September 10, 2020 | Insight

How Washington Can Help Bridge the Gap Between Seoul and Tokyo

September 10, 2020 | Insight

How Washington Can Help Bridge the Gap Between Seoul and Tokyo

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s resignation has raised hopes of a resolution to Japan and South Korea’s ongoing dispute over Tokyo’s abuses during World War II. However, a change in Japanese leadership alone is unlikely to improve bilateral relations, since neither government has expressed a desire to compromise. The United States cannot force a resolution of its allies’ historical disputes, but it can help insulate security cooperation initiatives from political fallout so the dispute does not endanger shared efforts to deter North Korean and Chinese aggression. Above all, Washington can revive trilateral security dialogue at the working level, where political concerns are less salient.

Since the end of 2018, Japan and South Korea have experienced a precipitous downturn in their bilateral relationship. It began with a South Korean Supreme Court ruling requiring numerous Japanese companies to provide financial compensation to 11 elderly South Koreans subjected to forced labor during World War II. Backed by the Japanese government, these companies refused. Tokyo also retaliated by curtailing exports of key Japanese products necessary for South Korea to manufacture tech-related goods, a move which hurt major South Korean firms, such as Samsung.

South Korea then hit back by nearly terminating a bilateral intelligence sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). This pact enables Seoul and Tokyo to share information about the North Korean threat, including ballistic missile detection and satellite intelligence. U.S. pressure helped persuade South Korea to keep the GSOMIA, although Seoul reiterates it can and will terminate the agreement at a time of its choosing unless Tokyo removes the export controls.

Tensions escalated further last month when a South Korean local court began selling off the assets of one of the Japanese companies previously ordered to provide compensation for forced labor victims. Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary and a possible successor to Abe, had previously warned Seoul that Japan will retaliate with “all available measures” if Seoul moved ahead with this sale.

However, after Abe’s resignation announcement, South Korea’s national security adviser, Suh Hoon, stated Seoul will push to revive bilateral talks and resolve issues with Tokyo once a new leader is appointed. Yet progress remains unlikely because neither side has signaled interest in a compromise. Nam Chang Hee, an international relations professor at Inha University in South Korea, assessed that “the power dynamics of his [Abe’s] ruling Liberal Democratic party is still at work,” which rules out the possibility of a major policy shift from Tokyo. Additionally, Abe’s successor may pursue an even harder line against South Korea to reassure his domestic political supporters that Tokyo’s policies will not change in the succeeding administration.

Consensus on how to address Japan’s wartime abuses is likely to remain elusive, yet Washington can help ensure such disputes do not heighten the risk of North Korean or Chinese aggression, especially by undermining the GSOMIA. Defense Secretary Mark Esper stressed last year that South Korea and Japan’s bilateral intelligence sharing is “key to our common defense against North Korea.” State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said that the GSOMIA’s termination would further endanger U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

Most importantly, Washington can help Tokyo and Seoul address structural flaws in how they have conducted diplomacy in recent years.

Currently, the two U.S. allies rely on top-down diplomacy that predominantly involves ministerial-level or presidential meetings. These meetings are usually held on an ad hoc basis in response to a North Korean missile provocation or on the sidelines of international gatherings, such as the G20, ASEAN Regional Forum, or UN General Assembly. Meeting only in times of crisis or convenience gives both governments little opportunity to consult and plan further cooperation on shared security concerns. Instead, the focus tends to remain on controversies such as wartime abuses.

Washington could help Tokyo and Seoul insulate security cooperation from such tensions by establishing a trilateral working-level diplomatic mechanism involving mid-ranking defense and foreign ministry officials.

The now-defunct Trilateral Coordination Oversight Group (TCOG) illustrates the value of working-level dialogue. The United States, South Korea, and Japan established the TCOG in 1999 to coordinate their North Korea policies. TCOG delegations ranged from 12 to 15 mid-ranking officials from various government agencies to underscore diverse interagency representation at the trilateral level.

The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA) conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the TCOG in 2004. It found the approach was successful because “it formalized and established routines for trilateral policy consultations on the North Korean issue, as well as how it connected three-party discussions to a high-level interagency process.” The IFPA study found, however, that the TCOG was unable to prevent friction on Seoul and Tokyo’s historical issues if they came up during the group’s discussions. Yet by creating consistent dialogue among the participating governments, the TCOG helped build greater commitment to shared interests that remain vital, even amid disputes.

A similar mechanism could help Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo pursue what South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in calls two-track diplomacy, which deals with Japan and South Korea’s historic grievances separately from other bilateral issues.

A TCOG-like process would help lay the groundwork for higher-level meetings, such as ministerial and presidential summits. By meeting on a routine basis, the proposed mid-level forum could help each government appreciate the extent of their shared security interests. Thus, when disputes flare, leaders would be less likely to sacrifice highly effective agreements such as GSOMIA in order to satisfy public anger.

Although historical reconciliation between Tokyo and Seoul will take much longer to achieve, Washington can help ensure that vital security cooperation continues even as Tokyo and Seoul search for consensus on how to resolve historical disputes.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mat and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy