United States

US foreign policy has captured the world’s attention, as Donald Trump shifts policy around the world, not least in the Indo-Pacific region, in unanticipated directions. John Bolton’s departure as national security advisor appears to have made US concessions easier, as already seen in the abrupt shifts in policy toward Syria and Ukraine favorable to Russia. While attention has mostly focused on these cases and Afghanistan and Iran, Northeast Asian policy is widely debated in DC as well. Japanese and Koreans are coming to Washington, trying to gain an edge over the other side. While they are also dealing with Trump’s trade threats, his demands for increased host-nation support, and administration calls for cohesion on Indo-Pacific strategy, the US-ROK-Japanese triangle in the late summer of 2019 became an unavoidable topic, with implications for policy toward North Korea and China. To capture the essence of these exchanges, we must consider security, economics, and national identities in Japan-ROK ties.

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 President Moon Jae-in more than Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. 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 widely explored. The details of how this vital relationship between allies has deteriorated are by now familiar to many analysts even if the search continues for explaining what it signifies and, especially, for unlocking some promising pathway ahead.

In security this triangle is centered on North Korea, but it is being repositioned to address the threat of Chinese assertiveness as well. Given Kim Jong-un’s turn to diplomacy, however limited, and sharp differences between Tokyo and Seoul in responding to China’s military rise, strains are unavoidable in the security dimension of the triangle. In the economic arena, Trump has called into question win-win assumptions by insisting on addressing trade deficits and employing tariffs and threats of tariffs to demonstrate his “America First” philosophy. Supply chains cannot stay unchallenged in this turbulent environment. Finally, in identities, the prior focus on a shared international community built on values associated with freedom and democracy has been eclipsed by historical grievances and signs of bilateral disrespect. The nature of the Indo-Pacific region’s foremost alliance framework has been shifting abruptly in all three of these arenas.

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. A preemptive US approach should have been considered. In the fall of 2018 when the Supreme Court of Korea ruled that Japanese companies are financially obliged to pay the Korean laborers forced to work for them to 1945, the danger rose precipitously. However, the US government was 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 of the sort Obama had conducted to respond to the Japan-ROK tensions prior to the 2015 deal. 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 extensive and complex alliance network. Blamed for numerous foreign policy failures, Trump has only escaped sustained criticism on this front because his direct actions in Ukraine and Syria have eclipsed concern for this indifference.

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 standing firmly on one side or the other, not on a resolution that could be accepted on both sides. 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 the government’s policies in either country. Washington needs to wait is the message heard in DC against the backdrop of appeals to do something without delay. Yet the many skeptics of Trump’s foreign policy warn of a situation spinning out of control, which needs to be addressed sooner rather than later before some point of no return is reached.   

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 near. This uncertainty casts a shadow on discussions.

The security dimension

The decision by Moon to end GSOMIA cooperation has put security in the forefront for US observers of the Japan-ROK breakdown. Given the intense focus on North Korea since 2017, the natural context is how this breakdown affects both diplomacy and deterrence centered on the North. In Washington there is also strong interest in managing China’s rising military prowess. If in late July 2019 the joint Sino-Russian bomber intrusion into airspace claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo could have drawn Russia into the picture, DC exchanges have said little about that country in the context of preoccupation with North Korea and China in the Japan-ROK schism.

Much of the US discussion centers on the US role, facing a near-term deadline before GSOMIA will be terminated. Comments expressing “disappointment,” “it makes defending South Korea more complex” or “endangers US troops,” convey a mindset, but do they portend any action? Do Americans agree with Seoul that the loss of GSOMIA was the result of Japan’s moves since July 1 that destroyed trust, with Japanese that it was due to South Korea’s moves since the fall of 2018 (although the façade of lapses in export controls is also stated), or with security experts that both sides are endangering the US-led defense framework unlike what had preceded. The US has engaged both sides to clarify the impact on security without indicating that it is taking sides or would mediate. It is engaging all levels of government. US officials insist that TISA, a trilateral intelligence sharing agreement, is no substitute, since it is too slow. While the South Koreans might have expected US equivocation, as in the past when history issues arose with Japan, the US response has been more pointed and more critical of Seoul—but is it more urgent?

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, retaliating by abandoning GSOMIA. Given Trump’s use of economic pressure for all manner of diplomatic objectives, the fact that Abe did the same did not raise many eyebrows, but Moon’s security move is different.

The debate in DC finds some warning of urgency, but that is not the prevailing mood at a time of multiple security challenges with more apparent urgency. Much of the discussion takes place in response to panels with South Korean or Japanese speakers, seeking support for their state’s approach. Yet neither side satisfies the DC policy community by recognizing the importance of the other side to its own security. Respondents seek to broaden the framework, for instance to focus on the bigger security picture involving China and Russia, regardless of the North Korean threat.

Washington has prioritized national security concerns about China and Russia with demands for allies ranging from missile defense to freedom of navigation operations to maritime build-ups in case of contingencies in the East and South China seas. Japan has long used the excuse of its constitution limiting its self-defense forces while justifying continued talks with Russia as if they might lead to a breakthrough. Yet it has encouraged stronger US military engagement, as in the Free and Open-Indo-Pacific initiative, is supportive of US backing for Taiwan, and is coordinating closely on both maritime and missile defenses. If, abruptly, Tokyo has become more concerned about US entrapment than abandonment, it is still seen as a stronger defense partner in Asia.

In contrast, explaining that all its energies must stay focused on North Korea and the wrong move could jeopardize regional cooperation on that challenge, the ROK has only belatedly given its qualified support to FOIP. Its role in maritime strategy and missile defense is limited. 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.

In two respects the discussion of North Korea’s threat has shifted since 2017. First, it is viewed increasingly as a direct threat to the United States, for which South Korean forces (the alliance) are less relevant than missile defenses and retaliatory threats. Second, to the extent that hope has turned to a US-North Korean deal, then South Korea is seen through the lens of how well it is coordinating to maximize the chances for a desired outcome. Hesitation in supporting THAAD and in maintaining maximum pressure to secure a deal are not viewed to Seoul’s credit. Earlier the alliance was seen as the mechanism to check Pyongyang from attacking South Korea, then threatening Japan, and ultimately undermining the balance of power in Northeast Asia and the credibility of the US security posture there. While such reasoning continues, it has lost salience in favor of an interpretation of the North Korean threat to the non-proliferation regime and directly to the US. As the horizons have widened for viewing North Korea, Seoul’s value has diminished some. This is even more true for Trump, who puts little value in alliances and has put his faith in direct talks at summits with Kim Jong-un, paying little heed to Moon’s appeals.

Meanwhile, Tokyo’s value as a bulwark against North Korea has increased somewhat. It presses for stringent export controls, cooperates closely on missile defense, and warns against making a weak deal with Pyongyang. Tokyo is eager for a strong trilateral alliance (even if it is faulted by some for not winning Seoul’s trust), while Seoul was slow to agree to intelligence sharing and now has riled Washington by pulling out of GSOMIA. Abe won Obama’s confidence on security with his energetic moves on collective defense and national security centralization, reinforcing this success with Trump. Moon has kept strong bilateral defense ties, but by complaisantly accepting Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel joint exercises he did not do himself any favors in wider US security circles. The edge goes to Japan in winning US confidence regarding security in the Indo-Pacific due both to circumstances beyond Moon’s control and to his own decisions.

One view heard clearly in DC is that Moon Jae-in is playing into the hands of Kim Jong-un by weakening the Japan-South Korea dyad, which reverberates in the US-ROK alliance. If Moon persists in his anti-Japanese tenor until the April 2020 National Assembly elections and US anxiety mounts toward Moon, Kim may see an opening to utilize in his provocations. Of urgency is US leadership, already belated, to get Moon and Abe back to cooperating, which is made harder by Japanese “certainty” that it is hopeless to try to heal the wounds with Moon and Korean arousal that national pride is at stake. Some fear an even worse breakdown if the US does not intervene soon with dire consequences for national security in all three countries. This remains a minority viewpoint in the fall of 2019 when so much else is in flux in US policies.

The ending of GSOMIA is called a gift to China and is seen as a sign of insufficient seriousness about deterrence of China as well as North Korea. Americans add Russia to the picture, seeing it as a more aggressively recidivist power than China and also now essentially an ally of China. If the Sino-US competition avoids the worst-case scenarios, that does not mean it will leave room for the kind of straddling that Seoul has practiced for two decades. 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. Washington is inclined to demand more from it, although not in the capricious manner exhibited by Trump. In the name of national security, it is expanding what it seeks from Seoul. Post-Trump the US will have to rebuild its credibility. True, China’s neighbors and others will urge Washington to not make them choose, and keeping any pressure to a minimum with narrowly defined and well explained appeals is in the US interest.

Another viewpoint heard in Washington is that both Moon Jae-in and Trump have alienated Xi Jinping with the way they have conducted relations with Kim Jong-un, bypassing China mostly. Each has sought a bilateral deal with Kim, believing that this could lead to denuclearization. Yet China sees no pathway to stability let alone denuclearization without its inclusion and even its leading role in forging a regional framework. To be sure, Xi Jinping welcomes a US-North Korean deal but only as a starting point. Moon goes further than Trump in recognizing the need for good Sino-US relations to ease the way for Kim Jong-un to make compromises, but he neglects the deference to China that would actually secure closer Chinese cooperation. When Xi went to Pyongyang in June 2019, it was a kind of wake-up call to Seoul that Beijing has the upper hand.

In the Trump era, Seoul as other US partners is torn between contrasting images. US leadership is desired, not its isolationism that could be destabilizing; but if that is unilateral and even akin to bullying by a big country dismissive of its partners interests, it is not any less destabilizing. Tokyo wrestles with the same dilemma as US security policy toward China as seen as too hard line and toward North Korea too soft. Similar concerns by both allies about Trump’s unilateralism and penchant for taking extreme positions would seem to be likely 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. Divided thinking on economic issues have contributed to the breakdown.   


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—not those centered on civic identities and connected to universal values, but to what one DC presenter called racially conceived notions of nationalism pushed by the left in Korea and the right in Japan. Some suggest that there is a link between Moon Jae-in appealing to North Korea and demonizing Japan or Abe Shinzo becoming frustrated over marginalization with North Korea and disrespect from Trump despite pretenses to the contrary. Inability to speak out against the indispensable ally in the US and even the looming pressure from China led to pursuit of a very easily targeted country, which morphed into economic actions beyond the usual rhetorical ones.

Seoul gained an edge with the early KORUS FTA and a quick revision of it to give Trump the victory he sought. Pulling out of TPP, Trump widened the divide with Abe, but Abe handled him effectively. By the fall of 2019 Abe is on the verge of a bilateral deal with Trump, which could be heralded as a bigger victory by Trump. Both Moon and Abe yielded to Trump’s pressure in trade talks but limited the damage. Suppressing frustration over pressure not to rile Trump, both may have looked for outlets to prove that they could take the initiative and defend their country.

International arbitration offers little hope given the attitudes of Japan and South Korea. For Japan the first line of defense was consultations regarding the 1965 treaty and what it had covered, but South Korea refused. For the ROK, Japan’s trade restrictions suggested using the WTO process, but the appellate body there is falling apart, the US has blocked the appointment of new judges. Treaties that had presumed legal handling of disputes are proving inadequate.

Frequently, mention is made in US discussions of Japan-ROK relations of the divergence in thinking about China, which complicates cooperation on international relations and serves as a backdrop to deepening tensions over historical issues. Some suggest that Koreans are nervously eyeing the rising tensions in Sino-US relations, fearing a transformation in the regional order with serious, even dire, consequences for ROK foreign policy. Sino-US reconciliation appears best for managing North Korea and alleviating pressure on South Korea to choose between its ally and its principal economic partner. Yet, a combination of strategic and economic struggle between Beijing and Washington leaves Seoul in the middle, facing intensified pressure from both sides, as seen in the THAAD deployment pressure from the US that led to damaged ties to China and lately in the 5G pressure from the US that could antagonize China again. Given that high-tech is perceived as the number one arena of competition, involving a fusion of civil and military industrial policies, Seoul’s preference for separating economic and security relations no longer seems viable. It has been widely assumed in the US that even if Trump and Xi Jinping are able to work out a partial trade deal, it will be far from comprehensive and do little to slow the deepening competition over the technological tools most critical for shaping the world order.

South Koreans have experienced a much greater level of economic growth than Japanese, but they are more nervous about their economic prospects. They have allowed hopes to rise even under conservative governments to be able to manage China, to succeed in forging a regional multilateral forum, and to avoid polarization in East Asia. Yet, the message increasingly heard from Americans is that such hopes are fruitless. Ever since Kim Dae-jong’s administration such warnings have been commonplace, but they have intensified lately despite Trump’s messages.

Populism rising against Japan, anger aroused by Trump, worry about economic security, as well as mixed emotions toward North Korea all may leave South Koreans more vulnerable to China.
This concern is manifest in commentaries on the ROK’s heavy dependency on China’s economy.
Koreans hesitate to identify China as a revisionist power out to change the international order. Many deny that there would be a decoupling or even a bifurcation of supply chains, leaving the ROK caught in the middle. While many in the US perceive BRI as a mechanism to use economic means to impose Chinese standards, leading to political dominance, demands related to human rights, and eventually military realignment. Koreans are inclined to argue that security more than economics drives foreign relations, joining Japan and Australia in drawing that conclusion. Yet, compared to those two nations, South Koreans seem to have a different view of national interests as related to China, presumably due to thinking about North Korea but perhaps also as a consequence of thinking about the nexus of economics and security, historically laced views of Japan, and even a deeper skepticism among progressives of the United States and its motives.

The Japanese barriers to the export of three chemicals to South Korea reveal the danger of dependency in supply chains on monopoly suppliers. Semiconductors are a uniquely global industry, in which countries specialize in just part of the chain of supplies and the output is vital for numerous industries from cars to phones. South Korea has an outsized role in fabrication, which has made its exports in this industry as much as 20 percent of its total exports. Samsung and SK Hynix are two of the world’s largest manufacturers, and nearly all of the growth in its exports of late had come from semiconductors. Japan has more than a 90 percent share in the export of two of the three chemicals, which have been curtailed. Should Korean production of semiconductors be sharply curtailed, the spillover effects are considerable for other exports, in which these are used. The entire export structure of South Korea could face a blow, listeners in DC were told. This warning reminds one of the threats to Japan when China cut back sales of rare earth minerals in order to exert pressure over a geopolitical matter. Now China is seeking a complete national supply chain to prevent similar pressure exerted on it. One would expect the US and its allies Japan and South Korea to respond by forging a jointly integrated scheme, but the breakdown of commercial trust between Seoul and Tokyo puts such notions in jeopardy.  

Given Trump’s disruptive impact on world trade and the fixation on Sino-US trade talks, few are paying close attention to the Japan-ROK tit-for-tat trade restrictions since July. They are viewed as an effect, not a cause, of the anger each country directs at the other. For those attentive to the reasons for the breakdown in relations, the focus is put on how national identities play out in interpretations of past agreements, of what constitutes the rule of law, and of true justice.

National Identity

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 by the time Moon and Abe faced each other from 2017.

Moon seems intent on playing the national identity card against Japan, which only alienates him from the US. In September he pushed for the International Olympic Committee to ban the Rising Sun Flag from the Tokyo Olympics. This hopeless quest may have served a purpose in arousing the public in South Korea even more to focus on Japan’s pre-1945 past, but it had no resonance elsewhere (even in China’s official circles) and only exasperated US observers. Widening the national identity gap with Japan, Seoul defied US appeals to start stopping the bleeding in bilateral relations. It seemed to indicate a refusal to accept postwar Japan as a partner, which all other states do. US observers focus more on Moon’s identity-driven attacks on Japan than on Abe’s appeals to right-wing extremism, when their aim is to refocus on shared liberal values.

How does US national identity figure into the debate on the Japan-ROK breakdown? Koreans may have tried to evoke US sympathy for sex slaves and victims of forced labor, but there is not much interest in such concerns in the Trump administration. The policy community prioritizes the security damage. Moreover, the relief in 2015 that the history issue had been resolved by the agreement brokered by the US has precluded further attention to raising that theme.

Those attentive to cabinet appointments took notice of an uproar in Korea over the new justice minister and the concern in Japan over some of Abe’s selections in his cabinet reshuffle. These moves raised alarm in opposition circles of the national leader doubling down on appeals to boost national identity, while detracting from economic troubles (in Japan the consumption tax increase) and other concerns. Yet, Americans were not paying much attention to such internal developments. In DC, however, the emotional drivers in the breakdown were not overlooked. In the second half of 2019, Moon and Abe were using the hostility aroused toward each other to fan their national identity aspirations further, even if the backlash against his cabinet choice forced Moon to drop his appointment and Abe’s hopes for constitutional revision were in doubt.

Moon’s animus toward Japan is attracting attention in DC as a threat not only to triangularity but to US-ROK relations. He was against GSOMIA from when it was prepared and withdrawn at the last minute under duress in 2012. He derailed the “comfort women” agreement with relish. The worldview he embraces draws a direct link between Japan’s colonial rule, conservative Cold War authoritarianism, the flawed “normalization” of ROK-Japan relations in 1965, Japan’s rise of revisionism and “militarism” today, and ROK-Japanese cooperation on security and more. What is Moon’s end game? Knowing how intertwined US and Japanese policy have become, what does Moon expect to happen in ROK-US relations as a result of his Japan policy? Some focus on Moon’s domestic agenda, arousing anti-Japanese sentiments for electoral gains and even overturning the internal order seen as favoring the “collaborators” with Japan. Others point to Moon’s reunification aspirations, striving to find common ground with North Korea and to rally Koreans behind a different interpretation of the causes and solutions to a divided Korea. Still others suspect that Japan is a proxy for the United States, from which Moon seeks greater autonomy in foreign policy and national identity. While recent Korean presidents strove for regional leverage, Moon appears to be the first to have a more far-reaching strategy even if that is still obscured. Despite protestations in DC exchanges that Moon strongly supports the ROK-US alliance and it is advancing nicely, the trouble in ROK-Japan ties is reverberating in doubts about Moon’s deeper motives that reinforce those raised in his ties to North Korea. The national identity thrust in questions about Moon is troubling for relations.


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 US is distracted, unable to devote much attention to an obscure squabble between two allies when impeachment nears, chaos reigns in policy toward Syria and Ukraine, and Trump has no policy process even to deal with such critical challenges as North Korean nuclear and missile weapons. One response is that Trump is guided by a strategy, will stick firmly to a hard line on North Korea, and is committed to countering China after nearly a half century of weak US policy toward it. Defenders of Trump voice these opinions. Another view is that Trump is committed to cutting deals and is likely to do so for election purposes by caving to North Korea and agreeing to an interim arrangement with China. The think tank community worries about this outcome. Looming in the midst of this combustible atmosphere, the Japan-ROK breakdown has raised additional alarm. South Korea is faring worse than Japan in the process. Yet, the determining factor is US national identity, which now rests heavily on the whims of its president. Trump’s moves toward North Korea and China as well as the course of impeachment are likely to shape further debate on what is the best way to respond to the meltdown between US allies.