The breakdown in ROK-Japan relations in the second half of 2019 has sent shock waves across some countries and caused others to salivate about how their aspirations might be realized. At a time of uncertainty about security, economics, and even the nature of the regional order, the possibilities are many for speculation about how the breakdown will end. Is this latest twist in the ups and downs in the relationship between two vital US allies just another turn in the cycle of mistrust over history that is repeatedly countered by US reminders of common interests? Or is it a reflection of a fundamental transformation occurring in both countries and the Northeast Asian region? Will the outcome be felt mainly in the US-led alliance triangle system, in the way North Korea is addressed through this triangle, or in the entire regional order including China and Russia? Discussions of the causes, evolution, and impact of the breakdown provide clues as to what is anticipated in Japan, South Korea, the United States, and China with Russia to follow.

In Northeast Asia bilateral relations inevitably become entangled in triangular calculations and maneuvering. Recently, North Korea-US, US-China, North Korea-South Korea, and Japan-South Korea relations have drawn attention, eliciting responses from each of the other actors in the region. The last of these pairings burst into the limelight unexpectedly in the summer of 2019 and lately has been stirring the most intense debate. The Japanese side attributes vile motives to South Koreans for undermining the status quo it had considered to be working. The South Koreans excoriate Japanese for rekindling evil sentiments, which once led to colonialism and war. The Americans recognize triangular fallout from this breakdown in relations between the two indispensable US allies in the region, wringing their hands over whom to blame as well as over US responsibility and haplessness. And the Chinese debate how to seize the advantage in a situation that is not of their doing but fulfills a dream they have repeatedly had. The nature of the bilateral schism has been much discussed, but the responses to it also deserve attention.

The breakdown of ROK-Japanese relations began over history, turned into an economic clash, and finally evolved into a security dilemma. The first dimension is symbolized by the “comfort women” and forced labor, the second has galvanized thinking about supply chains, especially involving semi-conductors, and the third has fixated on intelligence sharing as managed via the GSOMIA in operation between Japan and South Korea. Perceptions of what is occurring and the possible ramifications also touch on all three of these dimensions. They probe deeply into the national identity gaps between Japan and South Korea and what they signify in an era of lower priority for universal values and greater populist emotional arousal. They also question whether decoupling of supply chains will reflect polarization between two dominant powers or another, more chaotic array of trade divides. Last, the geopolitical implications of the apparent collapse of the “virtual alliance” critical to the US security strategy have aroused uncertainty about signs of weakened deterrence of North Korea and of a boon to China and Russia in driving a wedge in the US alliance framework in Northeast Asia. The ROK-Japan breakdown is stimulating debate regarding all of these dimensions in the media of countries active in the Northeast Asia region.

On the Japanese side, talk of “Korea fatigue” has led to “Korea passing.” Anger over repeated affronts has led to “Korea bashing,” which has been replaced in the downward spiral of 2019 by “Korea smashing,” retaliating for Korean actions and a growing sense that the slide will not be reversed under Moon’s government. On the Korean side, demonization of Japanese attitudes is turning into boycotting Japanese consumer goods such as beer and refusing to travel to Japan as flights have to be canceled. Meanwhile, images abound of Japanese “remilitarization” and “hate” for Korea and Koreans, including zainichi Koreans, whose families have lived for generations in Japan. On the US and Chinese sides, as in the case of Russia, note is taken of a national identity widening between the two nations but most attention fixates on possible geopolitical implications as well as on what this means for the regional economic order already shaken by Trump’s actions.

Below, we summarize four articles on responses to the ROK-Japan schism in the US-led, liberal democratic camp. We begin with Sheila Smith’s analysis of the Japanese response, noting how South Korea is perceived amid a sense of hopelessness about how to put relations back on track even as prognosticators set forth paths to either a positive outcome or a worst-case scenario. Next, we turn to Sharon Yoon’s analysis of how South Koreans view the treatment in Japan of the zainichi minority, considered proof of an extreme rightist drift in Japanese sentiments. In the emotional back and forth deepening distrust, Koreans view their treatment as a telling signal.
The third case covered by the journal’s editorial staff drawing on presentations in Washington, DC is the US response, finding fault and grasping for a path forward. Often these discussions have involved Koreans or Japanese who have difficulty making headway given US alarm about the security implications. Finally, Yumi Ko draws on a close reading of Chinese publications to categorize the ongoing debate in China over this breakdown, as writers explore the best way to seize the opportunity that has been presented for China-led economic regionalism or security.

The ideal outcomes are different for the observers in the four countries under examination. For Japanese, the main goal is to force a reversal in honoring the court-ordered compensation for forced labor, but even more than that to stop Seoul from playing the “history card” by agreeing to the finality and comprehensive nature of the 1965 normalization treaty and, if possible, later agreements such as the 2015 “comfort women” one. Exposing South Korean emotionalism as the driving force in ignoring pragmatic diplomacy and international treaties builds their case. For South Koreans, the primary aim is to induce the Japanese government and people to open their eyes to the real nature of their colonial rule and accept full responsibility by arranging to pay court-mandated fines for forced labor and other actions, financial and symbolic. Securing a sense of vindication for the harm caused to their nation’s development is uppermost to progressives.
For Americans, one objective takes precedence: to sustain a triangular defense framework in the face of the growing threat from North Korea and the rising challenge of China. Forging a normal relationship between Tokyo and Seoul without the history issue interfering is most desirable. For Chinese, the history issue has been useful, removing it would not be welcome. The fact it has now turned into a security problem for the US is welcome too, but the economic implications pose risks as well as opportunities for China-led economic regionalism, trilateral or multilateral.

Sheila Smith, “Japan”

Japanese have long found the relationship with Seoul frustrating and difficult, blaming it on Korean national identity, leading to a tendency to prioritize historical vindication over national interests. This time, public opinion has taken a dive, Japanese business executives have grown pessimistic about their ability to turn around the recent deterioration, and even the military, long careful to maintain close ties with their counterparts in South Korea, has succumbed to rising negative sentiments. Beyond national identity explanations, Smith points to the national security ones. Conservatives in Japan have long been suspicious of progressives in South Korea, seeing them easily motivated by anti-Japanese sentiment, but identity and ideology do not suffice, as
they have become more convinced than before that they are dealing with sympathizers of the North Korean regime. Rather than a recurring pattern of acrimony in the relationship, what distinguishes today’s diplomatic rupture is the backdrop of two geostrategic currents: the rise of Chinese power and influence; and an anticipated US reevaluation of the value of its two alliances. Smith asks whether this new burst in antagonism will lead Seoul and Tokyo to seek alternative partners as Asia’s geopolitics evolve. This is the deeper question raised by today’s breakdown.

Prior downturns in bilateral relations have been specific to one or another historical symbol and could be managed, if with difficulty and after delay, by apologies or words of reassurance. This time the foundation of relations has been shaken, by what Abe Shinzo called an “unthinkable” court verdict, given that Japan and South Korea had reached a complete and final resolution in the Japan-South Korea claims agreement attendant to their normalization treaty in 1965. In this perspective, the Japanese government is not responsible for individual compensation, as it had already handed over money designated for forced laborers to the South Korean government in the form of economic cooperation funds. Even those in Japan most sympathetic to the need for historical reconciliation were critical of Seoul’s decisions on forced labor and on disbanding the fund established in the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, which undermined the core of the agreement designed to help those women who had suffered. There seems to be no way to bridge the differences between recognizing the “worry” in Japan about the collapse of the entire process of normalization as a result of the forced labor ruling and the South Korean desire for a “future oriented relationship based on a correct understanding of history.” Moon has left the Japanese feeling helpless, saying “Japan should be modest in the face of history” followed by his view that Korea must respect the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary branches, while making no mention of the 1965 treaty nor responding to Japan’s requests for consultations.

Identity issues exacerbated Japanese concerns. In early February, the speaker of the National Assembly, Moon Hee-sang, suggested publicly that the Emperor should apologize to the “comfort women,” a statement that outraged Japanese conservatives. Activists then announced that they planned to erect a statue of Korean force laborers on the 100th anniversary of the March 1 movement. In response, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Suga Yoshihide, noted that both the liquidation of Japanese company assets and the statue would be “very serious.” The more people see Koreans responding emotionally, the less advocacy there is for Japan to try to mend fences.

A major factor in the breakdown has been the tensions between Japanese and South Korean military forces and the resulting loss of trust in security cooperation. Critical to US efforts to bring Tokyo and Seoul into closer military cooperation in response to the missile threat from North Korea was GSOMIA, the sharing of intelligence approved in 2017, when North Korea launched missiles in repeated salvos in the direction of Japan leading to synchronizing the two alliances in unprecedented ways. Much of the coordination among the US, Japanese, and South Korean militaries revealed an effort to demonstrate that Seoul and Tokyo viewed the threat from Pyongyang similarly and were willing to work together militarily in case of a conflict. Yet, on December 20 a South Korean vessel locked on a Japanese military aircraft with its fire control radar, causing for the first time the two allied militaries to interact in a manner that suggested the use of force. When the dynamics of the incident were disputed, this boiled down to an issue of trust. While Smith finds that North Korean behavior is once more reminding Tokyo and Seoul of their shared security concerns and prompting some signs that diplomatic channels may open, the security distrust since December has added fuel to the fire of the history battle, infuriating Japan.

As news from South Korea about progress in local courts on the case against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other lawsuits filed against Japanese companies continued and when Moon did not respond to the Japanese government request for the establishment of an arbitration committee under the provisions of the 1965 treaty, pressure from within the LDP on Abe was growing to act decisively to retaliate against the threatened expropriation of Japanese corporate assets. Business leaders had stepped back from their traditional role of advocating the benefits of cooperation. Anger at the Moon government’s refusal to acknowledge that the Supreme Court case ran counter to the 1965 Basic Treaty bled over into economic ties. Soon the economic impact of the growing dispute went beyond the exclusion of South Korea from the “white list” of preferential partners for exports. The boycott of Japanese goods had a broad impact on Japanese companies operating in and exporting goods to South Korea. Two South Korean cities (Seoul and Busan) also designated 284 Japanese companies as “companies associated with war crimes,” pledging not to purchase from them. As the mutual trade restrictions progressed, the impact of the Japan-ROK dispute on semiconductor trade was being seen as a considerable setback to the global supply chain. Both Japanese and Korean companies saw the politics of the Japan-ROK dispute as threatening their ability to operate safely in each other’s markets. Moon is under rising domestic pressure at home, leading many Japanese politicians to think they can wait for the next president.

Tokyo wanted a statement of support for the terms of the 1965 treaty whereas Seoul claimed it could not influence the South Korea judiciary. There is little to no support within the LDP for compromise on the Supreme Court rulings. Other Japanese political parties are also disinterested in compromise on the 1965 Basic Treaty. Japanese public opinion has hardened. Civil society activism in South Korea has continued. Although some Japanese and South Korean politicians sought to sooth the growing antagonism, others capitalized on the opportunity to fan the flames of discord. Moon’s speech on August 15 was seen as restrained, and Japanese media reported that the Abe cabinet was looking for signs of a shift in the Korean position. On August 23, however, Seoul announced its withdrawal from GSOMIA, intensifying the downward spiral. The two groups most likely to help overcome tensions– business and the SDF – are now fully embroiled in the crisis. De-escalation rests solely on the shoulders of the two political leaders.

Sharon Yoon, “South Korea”

Suggestive of the way South Koreans are seeing the situation, Yoon focuses on the case of anti-Korean sentiment and the rise of an ultranationalist “netizen” movement in Japan. This topic resonates where images of anti-Korean attitudes in Japan abound amid worsening Japan-ROK relations. Yet Yoon addresses the ambiguity in understanding the rise of Japanese right-wing extremism—namely, what issues triggered their emergence and their breadth of influence. Are the tensions triggered by increasing nationalism, or concerns over economic decline? Is the movement propelled by a small group of economically precarious extremists who are largely isolated from Japanese society or is the scope of their influence much more expansive? Yoon finds that the problem of right-wing expansion is not merely one of changing institutional configurations of state bureaucracy or the “failure of the leftists,” but rather, one of cultural legitimacy and changing perspectives of state morality. Instead of dismissing netizen extremists as an exceptional phenomenon that is unrepresentative of “ordinary” attitudes, she sees them as in a strategic position between ordinary citizens and elite state actors, who are looking for ways to mobilize the emotions of the masses during a period of social instability and economic decline.

The sudden emergence of anti-Korean sentiment in Japan in the past decade is puzzling, Yoon observes. In contrast to the 1960s and 1970s when discrimination against Korean minorities was severe, the 1980s and 1990s heralded an era of unprecedented social and institutional reform in the human rights conditions of the Korean minorities in Japan. Increasing numbers of zainichi Koreans were intermarrying with Japanese nationals, naturalizing to take on Japanese citizenship, finding employment in mainstream Japanese firms, and gaining access to social welfare benefits from which they had previously been excluded. By the 1990s amid talk of improving bilateral relations capable of addressing history issues, the zainichi problem worrisome to South Koreans appeared to be no longer a thorn in relations. Japan was concerned with bolstering its global image as an advanced industrialized nation that was just as socially progressive as its economy would portend. Reforming the legal structure to grant Korean postcolonial minorities the same rights and “privileges” that other Japanese citizens fit this approach. Yet the supposed heyday of diplomatic relations, culminating in Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei’s acknowledgement of military sex slaves in 1993 and Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi’s 1995 formal apology for Japan’s role in the war, also triggered the formation of the Society for History Textbook Reform in 1996 and Japan Conference, the country’s largest umbrella organization of the right wing.

In the early 2000s, writers also pointed to the burgeoning popularity of the Korean Wave in Japan and the ascending economic status of South Korea as key factors in helping mollify previously tainted perceptions of Korea. Korea was no longer associated with the stigma of colonization and war atrocities, but rather, reborn in the more palatable image of modernity and popular culture. Yet, in 2006 Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi demanded an end to social welfare “privileges” granted to Koreans, as well as other foreigners. In 2009 and 2010, members of this ultra-nationalist group gathered in front of a school, taunting students with racial slurs while banging and shaking the metal gates at the school’s entrance. This marked the beginning of a sharp surge in hate rallies in Koreatowns. Many who view this as primarily a xenophobic movement focused on beautifying Japan’s past, portray it as ideologically driven, region-specific, and long-standing in a manner that verges on essentialism. They connect it to the legacy of imperialism and perceive the rightist movement as particular to Japan. By underplaying the impact of economic decline and increasing labor market precariousness on the surge of right-wing nationalism; however, writers overlook the structural similarities characterizing the proliferation of populist politics around the world. Changing economic and social circumstances continuously shape the ways people interpret and make sense of their place in the world.

If the 1970s and 1980s heralded an era of sympathy towards the minorities, the past decade has triggered resentment such that the zainichi are perceived as “freeloaders.” It is important to recognize the shifting balance of power between the right and left, and the subsequent “shrinking of ideological parameters” that started in the 1990s and culminated with Abe’s ascendancy in 2012. Portraying Japan’s right-wing turn as “an elite-driven process,” reflecting the interests of second- and third-generation politicians who have a personal stake in salvaging the tarnished legacies of their fathers and grandfathers, misses an understanding as to how the masses were won over. During periods of crisis, when lives feel “unsettled,” people tend to question norms and ideas that they had taken for granted—crises instigate a proactive search for an alternative worldview that can better explain their surroundings. These periods trigger “bursts of ideological activism,” propagated by rivaling social movements, competing to “offer not multiple answers, but one unified answer to the question of how human beings should live.” The dominant theme in hate speech rallies and blogs comprises criticism towards the notion of zainichi tokken (special privileges). Netizens argue that Koreans in Japan have an easier time gaining access to a slew of government “handouts” and are, subsequently, creating a heavy strain on the economy.

Japanese have retrieved their animus for the Koreans in their midst dating back at least a century. When the Japan dream was to be accepted into the world community and internationalization, treatment of the zainichi improved along with hopes for reconciliation with South Korea through acceptance of historical responsibility, albeit on the basis of the 1965 bilateral normalization treaty. However, as that dream as well as promise for the future was fading, Japanese again turned to the most convenient, familiar scapegoat in their modern history. Targeting the zainichi goes hand in hand with eying South Korea as a despicable place immersed in victimization, irredeemably hostile to their nation, and unable to accept the true nature of Japanese society.

South Koreans see Japanese treatment of zainichi as emblematic of failure to come to grips with the legacy of anti-Korean attitudes and refusal to accept the rise of their country to be Japan’s equal. They fixate on the connection between right-wing intolerance of zainichi and government revisionism toward history. They discern a more direct connection between foreign policy and treatment of a minority than is usually observed in European or US handling of migrants and the countries from which they come. The ongoing downward spiral in Japan-ROK relations deepens hostility to zainichi, as happened when the “comfort women” issue was at its peak spurring “hate Korea” literature in 2013-15. As South Koreans have observed the rise of anti-Korean sentiment in Japan, they have doubled down on perceptions that Japanese are incorrigible in thinking that drove colonialism as well as militarism. Such reactions have made it harder to accept agreements that presume Japan has been decisively transformed from the pre-1945 era, concludes Yoon.

Editorial Staff, “United States”

The debate in Washington in the summer and early fall of 2019 over the state of Japan-ROK relations and what should be done has been clamorous and indecisive. Blame is assigned to Moon Jae-in more than Abe Shinzo. Donald Trump is faulted for both his management of ties to both countries and his nonchalance about the breakdown in the “virtual alliance” deemed vital to US security interests in East Asia. Deeper explanations for causality and what the US can do are explored, but there is no consensus except that this time the downturn in Japan-ROK ties is different than in the past for geopolitical, economic, and even national identity reasons. Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Moon Jae-in are all depicted in unique ways. Xi Jinping looms in the shadows.

Both Abe and Moon have long been driven to break away from the postwar order that they found humiliating to their country. Moreover, they viewed relations with each other’s country as a key indicator of humiliation. Korean progressives have long criticized excessive concessions to Japan and linked them to the shinilpa of Japanese collaborators and their heirs. Conservative firebrands in Japan have similarly criticized excessive apologies to South Korea, enabling leaders in that country to play the “history card” over and over again. The 2015 “comfort women” deal was interpreted by Japanese conservatives as the last time the “history card” could be wielded, and by Korean progressives as the final humiliating agreement forced by those soft on Japan. A showdown steeped in clashing national identities—a gap in identity specific to this bilateral relationship—had become unavoidable is what some analysts in DC have been concluding.

The critics of Trump argue that at several points the US missed an opportunity to avert what is seen as a serious blow to US foreign policy in Asia. When Moon came to power in 2017 there were already danger signals that the hard-won diplomatic success of December 2015 could be in jeopardy. Then Trump grew preoccupied with North Korea and bilateral grievances toward both Seoul and Tokyo without recognizing the urgency of preventing a downward spiral in Japan-ROK ties. As the situation further deteriorated in the spring of 2019 and Trump was preparing to travel to Japan first in May and again in June, no thought was apparently given to a trilateral summit. In full crisis mode from July 2019, ROK-Japan relations elicited handwringing and expressions of concern from US cabinet officials visiting the region, but Trump stayed clear of the problem in an abdication of the responsibilities of leadership of an alliance network.

Officials diverting any focus on Trump’s handling of Japan-ROK relations make two arguments: 1) there was nothing the US could have done to avert the Japan-ROK breakdown; and 2) calls for the US to intervene or mediate are in vain because such involvement would lead to worse US relations with one or both of the parties. Quiet diplomacy is proceeding, US officials are looking for any opening to play a larger role, and the appeals—mainly by Seoul—to enter the fray are premature since they are based on taking a stand firmly on one side or the other. So far, the degree of damage to trilateralism is not so great since GSOMIA remains in force until late November and economic pain has yet to cause a backlash to either government’s policies.

Whereas earlier downturns in Japan-ROK relations were troubling to State Department officials who had to wring their hands over the difficulty of playing a constructive role, they were seen as having only minor impact on security and on economics. Deterrence of North Korea stayed on course, as did the dynamism of economic relationships in the region. The current situation—called a “game of chicken” in some circles—has, by contrast, profound implications. It raises fundamental questions about the US security framework in East Asia, the struggle with China over whose economic regionalism will prevail, and how national identities affect US appeals for universal values. The current Japan-ROK breakdown raises far-reaching uncertainties at a time when the US-led security framework, trade relations, and trust in shared values are questioned. The ROK-Japan trade war since July has broader implications than the hit made to bilateral commerce. Unlike the Sino-US trade war, it has extended to boycotts, especially of Japanese products in South Korea, and it has gone beyond Donald Trump’s “America First” tariffs policy to implicitly link trade to retaliation over history issues as well as security charges. It is driven not by concerns about trade deficits but by emotions rooted in national identities.

Similar concerns by both allies about Trump’s unilateralism and penchant for taking extreme positions would seem to result in more awareness of shared interests, but that is superseded by differing views of China and North Korea and by matters other than security. The ending of GSOMIA is called a gift to China and seen as a sign of insufficient seriousness about deterrence of China as well as North Korea. With security and trade now blended into one mosaic and trilateralism taking precedence over bilateralism, Seoul is scarcely prepared for the pressures that are mounting. The edge goes to Japan in winning US confidence regarding security in the Indo-Pacific due to circumstances beyond Moon’s control and to his decisions, DC voices say.

To the extent that the subject of deterrence against North Korea has slipped below the radar of late, Japan is much more on the minds of the DC community than is the ROK. Pulling out of GSOMIA, Seoul has reinforced concern about its reliability in the overall US regional defense architecture. The balance tilted decidedly against Moon when he pulled out of GSOMIA against warnings from the US that this would damage the US strategic position in the region. If Abe seemed to cross a line in July by mixing economics with national identity, being perceived despite denials as taking revenge on Moon for the way Seoul is playing the “history card,” Moon crossed a more serious line for Washington by mixing security with economics.

If the breakdown in Japan-ROK relations is attributed mostly to a national identity gap and is manifest of late primarily in a slugfest over economic relations, the US response is heavily weighted to the security dimension. It intensified markedly in late August with the decision by Moon to pull out of GSOMIA. What deterioration in Japan-ROK intelligence sharing means for broader security cooperation and for deterrence of North Korea, let alone China, remains hard to discern in light of the lack of clarity in US policy toward North Korea as Kim Jong-un’s year-end deadline for an agreement approaches and Trump’s foreign policies remain unpredictable.

Yumi Ko, “China”

Reading Chinese articles, Ko finds a diversity of views on the significance of what is occurring and what China’s response should be. Is the right response to improve economic and security relations with both parties? To entice the weakest link in the US-led triangle, South Korea? To pressure South Korea?  She distinguishes three groups of Chinese writers. The first predicts that the Japan and South Korea trade dispute can be managed due to the potential negative economic impact on both countries. In addition, they predict that the US will mediate once Japan-ROK relations threaten the US-Japan-ROK trilateral security framework. In short, the breakdown in relations in 2019 is not a gamechanger. The second sees opportunities in using China’s economic leverage to improve Japan-ROK relations vis-à-vis the BRI and strengthen the China-Japan-ROK triangle. The implied strategy is not to try to drive a wedge but to rely on economic carrots to entice both states. The third group sees South Korea as the weakest point in US-Japan-ROK relations and argues for strategic improvement in relations with South Korea to weaken the US containment strategy. This approach singles out the South Korean side by capitalizing on its alienation from Japan and striving to drive a deeper wedge between it and Japan.

Overall, Chinese authors agree that the tension in Japan-ROK relations will help to weaken the US-Japan-ROK security framework, but they differ on the severity of this impact and on whether China should be cautious in order not to impede the steady development of the alternative China-Japan-ROK triangle, should push hard for this alternative given the sudden opportunity, or should seize the opening with an assertive approach targeting South Korea. Not anticipating a bonanza, few appear optimistic about this last option, although watchfulness can be expected.

Writers argue that the Japan-ROK trade dispute can be attributed to multiple underlying factors. Abe’s decision was made possible by normalized China-Japan relations, which provided favorable conditions for Abe to demonstrate Japan’s economic strength to South Korea. There was less need for Japan-ROK strategic cooperation. The Abe administration is attempting to use economic power to pressure South Korea to settle historical issues. In contrast, the Moon administration shifted its diplomatic strategy to prioritize relations with North Korea. Moreover,
the fundamental reason for the trade dispute is the balance of power between Japan and South Korea, especially with South Korea’s rise as a middle power. The semiconductor industry is one area where South Korea has been challenging Japan’s status, leading to a strategic decision to target this growing industry, which accounts for the largest percentage of South Korean exports.
Also, Moon and Abe are using nationalism to maintain approval ratings as their economies contract, and Trump’s “America First” policy is leading Japan and South Korea to pursue independent policies rather than cooperate within the US-Japan-ROK trilateral framework. The Obama administration understood the value of the alliance and facilitated the signing of the “comfort women” agreement in 2015 and GSOMIA in 2016. In contrast, Trump’s transactional policies widened rifts in US-Japan, US-ROK and Japan-ROK relations, reducing the cooperation under the trilateral alliance system. Explaining causality sets the background for policy proposals.

Why the US is not mediating the dispute draws Chinese interest. One view is that it is using this opportunity to weaken the China-Japan-ROK triangle afraid that it would lose its hegemony in the region and that its regional influence would decline as China-Japan-ROK cooperation deepens. Yet Chinese consider time to be on their side and Japan-ROK relations unlikely to advance in accord with US desires. Discerning a struggle over economic regionalism, they concentrate on economic causes of the deterioration in relations and economic responses. A divide is evident on whether those responses should reassure the US, strive to work with both Japan and South Korea, or concentrate on South Korea. Surprisingly missing is revival of appeals for efforts to use the “history card” to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan.
normalization of relations will be difficult to achieve in the near future.

Despite fragile Japan-ROK relations, most Chinese writers predict that the dispute will not spiral out of control in the long-run due to several constraints. First, Japan and South Korea will not escalate tensions into a full-blown trade war due to its potential economic impact. Since Japan is using this trade dispute to warn South Korea not to revisit historical issues including the “comfort women” and forced labor ones, one author predicts that Abe will put an end to the trade dispute at the right time. Also, the US will not allow Japan-ROK relations to deteriorate beyond a certain point and undermine the trilateral security framework and open the door for China to draw South Korea more closely into its own supply chains as the path to closer relations.

If the trade dispute escalates over the long-run, Chinese analysts predict that this would negatively impact the ongoing RCEP talks and China’s vision for regional economic integration.
China should mitigate potential threats to the China-Japan-ROK triangle by mediating Japan-ROK relations, managing historical issues, and increasing mutual trust through trilateral cooperation, one author argues. China can connect the BRI to South Korea’s New Northern Policy and New Southern Policy. Recent Chinese writings seem preoccupied with boosting China-led economic regionalism not playing on historical differences or prioritizing security. This may indicate a response to the Sino-US trade war and China’s slowing economy and a strategy to manage history issues and security over the long-term. Yet security is not overlooked.

The scrapping of GSOMIA not only weakens the US-Japan-ROK security alliance, but also threatens the effectiveness of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Chinese had seen GSOMIA as a threat to its efforts in developing ties with South Korea. Now, one view is that China should take the leading role in expanding China-Japan-ROK relations to include security cooperation and to foster a culture of mutual cooperation. This presumes that the US continues its reluctance to directly engage its allies, leading to reduced US influence in Asia. If Japan and South Korea believe that US leadership is unreliable, they may choose to establish a new security alliance with China. Taking this opportunity to advance the China-Japan-ROK FTA agreement would enable Beijing to further establish regional economic and security integration. Another viewpoint is to target South Korea as the weakest side of the triangle, since South Korea wants to achieve sovereignty and decrease dependence on the United States.

Ko concludes by highlighting five underlying factors in Chinese analyses: 1) Japan and South Korea’s improved relations with China decreased the need for their strategic cooperation; 2) shifts in the balance of power led Japan to strategically target South Korea’s semiconductor industry; 3) Moon and Abe are using nationalism to maintain approval ratings as their economy contracts; 4) Trump’s “America First” policy is leading Japan and South Korea to pursue independent policies rather than cooperate within the US-Japan-ROK trilateral framework; and 5) Trump is not actively mediating the dispute because he is using this opportunity to weaken the China-Japan-ROK triangle. The boldest arguments suggest that the time is ripe for China to press harder for economic ties that exclude the US and security ties at least with South Korea. The improvement in ties to Japan of late may account for hesitation to drive a wedge between Japan and South Korea or optimism over economic regionalism. Whatever the option preferred, there is no shortage of confidence in China’s prospects over the long run. Absent is support for South Korea or demonization of Japan over history. The strategy appears to have shifted from driving a wedge to capitalizing on the US retreat to boost economic regionalism with security implications.