Trilateralism and Realignment: Reassessing Three Triangles with South Korea

South Korea stands at the vortex of three geopolitical triangles and also in the shadow of the North Korean menace to regional stability. All of these trilateral configurations in the final months of 2016 are in the process of transformation and could evolve in unexpected ways. Foremost in most minds is the US-Japan-ROK alliance triangle, which any Hillary Clinton pivot 2.0 might be poised to prioritize with emphasis on strengthening the weak Japan-ROK leg. More uncertain is the fate of the China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) core East Asian triangle already with its own secretariat and ready to be tested with a planned Japan-hosted summit by year’s end, should China agree to attend. Not to be overlooked is the northern triangle of Russia, Japan, South Korea, which was showcased on September 2, 2016, in Vladivostok at the Eastern Economic Forum, where Vladimir Putin, Abe Shinzo, and Park Geun-hye shared a panel about the future of the Russian Far East. The purpose of this article is to assess South Korea’s realignment in 2016 through the prism of trilateralism while also keeping the challenge of an increasingly aggressive North Korea in mind for its triangular impact.

The South Korean realignment will likely be under stress in 2017 in all three trilateral arenas. Abe’s constitutional revisionism, the radioactivity of the Abe-Xi relationship, and the divisive nature of any Abe-Putin breakthrough, all call into question recent triangular aspirations. An assertive start to a new US presidency and a North Korean rush to present itself as a nuclear state both leave even the shaky status quo of 2016 in doubt. Already, a sense of flux has spread in Northeast Asia. Xi Jinping has rejected Park’s wooing, Abe is wooing Putin, Xi and Putin are drawing closer, Putin is angry with Park, Park has begun to reconcile with Abe, and Xi and Putin are more antagonistic to Obama even as Abe and Park are drawing closer to the United States. The situation in 2017 is prone to even more disruption of past patterns, leaving Seoul with fewer options and even greater urgency. In short, the far-reaching transformation in South Korea’s foreign policy visible in 2016 is unlikely to be reversed and could be intensified by developments still on the horizon.

The alliance triangle is struggling to expand its scope. Its primary mission is deterrence of North Korea, combined with pressure on it and possible preparations for the complex task of reunification. In turn, the core East Asian triangle is struggling to transition from an economic agenda with some soft security interests such as environmental management to a body capable of overcoming historical and territorial disputes as well as geopolitical divides. More likely, however, is renewed suspension of summits due to China’s anger with Abe and Park. Finally, the northern triangle is being torn in two directions by Abe’s overtures to Putin, to be on display when he hosts Putin in his hometown in Yamaguchi prefecture, and Park’s warnings to Putin that without support against the North Korean nuclear threat cooperation is on hold. Each triangle has its own dynamics; together they oblige Seoul to harmonize its foreign policy through a more comprehensive regional strategy. The realignment of 2016 remains fragmentary without such an overall approach. Here, we set aside the Sino-ROK-US triangle, which is covered extensively in this set of articles, with awareness that other triangles also matter to grasp the overall realignment.

US-ROK-Japanese Trilateralism

Although the kickoff to Park Geun-hye’s realignment of South Korean foreign policy was the December 28, 2015, “comfort women” agreement with Abe Shinzo, in 2016 Japan-ROK relations receded into an afterthought. While in 2013-2015 attention was riveted to the Park-Abe relationship, this was not true in 2016, and few expect it to be the case in 2017. Yet, in the context of more vigorous US insistence on pressuring North Korea, including tougher sanctions and increased deterrence, the degree to which Park and Abe will join together with the new US president will be of considerable importance. If one considers triangular contexts, the potential for unanticipated developments that could affect the overall South Korean realignment from the alliance triangle with the United States is by no means negligible. The next US president is bound to press for substantial tightening of US-Japan-ROK trilateralism, Abe’s push for constitutional revision is certain to arouse disapproval in a Korean election year, and the Korean opposition is insistent that it will make rejecting and renegotiating the December 28 deal a central issue in its campaign. Even so, Park and Abe are unlikely to focus on each other given the external challenges.

Realignment is centered on strengthening relations with the United States. As the US presidential elections loomed, South Korean officials and media were refocusing on Washington for clues about the next administration. So too were Japanese officials and media. If in 2014-2015 Washington, DC had witnessed a parade of representatives from both countries seeking to gain an edge over the other side in what some call the “history wars,” in the fall of 2016 we observed a return of representatives from both sides not to do battle with each other but to sound out the prospects for bilateral US ties in 2017, while seeking reassurance for overlapping goals. They no longer faced incredulousness by US strategic thinkers and officials, who had responded by urging Japan-ROK reconciliation instead of the United States leaning to one side or the other, but now were welcomed by assurances of US strategic steadfastness and trilateralism, which was much welcomed by both sides.

The reassurances sought by Koreans and Japanese were strikingly similar: a victory by Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump; a recommitment to the rebalance to Asia; a priority for standing tough against North Korea rather than yielding to calls for new talks under duress; and, if not support for TPP, overall approval for free trade, not protectionism. If conservatives in Tokyo and Seoul had previously leaned toward Republican candidates for military firmness and economic cooperation, Trump had upended this quite reflexive response. Instead of coming to Washington to complain about each other, representatives of Japan and South Korea found that they were actually reinforcing each other’s messages.

This overlap in messaging, however, does not mean that clear sailing can be expected. Whereas Koreans largely oppose removal of the “comfort women” statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul (despite Park’s pledge to strive to do just that) and acceptance of Abe’s determination for Japan to become a military force in East Asia (buttressed by constitutional revision), these moves are welcome in Washington. The discussion of Japan’s role in the “rebalance to Asia” is strikingly different in Washington and Seoul. The fact that the ROK message has been muted in 2016 has sidelined this discord. Yet, there is also a growing sense of South Korean acquiescence and even tacit approval to a stronger US-Japan defense alliance: it keeps the US side deeply engaged; it contributes to missile defense against the North Korean threat; it puts China on notice that assertiveness in East Asia, including in support of North Korea, will be met with strong measures; and it counteracts the rising impact of three continental states relying increasingly on military pressure in their foreign policy. Much less negativity is heard in response to the clearly welcoming Washington attitude toward Japan’s pursuit of a much stronger military relationship with the United States. This is recognized as preferable to an independent military role for Japan or a more autonomous Japanese foreign policy (no longer just a US follower).

The US-Japan-ROK triangle has become more acceptable, but as the weakest of the three parties and the one with the narrowest objectives, Seoul cannot avoid nervousness in regard to how the next US president may visualize the triangle. First, it may be subsumed in a broader alliance network (Australia, India, some states in Southeast Asia), countering the South Korean effort to keep the focus narrow. Second, Washington’s tolerance for the moves Abe may undertake as he strives to reconstruct Japanese national identity may be at odds with Seoul’s deeply felt concerns about historical memory. What US observers find tolerable as a pathway for Japan to assume responsibility as a great power may well be opposed to what South Koreans deem necessary for Japan to stay contrite about past imperialism. The way forward for this alliance triangle will likely not be smooth sailing.

In 2016, Seoul and Tokyo have been on the same wavelength in support of deterrence, pressure, and sanctions against North Korea. Yet, Japanese are wary about the divide in South Korea over following this path, while Koreans do not trust Japan if the agenda is broadened for any reason. Indeed, should preemption be seriously discussed, neither is likely to be confident of the other’s response. Should Hillary Clinton take office with a tough stance toward the North (more pressure on China, more unilateral sanctions if China balks, and more trilateral military preparations), Seoul’s reluctance to work with Tokyo would become more of an issue. The attitude in Washington is that Japan has done what was needed to rebuild ties with South Korea, and now the first diplomatic task of a new administration is to build on this, to encourage Japan-ROK ties, and to trilateralize so that two strong legs are stretched into three solid legs of a triangle sharing common expectations around security. Few expect this effort to be easy, especially for Koreans.

Despite uncertainty about what lies ahead, realignment through alliance trilateralism is a significant development in 2016. Some Koreans are hesitant to acknowledge what is now transpiring—often quietly among military and security communities—, and there are still breakthroughs that have been delayed (e.g., direct intelligence sharing through GSOMIA) and public opinion that has not caught up with why and how conditions are changing, but the transformation is far-reaching. Bringing it to a new level means that realignment can be expected to intensify, especially under the leadership of a vigorous, new US president.

CJK Trilateralism

In 2013-2015, China-Japan-Korea trilateralism was mostly interrupted by both Xi and Park refusing to meet with Abe. The Park-Xi relationship was called a “honeymoon,” and the Park-Abe relationship seemed to be a nightmare with an absence of restraint on both sides. The realignment in 2016 has been dramatic. The Park-Xi relationship could best be called a “divorce,” and the Park-Abe relationship a “reconciliation.” Abe compromised on the “comfort women” issue, which Park had prioritized in ROK-Japanese ties, while Xi refused even to look for common ground on the North Korean nuclear test, which was always the priority in Park’s overtures to him. Instead of China and South Korea against Japan, the line-up was now Japan and South Korea against China. There is hesitancy in Seoul to acknowledge this—because the consequences of a sharp break with China seem too ominous for realist reasons, and of a decisive rapprochement with Japan seem too unfathomable for national identity reasons. Many are clinging to hope that realignment will not be so far-reaching. One means could be breathing new life into the CJK triangle.

Officials in Tokyo and Seoul alike are eager for the CJK summit in Japan to go forward. This would be a positive sign that each country’s bilateral relationship with China has not seen as much of a downturn as is feared. It would also serve to wall off economic ties, at least symbolically, from strategic relations. Instead of the pattern of 2013-2014 of South Korea joining with China in criticizing Abe’s revisionist moves (which led to the Xi Jinping attempt during his visit to Seoul in July 2014 to rally the Korean public to double down on joint demonization of Japan), Koreans and Japanese alike are calling on China to calm tensions in the region and agree to tougher UN sanctions on North Korea.

South Koreans largely remain determined to find a way to overcome the downturn in relations with China, while Japanese are generally reconciled to the prospect of poor ties with China. Should Chinese foreign policy shift direction, Koreans and Japanese may no longer overlap in their response. Yet, it appears likely that the nature of the triangle is set for years to come. In sharp contrast to the past few years, Seoul and Tokyo will agree on how to deal with Beijing. In turn, Beijing will find little geopolitical or national identity cause to meet with them together. If, however, the Chinese economy should drop further, then reanimation of CJK could be seen as necessary in China to boost economic growth.

In the case of the alliance triangle, strong US leadership in support of Japan-ROK close ties will likely drive further realignment. In the East Asian core triangle, strong Chinese opposition to closer Japan-ROK relations and to what both countries are urging China to do likely will similarly serve to keep the configuration from recovering to where it was just a few years ago. The polarization of East Asia as demonstrated in Sino-US relations and what these two great powers are urging others to do will be played out in trilateral settings. CJK has been troubled, and it is poised to remain so for different reasons that are reflected in the 2016 realignment and are not poised to change much in the next year.

Russia-Japan-ROK Trilateralism

Japan is primarily concerned about Russia drawing too close to China, while South Korea is worried, above all, of Russia moving closer to North Korea. Whereas Park has pulled away from years of joint statements with Putin about cooperation on the development of the Russian Far East (together with projects crossing North Korea), Abe in 2016 has told Putin that he has bold plans for cooperation that would help to turn the Russian Far East into one of the locomotives of Russia’s socio-economic rise, in accord with Putin’s latest priorities. There is no sign of coordination in the positions they take toward Russia.

In Vladivostok, Park encouraged Putin by calling the Russian Far East the meeting place of Asia and Europe and the new heart of Russia, but she warned that this treasure house of energy resources is not now being tapped to its potential due to North Korea. If reunited, Korea would unlock the door to its dynamism, making this a region of prosperity and peace. Park described a region at a crossroads: either disorder and new protectionism and isolationism or openness and integration, while Russia’s “pivot to the East” heightens the region’s potential. Her appeal to Putin was to embrace integration and take advantage of Seoul’s cutting edge technology, geographical location, competitive industrial base, and eagerness to work with Russia. Yet, Park made everything conditional on resolving the most serious threat to the region coming from North Korea. She called for speaking with one voice against this threat. Changing North Korea is the best hope for the Russian Far East and creating a new Eurasia based on peace and mutual prosperity. Indeed, Park was clear about seeking development based on economic principles with support from the international community, but also with a new focus on the Eastern Economic Forum.

Abe went to Vladivostok with a different message, ingratiating himself with Putin. He called Vladivostok’s beauty stunning, praised its new free port as a model, promised to return annually to the city, anticipated its emergence as the gateway linking Eurasia to the Asia Pacific, and proposed Japan as the ideal partner and in some areas the model for its development. Yet, as in Park’s remarks, he posited one condition that had to be met, i.e., overcoming the unnatural state of affairs of no peace treaty between Japan and Russia. By reaching an agreement, Abe asserted that he and Putin would unleash the unlimited potential of a natural partnership. This was a much more hopeful case than Park offered with the challenge centered on bilateral relations, not on altering Russia’s foreign policy.

China has offered the Russian Far East financial backing, and Japan and South Korea are being asked to do the same, as in an agricultural fund. Russians are emphasizing the enormous potential of the region, but many doubt that the problems plaguing the area despite grandiose ambitions by Russian officials over the past 25 years have not been overcome. Infrastructure troubles and uncompetitive costs, legal uncertainties and bureaucratic red tape, as well as repeated hype that failed to be backed up, are reasons for reluctance. Park showed no indication of overcoming this as she stressed geopolitical rather than economic reasons. In contrast, Abe catered to Putin’s ambitions with hyperbole about what Japan now seems prepared to do.

Putin recognizes the need to expand the economy of the Russian Far East, citing finance, processing industries, and capital-intensive sectors, as he announces the selection of Vladivostok as one of many free ports and “advanced developed areas.” Land giveaways for businesses relocating here, subsidies if infrastructure is built here, and simplified administrative procedures along with efficient customs posts are part of his plan. He is calling for military aviation to produce medium-range civilian aircraft, shipbuilding to expand the output of icebreakers and drilling rigs, a new space launch facility to spur cooperative programs, and a new university complex and Mariinsky theater branch to serve as the basis for an academic and cultural magnet for tourists. Yet, Abe attaches the condition of a peace treaty and Park the condition of geopolitical stability underpinning economic cooperation.

The shared message from the Japanese and South Korean leaders is that the Russian Far East has the potential to play a very positive role in Northeast Asian regional development, and they are eager to do their part. Putin’s Eastern Economic Forum can be the meeting place for such a transformation, but Putin must reassure others: a peace treaty with Japan is the first step, but Putin’s position on China matters to Abe too; a posture clearly in favor of denuclearizing North Korea is the first step for Park, but joining in support of NAPCI without North Korea would be a positive sign. Thus, Park and Abe are focusing on specific steps in the near future, but beckoning also with linkages between economic cooperation desired by Putin and security ties.

While US alliances are drawing Japan and South Korea closer to each other and Chinese aggressiveness is making it harder for them to stay apart, Russian belligerence has had the puzzling effect of splitting them further. The likely explanation is that Seoul regards the Russian position on North Korea as antagonistic, even if it refuses to say so for fear of making this position irreversible, and Tokyo regards the Russian position on China as not yet settled. Abe gives the impression that his first concern is the return of territory taken in 1945, but he is leaning toward acceptance of a compromise offered a few times in the past by Moscow. That suggests there is something new in the Japanese calculus. He may be misjudging Russia’s readiness to balance its dependence on China in the Asia-Pacific region and overestimating Japan’s clout in refocusing Moscow’s calculus. In 2017, when Sino-US relations have further deteriorated, as many expect, Abe may find—even if he agrees to a deal on the islands and a peace treaty—that he has done little to alter Putin’s warmth to China. Should there be a showdown over North Korea or the South China Sea, Abe’s disappointment with Putin may lead him to draw the same conclusion Park has.

Park’s realignment away from Putin and her Eurasian Initiative have coincided with Abe’s intensified overtures to Putin. The Russia-Japan-ROK triangle has changed more than would have been the case if only Park or Abe had shifted course. Yet, the situation is in flux in 2016 with the potential for change in 2017 high. Worsening Russo-US ties, new signs of Russo-North Korean cooperation instead of Russian pressure on the North, and further strengthening of Sino-Russian relations would all undermine Abe’s pursuit of the Russian leader. Yet, an Abe-Putin breakthrough could also be important, isolating Park and making it harder for her to follow a hard line course toward Russia.


The alliance triangle is significantly fortified in 2016 and will face conditions favorable for further strengthening in 2017. This is a critical part of South Korea’s realignment. Abe and Park both have strong reasons to reenergize CJK trilateralism, despite gnawing doubts about its prospects. If it could be given new vigor, that would limit how many see the realignment advancing, but that is a long shot. Moreover, as seen in the September 2, 2016, panel at the Eastern Economic Forum, at which Abe and Park delivered two contrasting appeals to Vladimir Putin, the northern triangle is in flux with one possibility a downturn for both Seoul and Tokyo even if Abe is anticipating a dramatic shift in another direction.

All of these configurations may be affected by North Korea’s choices and the challenge of agreeing on how best to respond to them. So far, the impact of the North’s provocative moves has been to strengthen the alliance triangle, weaken the core regional triangle, and contribute to the reversal in the northern triangle in regard to which state is partnering well with Putin. Yet, if Putin proceeds with his “new cold war” outlook, Abe is bound to be disappointed—with or without a deal on territory. The northern triangle, in any case, is not promising as a force for readjusting South Korea’s realignment in the near future.

The fervent US desire to strengthen the alliance triangle coupled with Xi Jinping’s strong interest in playing the nationalist card with scant regard for the core regional triangle as a party congress looms lead to the conclusion that the South Korean realignment will be intensified in 2017. If the Sino-US divide widens, China is angered over the trilateralism drawing Seoul and Tokyo closer, and there is scant Chinese interest in reviving the CJK triangle, the still fragmented and not deeply recognized realignment in 2016 is likely to be reinforced and harder to reverse in the shifting environment expected in 2017, even if debates leading to the South Korean presidential election result in this transformation becoming a prime topic for contention over foreign policy and national identity.