Before Moscow’s unprovoked war, European countries were divided on issues ranging from Russian energy pipelines to Brexit and – with lingering resentments dating back to trade disputes from the Trump era and the Iraq War – some even appeared to be rethinking their relationship with Washington.
The stakes could hardly be higher. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently called the rise of China “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century” — and that was after the Russian invasion.
Hence Washington’s desire to see Japan and South Korea unite.
The problem for Biden? While they both seem eager to get closer to Washington, the two countries just don’t get along when it comes to each other. They have a historically bitter and disruptive relationship rooted in the Japanese colonization of South Korea from 1910 to 1945, fueled by Japan’s use of sex slaves in wartime brothels—victims now euphemistically referred to as “comfort women.” . In addition, they remain locked in a 70-year dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands in the Sea of Japan.
These differences are not historical curiosities, but living disputes. In one of the most recent attempts at trilateral talks, in November 2021, a joint press conference derailed when Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister objected to a South Korean police chief’s visit to the islets — known by South Korea as Dokdo. , but by Japan as Takeshima . Lawsuits against Japanese companies for their use of forced labor during wartime remain unresolved. In recent years, there have been increasing differences in security and economic issues.
Evans Revere† a former US diplomat who has spent the past 50 years in and out of government, with stints at both the Korea and Japanese bureaus, has watched the sourness of the relationship sap alliances over a period of decades.
“If Tokyo and Seoul are not actively talking to each other, if they are not cooperating with each other, it will be very difficult for the US to fulfill not only its obligations to them, but also its strategy of dealing with China and with North Korea. go.” he said.
Signs of a thaw
Fortunately for Biden, Revere says he feels more hopeful now than in a long time.
Crucially, the two new leaders have also shown signs that they have put the past behind them. Yoon offered an olive branch to Japan last month by sending a delegation to Tokyo ahead of its inauguration as part of his plan — set out in a campaign speech — for South Korea to make a “fresh start” as a “global pivotal state.” “. †
His team hand delivered a letter from Yoon to Kishida, and the move was answered this month when Japan sent Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to Yoon’s inauguration with a letter in reply.
After receiving the letter, Kishida said strategic cooperation between Japan, the US and South Korea is “needed more than ever as the rules-based international order is under threat”.
But even if countries’ leaders see the benefit of leaving the past behind, they will be eager to alienate voters who may not be so forgiving.
Professor Kohtaro Ito, a senior research fellow at the Canon Institute for Global studies, said that while Yoon had shown signs of a changing approach – electing a foreign minister in Park Jin who spoke both English and Japanese and is popular in the Japanese parliament — a breakthrough during Biden’s journey is unlikely.
That’s because both have yet to navigate the impending local elections — South Korea has local polls in June and Japan has upper house elections in July — and neither leader will want to alienate nationalist voters who are less inclined to accept the past. to belong to the past.
The barrier of nationalism
This is not the first time the two countries have tried to bridge their differences. In 1965, they signed a treaty that normalized relations and would resolve some of the most controversial issues, including that of “comfort women.”
But South Korea was a military dictatorship at the time and many Koreans never accepted the treaty. For some, the subsequent apologies and deals from Japanese prime ministers have still failed to deliver on what they see as adequate reparations.
Choi Eunmi, a research fellow in Japanese Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said an alliance between Japan and South Korea would be vital to Biden’s hopes of building a coalition, but felt his visit was little. would do to solve these problems.
“It’s too sensitive and too controversial and there’s no room for America to solve the problems,” she said.
There are the voters to think about.
Revere highlights “the nationalism that often drives perceptions of this relationship and historical issues in both capitals” as a pernicious factor and the role of South Korean courts which – through their rulings on war disputes – “could bring crashing all attempts at reconciliation.” .”
For decades, families of Korean forced labor victims have been fighting for compensation through the courts, targeting Japanese companies directly.
It’s an issue that has infuriated Tokyo, which believes things have been settled with the 1965 treaty, and an issue Yoon can barely address without being accused of interfering with the independence of the judiciary.
Yoon is also starting his only five-year term with the lowest approval ratings of any incoming president and must work with an opposition dominated parliament.
In Japan, the older and generally more conservative generation largely supports a tougher approach to South Korea and Kishida will be aware of that, Ito said, adding that the older generation voted in much greater numbers than the younger.
However, Biden probably has one clear message that could allay any lingering political doubts from Kishida or Yoon: the importance of alliances and cooperation, as demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The US president has definitely played an important role in mobilizing the international community, mobilizing NATO allies and others to support Ukraine when it is needed,” Revere said.
“What better statement about the importance and value of the utility of alliances than what is happening now.”