America's East Asian dilemma can be overcome

In times of regional militarism, US-mandated good relations between South Korea and Japan cannot stand without first addressing the historical social justice.
Published by
Central Office
on July 3, 2024
on July 3, 2024
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Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida (left) and South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol shaking hands during a joint press conference following their meeting in Seoul, May 7, 2023.

When South Korea's president, Yoon Suk-yeol announced in January last year that Seoul would need its own nuclear capabilities as a deterrent against North Korean nuclear program, Washington flinched. According to foreign and security policy experts, South Korea is already being placed under the American nuclear umbrella, and any attempt by Seoul to advance an independent nuclear program would not just run against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, but risk East Asian regional destabilization, bringing Seoul under political isolation and economic sanctions. On the other hand, when the presidential administration in Seoul announced in March that a preliminary agreement had been negotiated with Japan, aimed to sideline the 2018 decision of the Korean Supreme Court demanding compensation for the Korean families of the victims of Japanese colonial-era forced labour by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, the White House reacted promptly, with President Joe Biden describing the agreement as "historic".

Veraciously, today's South Korea is caught between the need for diplomatic reconciliation with Tokyo and the growing necessity for security guarantees against Pyongyang. For its part, Washington is caught between two rocks. On the one side, the pressure to respond to Seoul's demands for security assurances without triggering an increasingly-appealing over-developed North Korean nuclear program aimed at reaching American territory. On the other hand, how to baptize the newly negotiated Korean-Japanese agreement without sparking a Korean popular backlash on behalf of the families of the victims of forced labour, and a Japanese harsh political reaction by overly opposing it.

Seoul's relations with Washington are in fact peppered by the nuclear paradox that is spicing them up more and more with the passage of time. In 2006, when the North Korean neighbour turned nuclear, the military question was easy to answer. What will the US do if Pyongyang launches a military operation on South Korea? It was anything but difficult for American security analysts to answer: it will definitely respond militarily in defence of an important ally in East Asia, plus send a clear message to the communist regime in Pyongyang that Seoul has a stronger deterrent than ever: the American nuclear umbrella. But let's ask the same question now in 2024 after a long period in which the hermitist North Korean regime has been showing increasingly more signs of concluding a developed nuclear program sufficiently enough
for the intercontinental missiles launched from North Korean territory or its waters to finally reach the big American cities. The American response would have been considerably subdued: South Korea remains an important ally of the US in the region and Seoul enjoys all the American support in the matter of national security. This would be the discourse that the former American president, John Kennedy could have given to the French President Charles de Gaulle who asked himself: "Would America trade Los Angeles or New York for Paris?" Put it differently, would it do that for Seoul or Busan? Now, just like then, it would definitely not.

In the relationship with Japan, the US has always pushed for a South Korean reconciliation with its colonial past in order to form both a common diplomatic front in normal times, and a strengthening of cooperation on security in special times, as opposed to China's expansion in the region. But the South Korean Supreme Court's order in 2018 for Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel to pay for compensation to the families of victims of forced labor during the Japanese occupation, complicated the American attempts to bring its most reliable allies in East Asia closer to an agreement on solving historical differences. In turn, Tokyo has enforced a trade war against its South Korean neighbor in 2019 by banning the export of critical materials aimed at kneeling the powerful semiconductor industry in South Korea. For the Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul, between the wounds of the past and the need for free flows of input materials for the domestic production of microchips (an important source of income), it was the former that took primacy over the latter. But under Yon Suk-yeol, Seoul is more willing to bury the hatchet of the war with Tokyo and bring bilateral economic cooperation back on the agenda. Now, just as for his predecessor's predecessor, he enjoys American support in opening dialogue with Japan. Back in 2015, the Obama administration played an active role in the agreement between Seoul and Tokyo regarding the compensation of victims of sex slavery (known as comfort women in Japan) during the Japanese imperial occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Agreed between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, the agreement proved to be unwelcomed by the South Korean public antagonized by the lack of transparency on the full terms of the convention and the absence of any form of official accountability from the Japanese side. Moreover, the deal went against any popular consultation with the victims which has never occurred. Like his White House predecessor for whom it served as vice-president, Biden hastened to give approval to the forced labour preliminary agreement, but contrary to Obama, Biden chose not to be officially involved, standing on the edge of the dialogue between Seoul and Tokyo and opting instead to encourage a diplomatic leap forward.
Both POTUS were right that the South Korean people are open to dialogue and diplomatic reconciliation with Japan. In the era of the rise of China and the threat of North Korea's nuclear militarism, East Asia looks increasingly vulnerable to an unpredictable geopolitical contest, and Seoul and Tokyo need each other for a shared response and a common input to their strengths of resisting the unexpected. But what Obama and Biden, together with Park Geun-hye and now Yoon Suk-yeol have missed is the unwillingness of the South Korean people to trade-off any historical social justice for the sake of a fast and blind diplomatic breakthrough. Addressing them simultaneously but superficially, or even worse, put political normalization in times of great power competition before historical social justice, would prove futile in building trust exactly when this stands at the modern foundation of the Japanese-Korean reconciliation. A different approach is in dire need to heal the wounds of the past. First and foremost, only through South Korean society's active engagement, could a popular approval genuinely endorse a bilateral agreement with Japan once and for all. In turn, there cannot be any real incentive from the South Korean political class to allow for direct democracy on this particular issue and willingness for direct implication from the population without signs of Japanese positive manifestation in the form of political acceptance in Tokyo and solidarity within its own society. The more stubbornness Japan is showing in allowing for any proportional apologies with reference to its past actions in Korea, the less ready the administration in Seoul is to involve its population directly in the matter since this might sense Korean weakness and over-acceptance, and for the Koreans themselves to participate knowing that any positive outcome is far distant. These complementary variables are indispensable towards sealing a permanent political alliance based not necessarily on shared history but democratic and liberal values, as well as compromise, which might endure against the present and future communist assertiveness in the region once the past has been permanently forgiven and mutually forgotten.


America Needs to Rescue Japan and South Korea, Foreign Affairs Magazine, February 9, 2023, America Needs to Reassure Japan and South Korea (

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