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The Korean Peninsula and Japan: how spheres of influence are changing

Written by: (Contributed) on 4 January 2020


The major diplomatic stand-off between the administration of President Moon Jae-in in the ROK (Republic of Korea/South Korea) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan has shown no sign of being resolved. In fact, all the signs are that it will escalate in 2020.

Behind the scenes, however, there is a far bigger picture of regional US-led military planning of which the ROK and Japan are important component parts.

The problem, therefore, has far-reaching implications for US imperialism’s regional foreign policy.

In December, President Moon Jae-in and PM Shinzo Abe sat down for high-level diplomatic talks, the first time in over a year. It was not coincidental that the meeting took place in Chengdu, the capital of China's western Sichuan province, following a three-way summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. (1)
The rise of China has dramatically altered the long-standing US domination and control over what were once amongst the two most loyal allies Washington and the Pentagon enjoyed in the region. Between them, the US has 78,000 troops based in the two countries. Japan is a northern regional hub for 'US interests' and operations, the ROK is a main part of the US-led “Defence of Japan doctrine” for rapid deployment facilities.
In recent times, however, China has dislodged Japan as the second biggest economy in the world and the ROK has been drawn closer into the Chinese sphere of influence.
The two countries entered into a period of serious diplomatic hostilities last year when the South Korean High Court ordered Japanese companies to financially compensate Korean people for forced work in Japanese factories during the Second World War. While Japan has maintained that the matter was resolved with a treaty established in 1965, the ROK legal decision has cast doubt upon the validity of the agreement.
Another facet of the diplomatic stand-off was a Japanese export restriction placed upon certain materials used by ROK technology companies, a problem largely created by the US-led trade war with China. The diplomatic stand-off then escalated with President Moon Jae-in announcing plans to withdraw from vital US-led intelligence-sharing agreements with Japan, a major problem for the US regional Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.
Following several months of diplomatic brinkmanship President Moon Jae-in finally resolved for the ROK to stay in the 2016 intelligence-sharing agreement, following a strong US push to save the pact. (2) 
The decision, however, did not resolve the icy tensions still existing between the ROK and Japan. The position of the ROK has been that they can still end the intelligence-sharing relationship at any time they choose. (3)
The recent high-level diplomatic meeting in China was accompanied by an official media release noting relations were in an 'extremely severe state', and the 'atmosphere of the meeting was tense'. (4) A further area of disagreement at the meeting was a unified position toward the northern DPRK. While Japan wanted to openly criticise the DPRK, both the ROK and China did not support the position. The controversy escalated still further with an announcement shortly before the meeting that China and the Russian Federation had proposed to lift some of the sanctions imposed on the DPRK.
The old order of US regional allies slavishly following US-led directives in the name of a foreign policy would appear to be breaking-up. Major power shifts have taken place in north-east Asia and the ROK is now a regional player in its own right, not solely a client-state of the US, and Washington and Pentagon dictat. (5) The fate of the US-led intelligence sharing pact between the ROK and Japan is evidence of far deeper problems for Washington and the Pentagon than the present diplomatic stand-off.
The Moon Jae-in administration are also seeking closer diplomatic relations with the DPRK and the re-opening of the Kaesong Trade Park. The chosen political line has run counter to US-led regional diplomacy pursued by the Trump administration. As both the ROK and DPRK have strong working relations and trade with China, the three countries have been increasingly drawn together.
With the ROK set to proceed with plans in 2020 to seize Japanese assets from the companies implicated in the forced-labour scandal, following the Supreme Court decision, it is likely diplomatic tensions between the ROK and Japan will escalate still further. President Moon Jae-in has already announced he was not prepared to interfere with the legal decisions. (6)
The ROK and Japan are 'effectively no longer on speaking terms'. (7) The two countries have entered into a period of what has been described as 'a crisis of cold politics, cold economics'. (8)
The US has been responsible for creating much of this problem.
We need an independent foreign policy, before Australia is drawn by US imperialism into the problem!

1.     Abe takes shine off Moon summit, Australian, 26 December 2019.
2.     S. Korea reverses course, The Chosun Ilbo, 23 November 2019.
3.     Ibid.
4.     Australian, op.cit., 26 December 2019.
5.     Korea's diplomacy, The Chosun Ilbo (Seoul), 30 May 2019.
6.     Australian, op.cit., 26 December 2019.
7.     Chosun Ilbo, op.cit., 30 May 2019.
8.     Japan and South Korea, Nikkei Asian Review, 15 August 2019.


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