Strife between Seoul and Tokyo makes Kim Jong Un’s DMZ victory even more valuable

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Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un surprised the world last week with a third, brief, yet historic meeting in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. North Korean state media heralded the Trump-Kim rendezvous as the “meeting of the century,” as it revives the seemingly defunct nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. While that alone would be a strategic victory for Kim, he has even more reason to celebrate because growing animosity between South Korea and Japan has divided the U.S.-led coalition in Northeast Asia.

Amid the fanfare at the DMZ, Seoul and Tokyo’s relations took several hits. South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies, such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, must provide financial compensation to 11 elderly South Koreans subjected to forced labor during World War II. In retaliation, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe snubbed a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the G20 Summit, though Abe met with nearly every other head of state.

Additionally, Japan announced it will curtail exports of tech goods, primarily key components for semiconductors, to South Korea. This measure will likely hurt major South Korean companies, such as Samsung Electronics, that require these semiconductors for their flagship electronics products. “We have no choice but to say that the relationship of trust between Japan and South Korea has been strikingly damaged,” said Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Yet South Korea and Japan’s dispute goes beyond these recent controversies. Last year, the Moon administration abandoned a bilateral agreement that aims to “permanently resolve” the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery under Japanese colonial rule. Additionally, a radar-locking incident between Japanese aircraft and South Korean naval vessels last December stirred tensions between the Japanese and South Korean militaries.

This fraying of relations undercuts U.S. leverage politically, militarily, and economically in talks with Pyongyang.

Successful U.S. negotiations with North Korea depend on the U.S. imposing sufficient costs, via sanctions and other means, to alter Kim’s strategic rationale for possessing nuclear weapons. Raising these costs requires collective political will among U.S. allies and partners, namely South Korea and Japan, regarding the path forward in reducing the North Korean threat. Consequently, when U.S. allies are fighting each other, the levers of pressure against North Korea diminish.

The U.S. therefore needs to take a more forward role in helping its two security partners ameliorate their differences. Washington faces a difficult path forward, as it will want to avoid voicing direct support for either nation’s grievances at the expense of the other. Fortunately, with open-minded leadership on all sides, bridging these divisions may be possible.

At the government level, the U.S. should strengthen existing security mechanisms and tools that remind Japan and South Korea of their shared threats and national security priorities. Currently, the three countries engage in trilateral military dialogues and conduct multilateral military exercises in ballistic missile defense (BMD) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). In addition, the three nations have enhanced trilateral intelligence sharing on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile activities since Japan and South Korea signed a General Signing of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2016.

However, the current joint military exercises have limits due to Seoul’s fear of provoking Chinese retaliation. Most notably, in November 2017, Seoul rejected a U.S. proposal to conduct a trilateral naval exercise that would include America, South Korea, and Japan. This decision came shortly after the Moon administration unofficially agreed to reduce trilateral security cooperation with Japan and the U.S. in order to resolve its dispute with Beijing over Seoul’s deployment of a U.S. missile defense system. Moreover, South Korea’s concerns regarding China will likely hinder new military exercises beyond their existing areas of BMD and ASW cooperation.

The U.S. should help South Korea and Japan bridge gaps in strategic threat perceptions by establishing a trilateral working-level dialogue. Currently, trilateral dialogues are reserved primarily for ad-hoc ministerial level dialogues that are either in response to North Korean provocations or added meetings during presidential summits. A working-level process would differ in that it would bring in vice-ministerial and other mid-ranking defense and foreign policy officials. This will be essential in helping the three countries regularly inform one another of strategic concerns, coordinate policies, define a shared collective regional vision, and lay groundwork for robust trilateral interagency cooperation. Washington therefore should consider reviving the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) of the early 2000’s. The three nations initially established the TCOG in 1999 to develop common North Korea policies. A new TCOG or a similar body should focus on issues beyond just North Korea.

Beyond government exchanges, the greatest need is to address the hostility between the populations of Japan and South Korea, which perpetuates the conflict. Although full reconciliation should remain the long-term goal, the U.S. should encourage both Seoul and Tokyo to employ the Moon administration’s early “two-track” strategy to separate handling of historic disputes from security issues. Beyond government, people-to-people exchanges may facilitate reconciliation. Genron NPO and the East Asia Institute’s latest opinion poll found that despite both populations’ near-majority negative perceptions of one another, those with positive perceptions cited tourism as well as mutual interest in popular culture and cuisine as their reasons for their positive sentiments.

While historic reconciliation will surely need quite a bit more time, these immediate measures could help President Moon and Prime Minister Abe in relieving domestic political pressures when making tough decisions on bilateral security cooperation.

As long as the Seoul-Tokyo conflict persists, Kim will pocket an indirect yet important concession of reduced pressure against his actions. Since the impromptu DMZ meeting suggests that U.S.-North Korea talks will resume, the Trump administration must address the decaying relations between its two Pacific allies if it hopes to come away with a good deal.

Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP.

Tags Donald Trump Foreign relations of Japan Foreign relations of South Korea Kim Jong Un Korean Demilitarized Zone Moon Jae-in North Korea–South Korea relations Shinzo Abe

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