Seoul's relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo need a jolt of reality

Seoul's relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo need a jolt of reality
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South Koreans are “servile to the powerful and high-handed toward the weak,” remarked Kubota Kanichiro, Japan’s lead delegate in bilateral talks with South Korea in October 1953. His insult struck right at the soft target of Korean ethno-nationalism. 

The exigencies of the Korean War had created a need in Washington to galvanize allies and available assets to reinforce its emerging containment doctrine. Hence, upon America’s urging, Japan and South Korea — erstwhile colonial oppressor and victim, now both dependent on the U.S. for national security — reluctantly came together to talk about talks. Previous meetings during the war yielded only more acrimony, as this round would. 

Kubota also said during those talks that the United States violated international law by liberating Korea and supporting the establishment of the Republic of Korea before concluding a peace treaty with Japan; by redistributing Japanese-held Korean properties to Koreans; and by repatriating Japanese nationals from Korea. Koreans, he said, should be grateful for improvements made by Japan, such as the construction of railways, ports and farmland during “Japan’s compulsory occupation of Korea,” which “was beneficial to the Korean people.” 


Bilateral meetings between Seoul and Tokyo stopped for five years thereafter.

For American policymakers flabbergasted by periodic spats between Seoul and Tokyo, it should be amply clear by now: Playing intermediary between America’s key allies in East Asia is a duty in service of U.S. national interests. Yet it won’t solve the problem, because the roots of the problem lie in an unyielding perception gap between and among South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and, pointedly, North Korea. 

Disparate national perspectives, hardened by calamitous histories of colonial oppression and internecine war and exacerbated over time by ethnic nationalism and divergent political interests, are here to stay until a fundamental change in the status quo in the Korean peninsula — war, humanitarian disaster, or the merging of the Korean states — impels the actors to relinquish grievances of the past and build a more cooperative, common future.

If that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, what should the United States do beyond just “manage” the alliance?

First, identify the problem. While the U.S. sees mostly a convergence of national interests between South Korea and Japan by virtue of the growing North Korea threat, the reality is very different. Current South Korean leaders subscribe to an ideology of pan-Korean ethno-tribalism. “Common bloodline comes before alliance,” as a former South Korean president said. 


The Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea puts further restrictions on seawater entry to fight pandemic: state media South Korea: Kim Jong Un has executed citizens, shut down capital to stop COVID-19 spread Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? MORE regime views domination of the wealthier South — a magnet to the people of the oppressive, immiserated North — as the sine qua non to its long-term regime preservation. The North Korean Constitution defines “the final victory of the revolution,” a not-so-subtle reference to the North’s emergence as the sole de facto and de jure Korean state.

Many, if not most, Koreans in the South and the North view Japan as an unrepentant former oppressor. They resolutely believe Japan was historically inferior to Korea in culture and material wealth until a dramatic program of modernization in the late 19th century. Deep is Korean condescension against Japan, exacerbated by a collective inferiority complex as manifested in South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s remark, “We will never again lose to Japan,” following Japan’s announcement of restrictions on exports of chemicals that are crucial to South Korea’s semiconductor industry.

Second, be positioned to predict Korean ploys — for example, the “Korean comedy of errors” that was the first summit between Moon and Kim in April 2018. This feel-good moment was designed to mislead the U.S. into believing that through summit pageantry President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE can induce Kim to part with his nuclear programs. Kim would win a political cover against future provocations and more time to build the bomb, and Moon would score a political victory by disarming the South Korean public under the illusion of peace.

Be also aware of Japan’s initiatives and responses that are adverse to U.S. interests. Japan is neither a passive party nor an innocent victim vis-à-vis the Koreas. The Japanese, too, view Koreans through the lens of condescension as overly-emotional and stubborn. For example, Japan in recent years has claimed that the South Korean government has been “moving the goalposts,” reneging on agreements and demanding apologies from the Japanese government. Seldom, if ever, is the point made that key Japanese officials effectively have denied their predecessors’ landmark apologies with inflammatory acts as well as obfuscatory and revisionist statements of their own. 

Third, don’t let growing anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea become anti-U.S. sentiment. Be judicious in statements and actions, and don’t insult South Korea. 

South Korea has backed up Moon Jae-In’s propagandistic statements — such as “the road to overtaking Japan and guiding it toward a cooperative order in East Asia” — with its withdrawal from an intelligence-sharing deal with Japan, the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA), causing the U.S. and Japan to express “deep concern and disappointment.” Washington even stated that South Korea’s decision “reflects a serious misapprehension on the part of the Moon administration regarding the serious security challenges we face in Northeast Asia.”

That South Korea scrapped the pact in the wake of seven missile tests by North Korea since July 25 and in the face of Japan’s considerable superiority in signals intelligence raises questions about Seoul’s priorities. The national security of the Republic of Korea and strengthening the U.S.-led trilateral quasi-alliance involving Japan seem lower priorities for Moon than fanning the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment for political gain and placating North Korea. 

Furthermore, that South Korea is conducting today the largest scale-ever military drills in defense of Dokdo (Takeshima), islets located in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) over which Tokyo claims jurisdiction but Seoul has exercised full administrative control for seven decades, seems an over-the-top measure designed to boost Korean nationalism and irritate Japan. These fastidious security measures signal that the Moon administration will: 

  • Ride the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment to the next general election in April 2020, which has the added advantage of pleasing Pyongyang; and
  • Maintain at all costs the illusion of North Korea’s amenability to denuclearization despite Pyongyang’s advancement of its nuclear arsenal.

The Trump administration must signal to Seoul and Tokyo that they need to alter course. This message cannot be delivered by pronouncements, insults or unreasonable demands on alliance cost-sharing, but only by engaging Seoul in negotiations on the “restructuring” and “reconfiguration” of the U.S. Forces in Korea — code words for the diminution of U.S. troop presence. 

A shock therapy it will be for both Seoul and Tokyo, initially welcomed by Pyongyang, Beijing and perhaps even Seoul. But, in due course, the South Korean people, if they feel a sense of urgency to exist as a liberal democracy, will ensure that their government must shed Korean tribalism and be high-handed, rather than servile toward their real enemy, the despotic regime of North Korea.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.