Hours before Friday’s deadline, South Korea extended an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that was set to expire and weaken the already fractured partnership. The reversal brings hope that the Seoul-Tokyo relationship is on a path towards renewal.
As a bulwark against North Korea and China’s revanchist ambitions, the Japan-South Korea partnership is key to ensuring peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific.
What can the US do to help – and not hinder – this precarious alliance? A new report by Hudson’s Asia-Pacific Security Chair Patrick Cronin examines how the US can strengthen and refocus this crucial relationship.
How a weak relationship between Japan and South Korea threatens a secure Indo-Pacific:
1. North Korea can better implement divide-and-rule tactics, which could undermine deterrence in a crisis and slow coordination with other partners throughout the Indo-Pacific.
2. “Alliance drift” between the US, Japan and South Korea plays into Beijing’s narrative that U.S. alliances and the postwar San Francisco system are anachronistic.
3. Heated rhetoric and retaliatory trade wars exacerbate the rising nationalism, protectionism, and unilateralism throughout the region.
Flash points in the South Korea-Japan relationship:
Tit-for-tat trade moves that began with Japan enforcing long-standing export controls on specific chemicals, which prompted a Korean movement boycotting Japanese products.
Disagreements over common threats including North Korea, China, and Russia, which are exacerbated by Seoul's receptivity to Beijing's overtures and Chinese-Russian pressure on the US to negotiate with North Korea.
Historical grievances stemming from Japan’s annexation of Korea between 1910-1945. Recent characterizations by Japanese politicians and textbooks have led Koreans to doubt the sincerity of Japanese apologies and compensation, while many Japanese doubt whether Koreans will ever forgive past wrongs.
Conflicting territorial claims over the Dokdo islets in the Sea of Japan, which are administered by South Korea but also claimed by Japan, where they are known as Takeshima.
1. Back off “burden-sharing” rhetoric: A public browbeating of allies undermines confidence in America’s continuing support of the region’s security. A deficit of trust risks hollowing out the bilateral and trilateral alliances.
2. Help Tokyo and Seoul repair trust over processes: To prevent high technologies from flowing to sanctioned actors like North Korea, US officials should build on the recent improvement in relations by supporting their counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo as they create a step-by-step road map for export control policy.
3. Refocus trilateral cooperation around the North Korea threat: The US defense secretary should work with counterparts to develop a trilateral defense plan should North Korea fail to move in the direction of denuclearization, taking into account opportunities arising from the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
4. Jointly Target North Korea’s cyber operations: The 2014 Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement among the three countries is limited to Pyongyang’s missile-related activities, so the three countries could begin a strategic dialogue on North Korea’s cyber operations, including Pyongyang’s cyber theft of crypto currencies and threats to the 2020 Olympics.
5. Acknowledge Japan’s additional risks and responsibilities: The security of Japan and the Korean peninsula are operationally integrated, so Tokyo’s additional security burdens should be considered in the decision-making process. For instance, building on cooperation to monitor North Korea’s illegal ship-to-ship transfers of goods at sea, all three countries can coordinate on possible noncombatant evacuation operations.