Alliance Trilateralism at a Crossroads

South Korea is facing a nightmarish international environment, wholly unexpected as recently as 2015. Then the country was riding high in its foreign policy agenda: trustpolitik leading to a bonanza, “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping, best relations ever with the United States, a “comfort women” agreement with Japan, and, ahead, the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation initiative aimed at bridging the region’s divides. In 2016, the letdown was significant, albeit limited. China was angry that Seoul had agreed to THAAD after North Korea’s tests, but the United States and Japan were upbeat about relations, as the agenda was narrowed with emphasis on coordination in the face of the growing threat. By the end of April 2017, the situation had deteriorated sharply. China was angrier than ever, Japan was again being targeted by Seoul, and, abruptly, Donald Trump decided to threaten Seoul to pay for the THAAD deployment and renegotiate KORUS FTA. Is the way forward to appeal directly to North Korea and yield to China’s demands, or to find a pathway for rebuilding ties with the United States and Japan, recognizing that alienating Japan now would reverberate in poorer relations with Washington? Given the essential role of the ROK-US alliance, this article starts from the premise that the alliance triangle is what takes priority.

The alarm over Moon Jae-in’s anticipated election victory on May 9 was mounting in Washington DC and Tokyo during the preceding month. US pressure for boosting trilateral alliance cooperation was growing fast. Japanese distrust of South Korea was on vivid display. Drawing on exchanges in DC and publications from Tokyo, this article describes the concerns being raised and their likely impact. It considers Trump’s insensitive financial demands, Abe’s insensitive historical challenges, and the likely progressive agenda in Seoul toward these two challenges and the pursuit of security trilateralism.

Moon’s chances of winning had been high since the impeachment process began, but concern was galvanized by the actual removal of Park Geun-hye from office in March and the public opinion polls that followed the selection of candidates in early April. As tensions rose in April between the United States and North Korea, there was a new urgency for both diplomatic and military preparations. When Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea and Japan in mid-April, alliance trilateralism again loomed large. Close attention was being paid to South Korean politics and how they could influence the region, as Sino-US talks on North Korea continued following the Trump-Xi summit of April 7-8. This was a time of heightened apprehension, as seen in both intense exchanges in Washington and alarmed news coverage in Tokyo. Kim Jong-un was threatening nuclear holocaust, Trump was raising the specter of a first strike against the North, Xi Jinping was weighing an oil cutoff on the North while also pushing back against Trump and pressuring South Korea over THAAD. Under these darkening clouds, all are awaiting a new president in Seoul uncertain of his impact on the balance between pressure against or engagement with Pyongyang. Then Trump adds a new dimension of breaking with US precedent, demanding that Seoul pay for THAAD and that the KORUS FTA be renegotiated for US benefit.

Synopsis of Exchanges in Washington, DC

It is widely anticipated that Moon Jae-in would win the presidency owing to the outrage against conservative rule and his image as a political reformer, who would vigorously address problems of corruption, inequality, and injustice. Ahn Cheol-soo emerged as his principal rival, but is having difficulty straddling his base in the progressive camp and outreach to the conservative camp. At a time when US policy is putting stress on intensified sanctions and military pressure on North Korea, in a trilateral approach with South Korea and Japan, Moon is concentrating on how to revive engagement with the North while casting doubt on ROK-Japan cooperation and military ties. He would resurrect the Sunshine Policy (2.0), give more scope to autonomous diplomacy despite claiming close coordination with Washington, and count on North Korea to work with him to the degree he could conduct a summit and reopen the Kaesong Industrial complex and the Kumgangsan tourist park. To DC discussants, such moves would be tantamount to recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power, giving it added resources to expand its threat capabilities, and decimating the international coalition and strategy to get the North to reconsider. Whereas Moon may see engagement as the path to denuclearization, US analysts largely see it as accommodating the most serious and growing threat to US security.

Talk in some circles is of “Korea passing.” This may take the form of a Sino-US understanding on North Korea to combine increased sanctions with some secretive outcome for the peninsula or a US-Japan consensus on intensified military pressure leaving South Korea no choice but to participate. South Korea remembers such historical betrayals and fears a secret agreement behind its back. Even if the Trump camp is not seen as likely to be looking beyond sanctions and military pressure—as it does not even have manpower to prepare for complex diplomacy—and Sino-US ties remain too recent and fragile to suggest a multi-stage scheme, marginalization is on people’s mind. At some point, a secretive Sino-North Korean deal is bound to be on this list of possible bypassing, since China and Russia may be viewed in Pyongyang as the partners who would offer it the best deal. Concerns that Trump might agree to North Korean interest in setting up a separate channel (Track-2) may arise as well. Not only in any of these scenarios is South Korea unable to be in the forefront—an aim of all administrations, but especially of progressives—but others could be the ones deciding the peninsula’s fate. With Abe riding Trump’s coattails, Japan could be positioned to have a much larger say than Koreans would find acceptable. For many progressives, even if this were not so, distrust of the United States and fear that US officials would suspect their president deepen their concern about marginalization.

After the May 9 election, the US-ROK-Japan triangle may face challenging times. The hiatus since Park was impeached has already left many in Korea feeling—at a time of momentous international flux—on the periphery. Naturally, a fast summit with Trump will be sought. Yet, troubled memories of Kim Dae-jung’s rush to meet with George W. Bush in March 2001 should be kept in mind. A bad summit—Trump’s phone calls show that things can turn bad quickly—is much worse than some delay. What is essential for a positive outcome? First, South Korea must fully accept THAAD, putting to rest Seoul’s commitment to this vital defensive system. Second, Seoul must support pressuring China to impose tougher sanctions, backed up by a strong allied military posture, a response made easier if Sino-US cooperation on sanctions is proceeding. Third, there must be no revival of tensions with Japan, especially over the “comfort women” issue, for which there is no further US patience. Fourth, Seoul must not resist expanded trilateral military deterrence. For Moon Jae-in these are not easy deliverables, nor is it clear what he could gain in return except further US reassurances of its alliance commitment. As for trade, the best that might be hoped is for it to be treated as a secondary theme, as a process comparable to the Pence-Aso talks is begun. As for historical memory issues, few in Washington think that they belong on the agenda. Park’s agreement with Abe after strenuous efforts by the Obama administration has put this issue to rest, as far as US policymaking is concerned, and Trump has shown that human rights—let alone historical injustices—are not on his radar. Abe has deftly swung DC thinking away from this topic, and lately, with his two meetings with Trump, forged an image as the closest and most vital US ally, solidifying a trend that Seoul resisted acknowledging as the Obama-Abe-Park triangle was evolving.

The deepening crisis over North Korea makes Seoul more dependent on the US role, gives Abe more scope to expand Japan’s military and regional role, and increases the pressure for military trilateralism. Japan is well-understood to be critical in the defense of the United States (and South Korea) against North Korea and prevention of China from establishing a sinocentric region. Moon may not really have a China option in this polarized environment. Delaying THAAD to satisfy China would pose a blow to the ROK-US alliance. Moon might not even be received in China in response to the deployment. Reopening Kaesong would be viewed as a blow to the sanctions regime. Compared to the Roh era 15 years earlier, Washington is threatened and impatient, Beijing is empowered and assertive, and Pyongyang is emboldened and harder to control. New, perceived provocations by Pyongyang would set in motion a struggle over which Seoul has little leverage. This is the most dangerous time for the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War, and Korean leadership and public opinion are suspected of not recognizing what will be required. Now that the United States feels directly threatened and Japan has solidified its relations with the Trump administration, the new Korean president will have fewer options.  

Interpretations of Japanese Publications

One finds little cause for optimism in Japanese writings. Rather than strategic goals driving South Korean foreign policy, they discern an aggrieved public venting in a manner not conducive to managing foreign relations effectively. This conclusion is embedded in longstanding criticisms of Korean society as emotional and subject to demagogic manipulation, now compounded by an image of civil society in revolt to transform society, beginning with government. One article pointed to Park’s failure to deliver on promises to build political trust, angering the public when scandals exposed her duplicity after she had already become a lame-duck president following the April 2016 National Assembly election losses by the conservatives. What Park did in foreign policy has suffered a backlash too, especially toward Japan, to which conservative realpolitik is perpetually vulnerable to appeals to national identity. Thus, both the “comfort women” agreement on history and the GSOMIA agreement on security are being attacked by the progressives, casting doubt on military cooperation with Japan. National emotions are being prioritized over international agreements, as Moon Jae-in has rallied people behind intensification of polarization in his sharply divided country.1

In March when Park was impeached, Yomiuri Shimbun editorialized against it as a case of court excess.2 It saw this action, ousting an elected president, as part of the conservative-progressive rift, a response to emotional demonstrations, and anger over failure to realize the “second miracle on the Han River” and overcome social frustrations. Yet, it also cited her failed foreign policy by cozying up to China before China turned against her. The editorial warns against ignoring the need for Japan-US-ROK coordination in facing the rising North Korean threat, while ceding to the pressure China is mounting over THAAD, pointing to the detente thinking of the progressive candidates and talk of going to North Korea before the United States. Concern is raised over rekindling the “comfort women” issue and hostility toward Japan, reminding readers that as president Park never even visited Japan—the first Korean president since Chun Doo-hwan not to do so—but achieved a valuable result in the “comfort women” agreement. Losing that poses a danger for Japan’s desire to increase cooperation rather than to renew tensions over historical memories.

On April 1, the arrest of Park was met by Yomiuri with an editorial critical of politics and the personal connections that keep leading to the arrests of Korean presidents as well as the heads of leading corporations. This instability in power is linked to the attitudes of the public, but also to the excessive power concentration that allows leaders to act imperiously and to the personal networks that enable unmerited enrichment. The danger from this is that foreign policy and security interests get lost as candidates play on emotions to befriend the North and imperil ties to Japan.3 For Sankei Shimbun, the tragedy was more deep-seated, as assassinations, arrests of family members, and suicides were linked to deep social cleavages.4 A dysfunctional society was being exposed, not one where democracy reins in misuse of power. The result is a “nightmare” in Seoul, a disaster for Japan-ROK relations, and increased disorder in East Asia, which will require Japan to play a greater role ahead.5

Coverage in Japan in April grew frenzied with three main messages: 1) mutual dependency in the Japan-US ties is increasing quickly; 2) Japan and the United States are on the same page in insisting that China apply pressure on the North or face severe secondary sanctions; and 3) South Korea is in danger of complicating this endeavor versus North Korea. The triangular context was rarely lost in treating these issues.

A popular theme on the right was the deepening of the Japan-US alliance. Having not long before feared “abandonment” by Trump’s “American first” approach, Japanese conservatives expressed not only relief but empowerment from Trump’s strong-arm approach to North Korea. They saw it not only as putting pressure on a threatening regime in Pyongyang, but as a sign of a more assertive US posture in the face of China’s assertive behavior and South Korea’s ambiguous position. A poll on April 14-16 found that 64 percent of respondents approved of intensifying US pressure with the use of military force as an option, while only 27 percent did not. The sense of threat from North Korea had risen, as 60 percent saw it as great and 33 percent as somewhat so. Meanwhile, in joining Trump, Abe saw his cabinet’s popularity climb to 60 percent in support from 56, with a corresponding drop from 33 to 29 percent in those who did not support him.6 Confidence in US-Japan ties was unmistakable.

Articles began appearing about what to do in case North Korean missiles started raining down on Japan, offering concrete advice: be alert to information, take shelter in the subway, remain underground, put a handkerchief over one’s face in case of a chemical or biological weapons attack. For the sole state to have suffered nuclear attacks, advice on this danger was, no doubt, disconcerting.7 Yet, concern about US entrapment and devastation in Japan was compensated by satisfaction at US engagement and alliance-strengthening in difficult circumstances.

Trump was reported to have told Xi Jinping that if cooperation from China were inadequate, the United States and its allies alone would resolve the situation. This raised concern in Japan of an imminent military confrontation, leading to urgency about preparing for a contingency.8 It also put the focus on toughening sanctions against Chinese firms—an approach welcomed in conservative circles.9 There was talk of pressure on China to stop accepting North Korean workers and to cut off oil supplies to that country. The idea that China would be targeted in the US-led response must have been appreciated in conservative circles long critical of US reticence on China.

As for South Korea, there was concern in the event of a “contingency”—which would require the evacuation of Japanese citizens—that it would refuse to cooperate with the Self-Defense Forces. As rising tensions were widely reported in mid-April and Trump’s attack on Syria on April 6 was welcomed as a show of determination with a message to China and North Korea,10 there was talk of a US first strike on the North, which would be followed by a retaliatory attack on Japan. The figure of 57,000 was given for the number of Japanese (including travellers) who would likely be located in South Korea. Emphasis was put on coordinating with US armed forces to bring these people home through charter flights and ships of the Self-Defense Forces, but this was accompanied by talk of South Korea’s “allergy” to the SDF and that talks had not advanced between the Japanese and South Korean governments on this.11

Sankei Shimbun, which has consistently been most critical of South Korea, was most assertive in criticizing Moon Jae-in’s “pro-North Korean” attitudes.12 Yomiuri Shimbun also described mounting fear that Moon is “anti-Japan, pro-North Korea,” while adding that the “comfort women” agreement with Japan became a symbol of Park’s missteps, as 78 percent of South Koreans oppose the removal of the Busan girl statue, which Moon visited on January 20.13 On April 5 Yomiuri offered a scalding portrait of Moon’s negativity toward Japan, quoting him as asserting that the Busan statue is a “true declaration of independence” and opposing its removal, while demanding that Japan accept legal responsibility for the “comfort women,” thereby reopening the issue with a hardline position. The article links him to the leftist nationalists in South Korea who are critical of the people that historically cooperated with Japan, oft-identified as conservative politicians or chaebols, and blame them for standing in the way of forging an equal society. In one January publication, there is talk of purging the “shinilpa,” descendants of the Japanese collaborators, who are said to be responsible for South Korea’s dictatorship and political and economic problems. Both Park Geun-hye and the Samsung group, at the center of the recent scandal, are tied to the shinilpa. The article proceeds to trace progressive thinking toward Japan to opposition to the 1965 normalization, which became the source of the citizens’ and student movements in the 1980s. Steeped in this background, Moon is seen as having no experience or personal contacts in Japan, but doubts about what Japan can offer to his cause to improve relations with North Korea.14 After the election the article warns of anti-Japan populism with demands to renegotiate the “comfort women” issue interfering with a desire to hold an early summit with Abe.

Sankei was so suspicious of South Korea that it projected a scenario in which Seoul draws close to China and grants it use of a base on Jeju Island, as a new leftist regime becomes more anti-Japan and anti-United States amid newly tense Sino-US relations.

When Trump spoke by phone with Abe on April 9, he reinforced the theme of urging China to play a bigger role in pressing North Korea to change, while also stressing the importance of three-way linkages with South Korea in responding to the North.15 Trump was said to have welcomed Japan-ROK support, despite the increased risk to them as tensions rose and their concerns about military activity as pressure intensified on North Korea.16

Abema Times went so far as to wonder if the outcome of the May 9 elections would be the United States, Japan, and China working together on North Korea and South Korea becoming the lone dissenter. Noting that Abe would meet with Putin and discuss North Korea on April 27, the article doubted Russia would join in pressuring the North beyond following China’s lead, but it worried about the lack of transparency from South Korea.17 Nervousness about Seoul has intensified in Tokyo and Washington.

1. Okuzono Hideki, “’Minshin’ ga sayusuru Kankoku no seiji kiki,” Gaiko, March/April 2017, pp. 84-87.

2. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 12, 2017, p. 3.

3. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 1, 2017.

4. Sankei Shimbun, April 1, 2017, p. 7, March 11, 2017, p. 3.

5. Sankei Shimbun, March 11, p. 3.

6. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2017, p. 2.

7. Sankei Shimbun, April 17, 2017, p. 22.

8. Sankei Shimbun, April 17, 2017, p. 3.

9. Sankei Shimbun, April 11, 2017, p. 1.

10. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 8, 2017, p. 11.

11. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 13, 2017, p. 3.

12. Sankei Shimbun, April 14, 2017, p. 3.

13. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 4, 2017, p. 3.

14. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 5, 2017, p. 7.

15. Asahi Shimbun, April 11, 2017, p. 3.

16. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 11, 2017, p. 3.

17. Abema Times, April 26, 2017.