US pushes Japan and South Korea into unwelcome relationship
Written by: (Contributed) on 20 March 2023
Those who follow how influence is brought to bear in diplomatic relations will have found recent US-led initiatives toward South Korea (ROK) particularly interesting. The Biden presidential administration has successfully pushed their ROK counterparts in the Blue House in Seoul toward a pro-US defence and security position, away from the more independent diplomatic line of the previous Moon Jae-in presidency.
Serious implications for South Korea’s domestic politics have arisen following the US formally placing the ROK inside the new Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The address by President Yoon Suk-yeol at the ROK annual celebration of their independence movement on 1 March was met with widespread criticism and condemnation by many citizens. The address included the statement that 'Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us … and … co-operation between South Korea and Japan is incredibly important on all fronts, including diplomacy, economy and defence'. (1) Diplomatic relations between the two countries have historically been tense, following the controversial occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-45 by Imperial Japan; the period was marked by horrific human rights abuses, atrocities and repression.
Several years ago, the two countries reached an agreement whereby Tokyo agreed to contribute to a fund to pay compensation to Korean women forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers. The deal, however, fell apart. Subsequent legal rulings in Seoul re-opened the whole issue of compensation, although Japan refused to accept the legal decision and forward any compensation.
The legal verdicts proved particularly controversial as they overrode a 1965 treaty where Tokyo had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans to the South Korean government of the time. Threats by the previous Moon Jae-in presidency, to enforce payments through liquidation of assets of Japanese companies resulted in tense diplomatic stand-offs.
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration also used the 1 March public holiday to announce that 'a South Korean fund will compensate Koreans forced to work for the Japanese in Japan during World War Two … as … part of an arrangement that will boost efforts to counter China and North Korea'. (2) The political announcement overrode legal decisions.
Behind the scenes influence has been brought to bear by the US upon the ROK: the US has imposed their Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) upon allies throughout the wider region. (3) The Yoon Suk-yeol presidential administration has been keen to follow the US-led initiatives: on 13 March, for example, the ROK embarked upon their largest joint military exercise with the US for five years, with the ten-day 'Freedom Shield' war-games. The exercise followed an earlier joint exercise, Teak Knife, which included Special Forces conducting simulations for strategic precision missile strikes on North Korean (DPRK) key facilities. (4) The two joint military exercises have also included a statement from President Yoon Suk-yeol that the DPRK was 'an enemy'. (5)
On March 13, hundreds of peace activists gathered near the presidential office in central Seoul to demand stopping the Freedom Shield joint military exercise.
Holding banners and placards with the slogans of "Stop the Korea-U.S. joint exercise that brings on war" and "What we want is peace" in their hands, the participants shouted, "We want to live. Stop the war exercise."
The previous Moon Jae-in administration sought a more conciliatory diplomatic relations with the DPRK, which caused noticeable diplomatic tensions between the ROK and US.
The main stumbling block during the Moon Jae-in presidential period was the US implementation of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The intelligence agreement was responsible for elevating Japan to a major hub for 'US interests', and a major player in the new IPS alongside Australia as the two regional 'linchpins'. (6)
It replaced a previous US strategy primarily for East Asia, marked by the ROK and Japan being fundamentally on an equal footing: US forces were stationed in the ROK for rapid deployment with the Defence of Japan doctrine. The IPS has downgraded the ROK alongside other participants including Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and other allies. (7)
While the US demanded the Moon Jae-in administration declare its full participation in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, a diplomatic statement from Seoul noted, 'South Korea needs to first demand a concrete list from the US in terms of how it is supposed to participate in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, examining it closely and choosing only those areas that are acceptable'. (8)
The ending of the Moon Jae-in presidential period subsequently allowed the US new openings with the more conservative and pro-US administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, which has proved more accommodating of Japanese counterparts, particularly in the domestic political arena when dealing with demands for compensation.
While the US has succeeded in winning over the ROK government to their side, the country itself is increasingly polarised between supporters of the previous presidential administration and that of the present administration. The victory for the US may well prove temporary and impossible to maintain in future years. Reliable commentary from Seoul has noted 'relations between the two Koreas are at one of their worst points in decades'. (9)
And diplomatic relations between the ROK and Japan remain decidedly volatile as the US prepares for 'real-war scenarios'.
1. Deal on forced labour reached, Australian, 7 March 2023.
3. The Reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA., Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019; and, Change your ways or else, Beijing warns US., Australian, 8 March 2023.
4. US, South Korea kick off largest drills in five years, Australian, 14 March 2023; and, N Korea calls for end to drills, Australian, 6 March 2023; and, Kim prepared to turn Pacific into 'firing range', Australian, 21 February 2023.
5. South Korea labels North the 'enemy', Australian, 17 February 2023.
6. Australian, op.cit., 8 March 2023.
7. See: Hankyoreh, op.cit., 12 November 2019.
9. Kim orders 'real war' drills, puts soldiers on mission notice, The Weekend Australian, 11-12 March 2023.
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