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South Korea and the changing balance of forces

Written by: (Contributed) on 25 January 2021


The recent decision by a South Korean (ROK) court to uphold a previous legal verdict and order Japan to pay compensation to twelve Second World War sex-slaves or their families has provided further evidence of the growing schism between the two countries. The recent legal decision has far-reaching implications for their diplomatic relations, which form a central part of US-led regional military and security provision.

Other related factors, however, are also important to consider.

Behind the growing diplomatic schism lies the changing balance of economic forces across the wider Indo-Pacific caused by the rise of China as a major regional diplomatic player. It has enabled the ROK, likewise, to move from being a compliant client-state of the US toward becoming a diplomatic player resting upon its own regional economic position.

These positions have some bearing upon Australia and relations with other countries.


In early January an ROK court ordered the Japanese government to pay $117,000 compensation to the five surviving and another seven families of those deceased, for horrific human rights abuses in the Second World War. (1) The twelve women, who were in their late-teens or early 20s at the time, were forcibly used by Japanese troops as sex-slaves.  

Japanese colonial administrations and successive governments in Tokyo euphemistically referred to their sex-slaves as 'comfort women'. Clarification of the terminology will now have far-reaching implications and prove particularly embarrassing for Japan. Right-wing forces in Japan still identify with their sordid militarism and all which has accompanied their imperial past.

While the recent legal decision dealt only with a class action of twelve cases, during the long-time military occupation of the Korean Peninsula by the Japanese Imperial Army from 1910-45, there were numerous similar cases.

It is also significant to note the recent legal decision rested upon eight years of legal wrangling designed to obstruct procedures. The Japanese government attempted to deny any liability, whatsoever, on the basis the victims were recruited by civilians and the military brothels were commercially operated. They did not uphold the usually accepted procedure that an occupying military force is responsible for all security considerations. It is, therefore, highly significant to note the recent legal verdict did include reference to the fact the 'Imperial Japan was responsible for the comfort women'. (2)
The present Japanese government also attempted to use a 1965 ruling whereby the claims between the victims and Japan were supposedly settled. The present ROK government of President Moon Jae-in, however, declared the 1965 treaty was effectively faulty, citing that it did not include or take into account the lack of consent from the victims. (3) The 1965 treaty between Japan and the ROK took place during a period when the US called the tune, without reference to other considerations. The Korean lawyer who dealt with the class action, Kim Kang-won, for example, actually stated following the verdict that, 'at the time of the 1965 treaty, the issue of the comfort-women was not discussed at all'. (4)

It is generally agreed that during the Second World War period as many as 200,000 women, mostly Korean but also from other parts of Asia, were used in Japanese brothels. (5) Many died of their horrific injuries; the occupying Japanese colonial administrations, furthermore, had little sympathy for those on the receiving end of the injustice.

The position taken by the Moon Jae-in administration to challenge the validity of the 1965 treaty has provided further evidence of a rising diplomatic significance of the ROK, made possible by a changing balance of forces across the wider Indo-Pacific region.   

China, as a rising regional player with extensive trade relations, has successfully challenged traditional US hegemonic positions. Both Washington and the Pentagon now, as a result, have to consider China and other countries such as the ROK in a rather different light. In fact, the contemporary history of the ROK is very closely linked with the rise of China.

China is the ROK's largest trading partner, with 26 per cent of ROK exports worth $124 billion going to China, together with a further $32 billion going to Hong Kong. The strong economic links are based in two-way trade; the ROK is China's fourth largest trading partner with $93 billion of Chinese imported produce. (6)

The trade links between the ROK and China have also been supplemented with the Russian Federation (RF); in June 2018, President Moon Jae-in addressed the RF parliament in Moscow and signed an agreement for a free trade area.

These economic moves have under-pinned favourable diplomacy with the northern DPRK, which also has strong trade links with both China and the RF. The Moon Jae-in administration, likewise, has stated an intention to re-open the Chaeson Trade Park in the DPRK, which was supported by the ROK and China. It was closed due to sanctions imposed by the US. The RF also has a large trade park on its southern border with the DPRK, which the ROK would appear to be moving toward some involvement.

While the ROK has retained strong regional trade links with ASEAN, it has diversified its foreign policy in recent years as stronger links with China have taken priority. (7) A noticeable feature of ASEAN in recent years has been its ability to cope with a diversity of trade links while continuing to provide strong support for individual countries despite collective consensus often proving difficult. ASEAN member-countries have also frequently shown no wish to be instructed to take sides in the present US-led Cold War between either the US or China when such moves have been regarded as not serving their own national interests. (8)

It is against this backcloth that the former Trump administration has been seen to lose diplomatic ground as the balance of forces have swung heavily in favour of China. (9) Even with skilful diplomacy many of the matters arising would have been problematic for the US; with the Trump administration they were subject to ineptitude, ignorance and indifference.    

A further factor to consider with recent ROK developments has been the increasing confidence of the Moon Jae-in administration to deal with sensitive defence and security matters. The US has nearly 30,000 military personnel based in the ROK, which form part of the Defence of Japan doctrine for rapid deployment purposes. The Trump administration did, however, openly discuss re-deploying many to Guam when dealing with President Moon Jae-in as their diplomacy sunk to all-time lows.

While continuing to push for domestic military provision and manufacturing of locally made military equipment, the Moon Jae-in administration has prioritised security independence and self-reliance of national defence, with 'greater autonomy in the US-South Korea alliance'. (10) It has already raised serious issues with operational compatibility of military equipment as the US has sought to dominate the arms budgets of those considered allies with its own manufacturing.

The moves have also included high-level diplomatic attempts by the ROK to accelerate 'the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCOM) from Washington to Seoul'. (11) The ROK wants greater control of its own defence system, which has raised serious considerations for the Pentagon which regards the country as a diplomatic attachment to Japan, the northern regional hub for 'US interests'. Japan, as the northern hub is then linked directly to Australia as a southern counterpart. The triangular diplomatic relations with the US form the basis of US-led regional diplomacy.

It has, therefore, been revealing to note how recent developments have been received by Japanese governments. The coolness of their diplomatic relations in recent years has become decidedly icy. In late 2019, the Moon Jae-in administration even withheld support for the US-led vital GSOMIA intelligence link between Seoul and Tokyo until just a couple of hours before its expiry. (12) The GSOMIA has, historically, provided the US with much of its intelligence about the northern DPRK.

While these developments have been taking place, it has been interesting to note the continued sycophantic nature of the present Morrison coalition government in Canberra and Australian diplomacy toward the US; Morrison did not condemn Trump for inciting violence and the storming of Capital Hill early in January, and has repeatedly reaffirmed Australian support for the 'alliance' and the present Cold War. (13)  

Australia has been seen to continue to support US-led diplomatic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region including support for Japan, while other countries including the ROK have been more sensible and shown some reluctance and apprehension to accept the whole package foisted upon them from Washington and the Pentagon without question.
Successive generations of peoples across the Indo-Pacific are likely to remember the role of Australia in this connivance and diplomatic duplicity for many more years to come, as the balance of forces swings even further away from existing US-led positions.

The fact the recent legal verdict in the ROK was only given minimal media coverage in Australia, without reference to its lasting significance, is further evidence of pro-US media outlets restricting information which has challenged US-led regional diplomatic positions.

The passing of the Trump administration has not been not water under the bridge, its legacy has set a mould on regional diplomacy:
                                         We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     S Korean court orders Japan to compensate sex slaves, The Weekend Australian, 9-10 January 2021.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Ibid.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Ibid.
6.     ROK Economy, Wikipedia, 23 January 2021.
7.     South Korea's New Southern Policy and ASEAN – ROK relations, The Diplomat, 28 July 2020.
8.     What does the US Indo-Pacific framework say, The Diplomat, 13 January 2021.
9.     See: Study – US no longer dominant power in the Pacific, Paul D. Shinkman, Information Clearing House, 22 August 2019.
10.   South Korea's ongoing quest for security independence, EASTASIAFORUM., 21 January 2021.
11.   Ibid.
12.   South Korea to continue intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, BBC News, 23 November 2019.
13.   Our alliance is more vital than ever: PM., Australian, 22 January 2021.


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