of Koreans by Imperial Japan.

Perhaps even worse would be the administration rewarding foreign manipulation. Yun Duk-min of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy argues that Moon “is also using brinkmanship, putting pressure Japan to back down and at the same time hoping that the United States will intervene.” The Japanese behave similarly. Sneider explained: “When they’re interacting with the United States, the main thing on their mind is getting the Americans to agree with them, with their sense of grievance and putting the responsibility on the other side.”

At the same time, Washington’s dual defense commitment insulates both sides from the consequences of their folly. So long as they are shielded by the global superpower, they can indulge in tantrums for political gain with little concern for the consequences.

Yet both should fear North Korean developments, given Pyongyang’s past threats. Chinese hostility is better developed towards Japan for obvious historical reasons. However, Beijing’s imposition of sanctions on the ROK for participating in Washington’s THAAD missile defense system made many South Koreans wary of their large neighbor. Democratic and Western-oriented, Seoul and Tokyo should naturally work together and with other like-minded states, such as Australia and Singapore. However, America’s military presence means they don’t need to do so in order to ensure their security.

Which is another good reason to begin reducing U.S. defense commitments and military deployments. In August 1945, the Cold War justified a larger international role for Washington than before. That world has now disappeared. Circumstances today warrant nations taking responsibility for their own security. That certainly includes Japan and South Korea.

One of the benefits of South Korea and Japan getting off the U.S. dole would be to raise the price of sacrificing long-term security interests for short-term political gains. The GSOMIA represents more than intelligence cooperation. Defending other nations should be a last resort for America, a step taken, if at all, only after the other party has done its best to provide. Neither Seoul nor Tokyo can make that claim today. Washington should say no more.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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