A South Korean Perspective


"Reading Abe’s Washington Visit"


A View from Seoul


From the standpoint of what Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Barack Obama wanted to achieve during the most recent US-Japan summit, Abe’s US tour was a resounding success. While a last-minute breakthrough on TPP did not materialize, the two leaders vowed to expedite negotiations, but much more importantly, Obama and Abe celebrated the transformation of the US-Japan alliance into arguably the most important bilateral relationship for the two powers—a trend line that is likely to continue well into the next two to three decades. For example, the “US-Japan Joint Vision Statement” that was announced on April 28, 2015 noted that “we recognize that the security and prosperity of our two countries in the twenty-first century is intertwined, inseparable, and not defined solely by national borders. Our current and future commitments to each other and to the international order reflect that reality.”1 In essence, if Great Britain reinvented itself as America’s “indispensable wingman” throughout the Cold War and into the early twenty-first century, that mantle seems to be passing to Japan in 2015 due partially to Britain’s rapidly declining international role and corresponding influence, but more importantly, owing to the accelerated rise of China and the peaking of American power. In the same joint statement noted above, Washington and Tokyo reaffirmed their commitment to common principles such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; global norms of behavior including freedom of navigation; and multilateral cooperation among like-minded partners; and codes of conduct that highlight the overriding differences between China, on the one hand, and the United States and Japan, on the other. The upshot of the Abe visit is that Japan has established itself as America’s new “wingman,” at least in Asia. What that means for South Korea depends on how it responds diplomatically over the coming months.

Embracing but Not Being Trapped by History

For South Korea, Abe’s speech to a joint session of the US Congress was perceived as a major disappointment given the absence of a direct apology on the comfort women issue among other sensitive historical legacies. Seoul has treaded carefully in its official response to the new US-Japan defense guidelines that were announced formally on April 28, given overriding public concern in South Korea over Japan’s increasingly robust military capabilities but also due to Washington’s seemingly unconditional support for a militarily stronger Japan that can and should play a larger security role. Nevertheless, and contrary to conventional wisdom, Abe’s April 2015 state visit to the United States may coincide with and also trigger a minor U-turn in Korean foreign policy with specific reference to the critically important but also deeply frozen Korean-Japanese relationship. As is well known, a Korean-Japanese summit meeting has not been held since President Park Geun-hye came into office in February 2015, owing to a confluence of events such as Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 that effectively crushed then behind-the-scenes maneuvers to improve bilateral ties. Park has continued to insist that Japan must show tangible progress on key historical legacies such as a strong reaffirmation to abide by the spirit and content of the Kono and Murayama statements, including the comfort women issue. Nevertheless, just two days after Abe’s speech to Congress, South Korea’s Senior Secretary to the President for Foreign and National Security Affairs Ju Chul-ki noted in a speech on April 20, 2015 that “efforts are underway with Japan to overcome key historical issues by year’s end, and we will definitely resolve the Korean-Japanese relationship by separating historical and security issues.”2 Although it remains to be seen how much headway can be made in improving ties that, arguably, are at their lowest point since relations were normalized, given that Seoul is waiting to evaluate Abe’s mid-August announcement commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the Park administration has been criticized at home and abroad for clinging too much to the history issue at the expense of other dimensions in the Korean-Japanese relationship. While Washington has maintained its long-standing position that it supports a stronger trilateral partnership with its two most important allies in Asia and welcomes a way forward on the history issue, the overwhelming consensus inside the Beltway seems to be that notwithstanding Abe’s shortcomings in acknowledging Japan’s wartime atrocities, it is time for Seoul to move forward.

Seoul’s Return to Pragmatism?

The Park administration has argued that since February 2013, it has been able to achieve a number of key accomplishments—concluding the ROK-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement on April 22, 2015, initializing the ROK-China FTA in February 2015, and postponing OPCON—, but it has been criticized by the media and the National Assembly for overly emphasizing principles rather than making tangible progress on a range of difficult issues including the Korean-Japanese relationship. Past criticism from the political world against an administration’s foreign policy were usually characterized by contending ideological and political stances, such as the conservatives’ sharp criticism against the Sunshine Policy or robust engagement with North Korea and the progressives’ equally strong disapproval of a security policy that was perceived to be too dependent on the United States at the expense of other key foreign policy partners such as China. More recently, both the ruling and the opposition parties have criticized the Park administration’s foreign policy for failing to maximize Seoul’s maneuverability amongst the United States, China, and Japan, including the absence of a viable strategy to offset or, at the very least, respond more effectively to the unprecedented security and military convergence between the United States and Japan. In a recent hearing in the foreign affairs committee of the National Assembly, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se was heavily criticized for accentuating the Park Administration’s list of “foreign policy achievements,” while narrowing Seoul’s strategic options vis-à-vis Japan and realignment of great power relations in Northeast Asia.3 Even ruling party members chastised the foreign ministry for “its inability to garner public support” for key foreign policies although some argued that it was irresponsible to request the foreign minister to step down.4

Notwithstanding the broad criticisms against the government’s foreign policy, it should be noted that Seoul’s policy towards Tokyo cannot be understood without taking into consideration the overarching influence of domestic politics, the media, and civil society. For example, if the Park administration had chosen to separate history from security issues early in its tenure, it would most likely have been heavily criticized for ignoring the overriding importance of “correcting” outstanding historical legacies between Korea and Japan. Indeed, after Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, it was politically impossible for Park to proceed with business-as-usual, and had she done so, she would have been excoriated in the media and the parliament for failing to press Japan to atone sincerely for its war-time atrocities. It is widely recognized that meaningful forward movement in the Korean-Japanese relationship depends equally on the Japanese government’s ability to accept wartime legacies without whitewashing or diluting past apologies and South Korea’s ability to perceive Japan beyond the prism of history. Indeed, leaving aside for the moment key steps Tokyo should take in restoring bilateral ties with Seoul, three key issues stand out in shaping South Korea’s policies towards Japan.

First is the ability to internalize the growing strategic importance of the US-Japan relationship, given that both Washington and Tokyo are in the process of reconfiguring their alliance into the most important bilateral political and military alliance in the early twenty-first century. US press reports on Abe’s visit highlighted the fact that under the new defense guidelines, Japan is able to provide more logistical support for the US military in Northeast Asia and elsewhere and, “reiteration on American soil by President Obama that the US security guarantee covers Japan’s administration over the Senkaku Islands.”5 Indeed, while the United States had alluded previously to the judgment that the alliance covered the disputed Senkaku Islands, the new defense guidelines contain an explicit reference to the islands. Although the US-ROK alliance has grown in importance over the past two decades, particularly since the early 2000s, commensurate with South Korea’s growing economic and military capabilities and its critical geopolitical and geo-economic role between the United States and China, it would be strategically naïve on the part of Seoul to assume that the U.S.-Japan alliance will not continue to expand given that there is every indication that the alliance is going to be strengthened into the 2020s and beyond.

Second, as much as bilateral issues dominate the Korean-Japanese relationship, the newly reminted US-Japan alliance also signals the need for South Korea to factor in maximizing its strategic leverage vis-à-vis China and North Korea well into the 2020s and beyond. Even if China’s economic growth begins to slow to under five percent as many experts believe from the late 2010s, there is little doubt that China’s power projection capabilities and matching political influence in and outside of Asia are going to grow. And so long as the threat from North Korea continues to expand, including Kim Jong-un’s desire to acquire SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missiles) capabilities, given that North Korea has most likely succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear warheads, intelligence sharing and joint responses among the United States, Korea, and Japan are going to become progressively more important. If bilateral ties between Korea and Japan worsen to the point where trilateral coordination and cooperation on core security issues are further politicized, South Korea’s comprehensive crisis management and deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis North Korea could be negatively affected. And third, although Chinese and South Korean perceptions converge on historical legacies involving Japan, this does not mean that other Asian nations harbor similar perceptions. Indeed, most Southeast Asian nations continue to perceive Japan’s increased security and military roles in relatively positive terms given their own anxieties and concerns over China’s growing military footprint in the South China Sea. As a case in point, Japan and the Philippines are going to hold their first joint naval exercises in the South China Sea on May 12, 2015 and according to a Reuters news report, “Japan’s military is considering joining the United States in maritime air patrols in the South China Sea as a counterweight to growing Chinese power…[and] that strategy, which is being encouraged by the Philippines, is spurring closer security ties between Manila and Tokyo.”6

Game Time for Seoul

Half-way into the Park administration’s five-year term, leaders in both South Korea and Japan need to step up to the plate. For Japan, the long-running assumption since the end of the Cold War has been that so long as Tokyo strengthened its alliance with Washington, it would serve to constrain Chinese power. The global war on terrorism after 9/11 was the first major trigger that pulled Japan even closer to the United States, and this strategic convergence has only deepened since China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. Moreover, consonant with rising anxiety across Southeast Asia, particularly in countries that have territorial claims in the South China Sea, Japan has adroitly maximized its leverage within ASEAN to enhance counterbalancing efforts vis-à-vis China. But what Japanese leaders have continued to underestimate, going back to the Koizumi cabinet, is that absent mutually reinforcing Korean-Japanese ties, Tokyo’s Asia policy is not going to have South Korea on board. For its part, South Korea does not want to be manipulated either by the United States or Japan to be an extension of a de facto counterweight towards China, but at the same time, South Korea’s strategic maneuverability can be increased when it is able to show China that so long as China continues to embrace North Korea and pursue progressively more forceful military policies, Seoul has every right and reason to strengthen its alliance with the United States and trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan.

Over the long term, South Korea’s core strategic interests are going to hinge increasingly on whether it is able to convince China of the benefits of a unified Korean Peninsula under South Korea’s auspices that necessitate closer political consultations between Seoul and Beijing. Nevertheless, unlike German unification which occurred at a time when Soviet power was at its nadir, Korean unification is likely to occur at the height of Chinese influence, which is going to require very different diplomatic tool sets. At the same time, retaining South Korea’s strategic leverage throughout this process is going to also require the strongest of ties with Washington and positive sum relations with Japan. For these reasons, South Korea has to see the bigger strategic picture in moving forward in its ties with Japan, even as it continues to remind Tokyo that without genuine reconciliation with South Korea, Japan will never be able to implement a comprehensive Asia strategy. While many were inclined to view Abe’s visit to Washington in zero-sum terms, there remains hope that it can become part of a win-win outcome in diplomacy with the United States and in the way bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are managed in the coming months.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, the White House, “US-Japan Joint Vision Statement,” April 28, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/04/28/us-japan-joint-vision-statement.

2. “Ju Chul-ki Suseok, ‘Olhe joong Hanil kwanke bandushi hekyul,’” Yonhap News, April 30, 2015, http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2015/04/30/0200000000AKR20150430123900043.HTML.

3. Chung Yong Hwan, “Yun Byung-se Waekyo, ‘Kukhoe seodo gorip…yeoya modu satwe chok-ku,’” JTBC, May 5, 2015, http://news.jtbc.joins.com/html/377/NB10875377.html.

4. Seo Jae-Joon and Hwang Ra-Hyun, “Yun Byung-se Waekyo, ‘daeil waekyo silpae’ satwe yogooae jintam,” News1, May 4, 2015, http://news1.kr/articles/?2216002.

5. John Lee, “Japan PM Abe’s Visit to Washington and California,” World Affairs, April 29, 2015, http://worldaffairsjournal.org/article/japan-pm-abe%E2%80%99s-visit-washington%E2%80%94and-california.

6. Tim Kelly and Manuel Mogato, “Japan, Philippines to Hold First Naval Drill in South China Sea: Sources,” Reuters, May 8, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/08/us-southchinasea-philippines-japan-idUSKBN0NT11J20150508?utm_source=Active+Subscribers&utm_campaign=a03d6a6aaa-Asia-050815&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_35c49cbd51-a03d6a6aaa-62627865.