Washington Insights (Vol. 3, No. 4)

The Cold War era is looking different from before in hindsight of the 2010s. The key breakthroughs in bilateral relations now seem less transformative, even to a degree fleeting. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty seems shakier, given Abe’s revisionism. The 1965 Japan-ROK normalization is under duress, given the rulings by Korean courts on “comfort women” and forced labor as well as public opinion in Korea. The 1972 normalization between China and both Japan and the United States no longer appears to be held in high regard in China. Finally, the Soviet-US ties that led to the end of the Cold War in 1989 are suspect in Moscow. DC audiences cannot avoid asking questions about history even as they search for a path to the future. Of course, this is especially true of discussions focused on Japan-South Korea relations.

Japan-South Korea Relations

The perennial topic of Japan-South Korea relations drew attention in DC even after Park Geun-hye postponed her summit with Obama. Discussions often started with a specific theme linked to history and widened as they proceeded. On the one hand, there was lingering concern that Abe’s statement for August 15 would exacerbate relations, even if many forecast that Abe would be careful not to do great harm but also was unlikely to cause real satisfaction. On the other, there were many rumors of officials making progress in bilateral talks amid deep-seated doubts that they would succeed in reaching a lasting breakthrough without some vestige of distrust once again scuttling their plans. The level of optimism was not high, but frustration more than pessimism characterized exchanges on what would happen in the near future.

Many questions are being raised. What really accounts for the perilous state of this relationship? What are Japan and South Korea to each other? Why has the downturn this time continued longer than expected or than was common previously? What is the right role for the United States? Are there forces in either country that are able to work together to turn things around? Can we anticipate moves by North Korea or another country that serve as a wake-up call for a better Seoul-Tokyo relationship?

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have become so perilous that negotiators for the two sides cannot be at all confident that pragmatic agreements will not arouse such an outcry, especially among Koreans, that they will have to be set aside. This is what happened with the intelligence-sharing agreement in its first go-around in mid-2014, and it is what jeopardized the UNESCO sites agreement in July 2015. In South Korea, the public has been emboldened to challenge official policy toward Japan, stirred by a sense of empowerment against what is seen as an unrepentant colonial occupier. This is coupled with a newfound sense that Seoul’s foreign policy has options and its economy is much less dependent on Japan, freeing its hand.

Japan and South Korea have made each other the centerpiece in the reconstruction of national identity that is currently in progress. While the demonization of Japan by China can be dismissed as use of the “history card” by a regime whose legitimacy is vulnerable, efforts by Abe Shinzo and other revisionists to shift the focus from what Japan did to victimize others to 1945 to forging an image of Japan as a victim, cannot succeed without discrediting South Korea, dismissing it as “emotional.” In turn, for South Koreans Japan is a symbol of how it has been stifled and still is circumscribed in what it can say to other great powers, given the high stakes in the showdown with North Korea. By rejecting even Japan’s pragmatic diplomacy or realist security steps, it reinforces the image of Japan as incorrigible and of South Korea as beleaguered. In contradiction to the standard theory about the power of democracy to narrow gaps in national identity, the democratization of South Korea and democracy’s continued impact in Japan have turned domestic politics more negative toward each other. As diplomats offer legalistic explanations and hunt for the middle ground, the public in Japan expresses “Korea fatigue” and sees betrayal at work, while that in Korea has lost trust in any agreement linked to history after reneging on many past promises.

Discussion in DC brought out interpretations on why Japan is newly susceptible to “hate Korea,” “Korea passing,” and emotional responses parallel to Korean feelings toward Japan. It pointed to a higher degree of anxiety in Japan than before, more of a sense of isolation, and more leadership and conservative media focus on boosting the national identity in ways inimical to building trust with South Korea. History is at the core of identity clash, but, increasingly, there are signs of zero-sum thinking about US alliances with the two, culture more broadly, security ties with China, and even economics. On security, Abe has refocused Japan on maritime challenges from the East China Sea to the South China Sea and extending to Australia and India. The place of South Korea in this reorientation is ambiguous. In turn, Park has refocused on China as a partner in managing North Korea, again leaving unclear what role is available for the other US ally in Northeast Asia. Above all, sharply different views of how to manage China’s rise have sowed deeper distrust in a trouble relationship. Clever Chinese diplomacy has widened the divide, prolonging it against US wishes.

China-ROK-US Relations

The role of the US-ROK alliance in the process of reunification of Korea drew many responses in more than one DC setting. If one way of approaching this was first to assume that unification was achieved, most respondents insisted on discussing how we get to unification as the key to prospects for the alliance. They note vulnerability from contiguous land borders, uncertainty about regime type as a result of the way unification occurs, economic dislocations, and challenges from maneuvering among great powers. With such uncertainties, interest turned to China’s proximity, having greater access than South Korea and being much closer than the United States. How would China use its advantages at various stages of unification and afterwards?

One Chinese approach raised in these discussions is to play on traditional Korean notions of neutrality and balance to weaken and, eventually, end the alliance ties to the United States. Initial conditions for a deal leading in the direction of unification would limit the role of the alliance, as China is prepared to use its economic leverage to increase its impact. A weak Korean state would open the door to outside forces and make strong Korean nationalism too costly. This issue, it follows, is not whether unification occurs but what type of transitional entity with some trappings of unity would be acceptable to the great powers. Once denuclearization is not at the top of the agenda, there would no longer be a common Sino-US security goal. Indeed, the objectives of China, striving for a sinocentric regional order, and the United States, intent on redefining the alliance in pursuit of a rules-based regional order within a US-led international order, would be diametrically opposed. DC discussions brought out the unlikelihood of duplicating the German unification scenario, where the great powers were not at odds and the existing regional community was ready to open its arms. Unification by compromise among wary great powers poses serious obstacles. One possibility is a special regime in North Korea, over which South Korea gets only partial sovereignty, as the North is left as a strategic and, also, an economic buffer.

Skepticism that unification would occur by absorption or without great power input was widespread. Given the various red lines of these powers, the chances that they would do what they could to prevent reunification desired by South Korea are high. Even what we might now identify as the lowest common denominator probably is not something that would prove acceptable, given the will of the regime in the North or of elite groups struggling to retain power and influence. Indeed, competition over the nature of a united Korea and the regional security framework would be likely to intensify if denuclearization were not in the forefront. Some observers ignore this and jump ahead to hypothesize a united state aligned with Washington politically and closer to Beijing economically, not explaining why Beijing would be amenable. Alternatively, they raise the possibility of a neutral Korea, left weak between China and the United States with little leverage and prone to instability. As worrisome as this option is, most are more concerned about a pro-China outcome, which would be bound to destabilize the country, especially those in the South whose values would be suspect. Korean optimism about reunification met considerable skepticism.

Movement toward changing the status of North Korea would not, audiences heard, produce a benign security environment. It would result in more instability in light of the reordering of the balance of power as four great powers maneuvered. Economic circumstances outside of North Korea may well be more troubled than of late, and assistance to those in North Korea may pose an even greater burden than presumed.

Korean and US calls for closer support on regional security exposed clashing aims. The South Korean specialists stressed greater support for a distinct Northeast Asian framework, such as the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) for the entire region and the Eurasian Initiative to treat Russia’s role here as distinct and involve it in restructuring regional security. The US respondents often suggested more South Korean support for the US rebalancing in the South China Sea with a broad new architecture reaching Australia and India as well as US-Japan alliance ties as the nucleus. China and Russia have strikingly different places in these two approaches, but Japan’s significance also diverges.

Differences aired before DC audiences made clear that South Koreans avoid being asked to choose between the United States and China, which, in view of the assertive Chinese interpretation of differences between the two powers, leaves little room for cooperation on security in East Asia besides on deterrence of North Korea. Many see South Koreans as unrealistic about China’s plans for North Korea and its opposition to the type of reunification and “bonanza” being discussed in Seoul. The tendency to see the Sino-US struggle as two hegemons competing for influence misjudges what is driving China and how supportive the United States is of the vision South Koreans have of a unified state. The recent focus on Japan-ROK problems is distracting.

South Korean-US dialogue proved to be the liveliest of all the dialogues concerning East Asia in DC. The Abe-Obama summit left bilateral relations with Japan in rather good shape, quieting discussion. Preparation for the Xi-Obama summit was not yet on people’s minds. The fact that Park had postponed her visit to Washington failed to deflect attention from the themes that might be covered. The explanation could be that Koreans have routinized more channels for dialogue, but it also appeared to be that there is more uncertainty about this relationship than many are willing to acknowledge and more eagerness in Seoul to persuade American officials to back their agenda at a time when US relations with Japan, China, and Russia seem to be putting that agenda in jeopardy. This is a critical time for a state at the crossroads.

Koreans came to Washington seeking a more forward US presence to reduce the tensions in the region and to increase trust, arguing that this would reinforce the rebalance to Asia, but some wondered if what was sought would actually undercut the rebalance. While DC audiences supported Korean reunification, did they agree with the concessions to China and Russia as well as some sought by progressives and others toward North Korea? Were they optimistic that Seoul had a realistic strategy for enticing Pyongyang to denuclearize, for working with Russia on Park’s Eurasian initiative to link Northeast Asia and Russia’s planned Eurasian Economic Union, and for enlisting China in NAPCI in order to go beyond the US alliance system in dealing with regional challenges? To put the spotlight on reunification as a bonanza for the world, a united Korea as the growth engine for a new era of overlapping agreements on regionalism, and accord among great powers tested the more pessimistic mood prevailing in Washington at a time of intensified Chinese domestic repression and concern about Russian threats to support new aggression in Ukraine as well as of more inflexibility in North Korea.

One way Seoul is seen as a bridge between the United States and China is as a part of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and “One Belt, One Road,” as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Anticipating a long transition (two decades?) before China would be ready to join the advanced economies with stricter rules and transparency, as demanded by TPP, Koreans suggested that their country and Southeast Asia, to some degree, could link the continental framework being built by China and the maritime one led by the United States. Given the US alliance and South Korea support for universal values, it would reliably serve US interests as a bridge. Doubts were expressed about whether Seoul would confront China on human rights, whether its preoccupation with diplomacy over North Korea would stand in the way of Seoul looking through a regional and global lens, whether public misunderstanding of Japan’s security policies would have wide consequences, and whether progressives might return to power in Seoul with a different agenda. In the view of some, South Korea’s relative silence on the South China Sea disputes is a cause for concern. Some also found the Kaesong and earlier the Kumgang-san funds that have gone to Pyongyang to be at cross-purposes with the need to pressure that country, as opposed to humanitarian assistance. Differences have grown sharper.

The delay in debating and approving Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) elicited some of the strongest doubts about South Korean strategic thinking. The independent South Korean system for missile defense was disparaged as costly and inadequate, e.g., in responding to the missiles that might fly over South Korea and be headed to Okinawa and Guam. The Chinese critique of THAAD was called disingenuous, as if they want to preserve the capacity of North Korea to attack South Korea when their own missiles would fly over Russia if they were targeting the United States. Noting substantial progress in extended deterrence, including integrated alliance as well as counter-provocation plans, one DC commentator reinforced the emphasis on THAAD, but warned that the United States should not make this a test of South Korea. It should be handled with some delicacy, while efforts are made to narrow the gap between the allies in their views of China’s intentions and capabilities. Others commented that the focus in South Korea on economic ties to China and security ties to the United States should be challenged by boosting US economic ties, as has occurred with the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), and explaining that much of the export trade with China is materials for processing in exports from China.

The question of how important THAAD is to extended deterrence against North Korea arose at various DC gatherings. One line of reasoning is that North Korea has the goal of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to deter the United States from interfering in a crisis it would create on the peninsula. While US efforts to expand its missile defense system in Alaska and elsewhere offer some protection against more mobile launch sites and a new kill vehicle for missile defense will be helpful, US officials explained, as they have to ROK officials, why more is needed and why defense of the US homeland is critical to defense of South Korea. They also have closely linked the defense of Japan to that of South Korea, e.g., the radar located in Japan and the Aegis ships stationed there. The case for THAAD, an upper tier interceptor, as a specific fit for South Korea was also heard, as was the argument that China’s strategic deterrent would not be undermined by its deployment. Above all, officials warned of a capability gap that justifies THAAD. At a time when Foreign Minister Lavrov is arguing that the nuclear deal with Iran means that Washington should roll back its missile defense plans in Poland, Russians and Chinese are both in opposition to missile defense in East Asia, especially THAAD. The deployment issue hangs as a shadow over Park’s fall visit.

The arguments against THAAD are widely aired in DC. One is that it would pose a heavy financial burden on Seoul, but this was refuted with assertions that it would be US-owned and operated with modest costs for Seoul. Another is that Koreans are in favor of deploying their own system, but that would be much more costly, face lengthy delays and uncertainty, and suffer from a lack of interoperability. A third argument is that South Korea would better spend its money on offensive capabilities despite the North’s mobile targets, which require missile defenses too. Finally, there is the argument from China’s leaders that THAAD is intended to contain China, which no matter how flimsy, serves as a warning of some retaliatory moves that could impose a cost on South Korea and that North Korea would do more to add to its threat capacity. Reports from Seoul that Chinese pressure has backfired have not quieted concern in DC that Seoul is still hesitant to cross China, although many talk about costs instead as the reason for indecision or simply say there is no US request.

While the details related to THAAD are aired, the background is never far from the minds of DC audiences. It is that a growing threat to South Korea, the United States, and Japan is not being met with determination to deploy as fast as possible the best system for defense. Rather, arguments for such deployment are being depicted as US pressure and as a means to draw South Korea into a trilateral framework with Japan in opposition not just to North Korea but also China. The South Korean public does not understand how critical Japan is for their country’s defense, speakers warn, as the media and politicians frame issues without a strategic perspective. Many in DC see China focusing on South Korea as the weak link in the US alliance system, aiming to drive a wedge between allies. Both sides use the “sovereignty card,’ as deferring to Washington (and Tokyo) is denounced or deferring to Beijing is denounced.

China-North Korean Relations

A lively discussion over PLA writings on North Korea took place in July. The overall impression was that there is a wide variety of views, but they do not have much significance since they are not authoritative and are commercially driven. Mainly, they serve to shape Chinese public opinion, although some sources translated into English serve to influence outside opinion. Given that the PLA is often viewed as the most pro-North Korea interest group but is less transparent than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these sources confirm statements from Chinese to outsiders that China no longer sees itself as responsible for the North and is publicly expressing to the North its displeasure. Skeptics in the audience wondered if the fact that harsher views of North Korea are more often translated is a sign that China is using the PLA former and sitting officers for public relations, i.e., to convince South Koreans as well as Americans that they can find more common ground with China. Internal circulation writings and non-translated writings tend to be more critical. Critical as articles may be, if they cross the line to call for China to abandon North Korea, there is the possibility of trouble for the author, some suggested. After Xi Jinping’s appeal in 2012 for North Korea not to test a missile and after the flagrant disregard of the interests of China in late 2013 in the way Chang Song-thaek was purged and then executed, China’s anger has been unmistakable, but listeners were doubtful that in expressing criticism PLA officers were suggesting that close coordination on how to manage North Korea or on the reunification of the peninsula was contemplated.

Japan in Asia

One DC presentation centered on how official development assistance (ODA) plays a role in “proactive contribution to peace.” While in the second half of July Japanese are focused on the Diet debate over collective self-defense, one can think of ODA as the second leg in foreign policy not only supportive of development and humanitarian assistance but also to contribute to international security, as in assisting countries that are conflict afflicted. While the states of Southeast Asia do not draw the kind of attention that Afghanistan, the neighbors of Syria, South Sudan, or Nepal do, after recent or ongoing crises, Japan’s ODA there also interested the DC audience. In the case of Mindanao (the Philippines), it serves the purpose of reconciliation following conflict, inclusively reaching across divisions and complementing diplomacy by Japan to resolve the dispute. In all cases considered, Japan’s ODA appears to be consistent with US strategy, including where China’s rapid increase in assistance of various kinds poses geopolitical questions.

Questions were raised about how Japan’s ODA is responding to China’s rising impact. One response is that Japan can try to influence China’s use of funds, as the World Bank has done, welcoming the AIIB and other initiatives that make more money available. Yet, politics often gets in the way. Another is that Japan’s ODA is seeking to cope with the objective of preventing unilateral change in the status quo. This is limited to non-military means, but that includes capacity development of coast guards, which can (more than navies) prevent unnecessary escalation when conflicts are feared. This is one step in empowering regional states to maintain the peace and improving the security environment in the South China Sea, while not showcasing any direct strategic response to China. Attention was drawn to the February 2014 charter for non-military contributions to peace, which highlights a longstanding division of labor with the United States, as ODA is used more for peace-building. Some queries sought clarification on how much the strategic priority for ODA has been raised. One comparison noted is that Japan has the goal of promoting democracy too, but it is more concerned with creating an effective state in order for the transition to democracy to not be reversed. With the Diet still debating how the self-defense forces (SDF) might operate abroad, including evacuating or protecting the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) personnel, who are involved in ODA, there was uncertainty about some aspects of this linkage. What the Pentagon provides in strategic economic support in the fragmented US system for assisting countries appears to be consolidated under JICA in its cohesive system.

Japan and Security

With those who follow the national security laws debate in the Diet eager to gather more information, DC audiences probed presenters on this theme. They sought to know more about popular interest, learning that campuses are rather quiet unlike in 1960. While older Japanese echo the criticisms of that era, as if passing the laws is a recipe for conscription, younger Japanese are not particularly galvanized as they are more focused on finding jobs. Yet, various reasons were discussed for the overall fall in popularity of the Abe cabinet. One was the ambiguous, hypothetical nature of the concepts in the security bills, as Japan’s leaders and media were hesitant in naming real threats. Another is the obsession with consensus in the Diet and society, which makes the procedures being followed appear arrogant, when they would not seem so in another society. Third, many question the priority for security when concerns about boosting the economy and advancing what Abe calls the “third arrow” are on their minds. Fourth, the impact of Abe’s unnecessary linkage of history and security has cast a shadow for some on the reasons for the security law. Few doubt that the laws will pass, given the make-up of the Diet—presumably in late September—, but the struggle could exact a price on LDP support in next year’s Upper House elections and in subsequent plans for Abe’s agenda. As in the case of the 1960 split over the alliance and security, this time may also require a few years before the public is ready to accept the changes. Yet, in this case, a crisis is more likely to come soon, and the left is more divided without clear leadership. What may well be a silent majority for the security bills once the hullabaloo quiets and misleading views lose currency could well overcome lingering pacifism and distaste for Abe in bolstering the US-Japan alliance and, eventually if mostly indirectly, Japan-ROK security ties.