Before Moscow’s unprovoked war, European nations were divided on issues ranging from Russian energy pipelines to Brexit and – with lingering resentments dating back to Trump-era trade disputes and the war in Iraq – some even appeared to be rethinking their relationship with Washington.
The stakes could hardly be higher. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently called China’s rise “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century” – and that after the Russian invasion.
Hence Washington’s desire to see Japan and South Korea unite.
The problem for Biden? While the two seem keen on getting closer to Washington, when it comes to each other, the two countries just don’t get along. They have a historically bitter and turbulent relationship that is rooted in the Japanese colonization of South Korea from 1910 to 1945, and which was inflamed by Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves in brothels – the victims are now euphemistically called “comfort women”. Additionally, they remain locked in a 70-year dispute over sovereignty over a group of islets in the Sea of Japan.
These differences are not historical curiosities, but living disputes. In one of the most recent attempts at trilateral talks, in November 2021, a joint press conference was derailed when Japan’s vice foreign minister objected to a visit by a South Korean police chief. Korea on the islets – known as Dokdo by South Korea but Takeshima by Japan. . Lawsuits against Japanese companies for their use of wartime forced labor remain unresolved. Recent years have seen growing differences on security and economic issues.
Evans reveres, a former U.S. diplomat who has been in and out of government for the past 50 years, with stints on both Korean and Japanese desks, has seen the relationship’s sourness undermine alliances for decades.
“If Tokyo and Seoul don’t actively talk to each other, if they don’t cooperate with each other, it’s very difficult for the United States to fulfill not only its obligations to them, but also its strategy to deal with the China, to deal with North Korea,” he said.
Signs of thaw
Fortunately for Biden, Revere says he feels more optimistic now than he has in a very long time.
Crucially, the two new leaders also showed signs of leaving the past behind. Yoon offered an olive branch to Japan last month by sending a delegation to Tokyo ahead of his inauguration as part of his plan – outlined in a campaign speech – for South Korea to get a “fresh start” as a as “Global Hub State”. ”
His team delivered a letter from Yoon to Kishida and the decision was mutual this month when Japan sent Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to Yoon’s inauguration with a letter in response.
After receiving the letter, Kishida said strategic cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea was “more necessary than ever, given that the rules-based international order is under threat.”
But even if country leaders see the value in putting the past behind them, they will want to avoid alienating voters who may not be so forgiving.
Professor Kohtaro Ito, a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said while Yoon had shown signs of changing his approach – choosing a foreign minister in Park Jin who could speak both English and Japanese and who was popular in the Japanese parliament. — any breakthrough during Biden’s trip is unlikely.
Indeed, both have yet to navigate the looming local elections – South Korea has local elections in June and Japan has upper house elections in July – and neither leader will want to alienate nationalist voters. less willing to let go of the past.
The barrier of nationalism
This is not the first time that the two countries have tried to overcome their differences. In 1965, they signed a treaty that normalized relations and was supposed to settle some of the most controversial issues, including that of “comfort women”.
But South Korea was a military dictatorship at the time and many Koreans never accepted the treaty. For some, the apologies and subsequent agreements by Japanese prime ministers still fall short of what they consider to be sufficient reparations.
Choi Eunmi, a Japan studies fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said a Japan-South Korea alliance would be vital to Biden’s hopes of building a coalition, but felt his visit would do little to help. something to solve these problems.
“It’s too sensitive and too controversial and there’s no place for America to work things out,” she said.
You have to think about the voters.
Revere points to “the nationalism that often drives perceptions of this relationship and historical issues in the two capitals” as a spoiling factor and the role of South Korean courts which – through their adjudication of wartime disputes – “could bring any effort at reconciliation will crumble.”
For decades, families of Korean forced labor victims have fought for compensation in court, directly targeting Japanese companies.
It’s an issue that has infuriated Tokyo, which believes things were resolved with the 1965 treaty, and one that Yoon can hardly address without being accused of interfering with the independence of the judiciary.
Yoon also begins his unique five-year term with the lowest approval ratings of any new president. and must work with a parliament dominated by the opposition.
In Japan, the older and generally more conservative generation largely supports a tougher approach from South Korea and Kishida will be well aware of this, said Ito, who added that the older generation voted in far greater numbers than the younger.
Biden, however, is likely to have a clear message that could dispel lingering political doubts harbored by Kishida or Yoon: the importance of alliances and cooperation, as demonstrated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. .
“The President of the United States has been absolutely instrumental in mobilizing the international community, mobilizing NATO allies and others to support Ukraine when it needed it,” Revere said. .
“What better statement about the importance and utility value of alliances than what is happening right now.”
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