Konstantin Asmolov – Shaping the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul Triangle

In one of his past articles the author promised to discuss in more detail how anti-Japanese sentiments in Seoul began to diminish with Joe Biden’s accession to power. The first signs of this development were observed at the end of 2020, when there was already a concern that the Seoul-Tokyo feud might have a negative impact on the partnership between Seoul and Washington.

On September 17, 2020, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Marc Knapper noted that the ROK, the US and Japan must work together to protect the values threatened by China. Napper noted that the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) concluded between the two countries plays a critical role in the cooperative ability of the ROK, the US and Japan to respond to threats. That is why Seoul and Tokyo must find ways to resolve their historical disputes.

On November 19, 2020, the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK, the US and Japan have agreed to cooperate for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. During the videoconference, Generals Won In-choul, Mark Milley and Koji Yamazaki stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and bringing lasting peace to the region. General Won In-choul noted the crucial importance of trilateral cooperation for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of permanent peace in the region. General Milley noted that the ROK and Japan are keeping a close eye on maintaining security in the region, promising them support using the full range of military capabilities. Having agreed upon the importance of trilateral cooperation for peace in the region, General Yamazaki urged Pyongyang to comply with UN Security Council resolutions.

The new US administration seems intent on rebuilding its alliances, and thus involving its partners in plans to keep China and the DPRK in check. As part of “rebuilding alliances,” the United States has begun to make serious efforts to put a stop to the Japan-South Korean trade war, and in this context pressure is starting to be exerted on Seoul to such an extent that South Korea has been advised to stick to the outcome of the 2015 agreement.

On December 23, the special envoy for peace and security on the peninsula, Noh Kyu-duk, who is in charge of international cooperation on the North Korean issue, held telephone conversations with his counterpart Takehiro Funakoshi. The sides discussed plans for interaction in both bilateral and trilateral formats with the participation of the US on issues of maintaining stability in the region and achieving complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

On February 2, 2021, a spokesman for the ROK Ministry of Defense noted that Japan and the ROK are the most important allies of the United States in the region and that cooperation between them is key to regional peace and security. “The trilateral cooperation between the US, ROK and Japan is vital to maintaining regional peace, prosperity and stability, encompassing countering the North Korean nuclear threat, WMD and ballistic missiles and upholding international order governed by concrete rules”.

A similar point was made by a Congressional Research Service report: the extremely low level of relations between the ROK and Japan in recent decades has weakened the possibility of coordinating trilateral interaction.

Well observed already, the course of confrontation between the United States and China has not particularly changed from the change of presidents, and in this situation the US is actively “assembling the team”, and does so through various means, although, all within the strategy of “rebuilding alliances”. This includes the strong desire of the United States to drag South Korea into the Quad, and attempts to turn the alliance between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo into a properly functioning triangle, rather than the “L-shape” it resembles now, due to the poor nature of Japanese-South Korean relations.

On February 15, 2021, Noh Kyu-duk and Takehiro Funakoshi again “exchanged ideas on ways to cooperate”. The parties agreed to continue consultations at all levels on various topics, including the DPRK.   Experts associated the move both to another suggestion from Moon Jae-in to address the issues in a more flexible manner and, which is more likely, to telephone conversations between the US Secretary of State and the ROK Foreign Minister, where Antony Blinken stressed the importance of continuing trilateral cooperation, primarily against the DPRK.

In February 2021, Foreign Minister Jeong Eui-young said that the ROK and Japan could seek help from the US as a common ally “if necessary to resolve their lingering differences over historical issues” ().

In fact, during the period reviewed above, the US State Department has repeatedly stated that unless Washington works together with Tokyo and Seoul, any approach to denuclearization of North Korea will likely prove ineffective.

The State Department also reacted positively to Moon Jae-in’s statement of March 1, 2021, in which he once again proposed dialogue to Japan.  In response to a request for comment, the State Department spokesman stressed that “the strong, close relationship between the three countries contributes to the common goals of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the Indo-Pacific region”. The Joe Biden administration is committed to strengthening relations with the ROK and Japan, key US allies in Northeast Asia.

The State Department seems to be well aware of the difference between Moon’s statements and his immediate actions, so shortly after the South Korean president’s speech, Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Sung Kim said that the US plans to work on further cooperation between South Korea and Japan, which it sees as vital to solving regional problems.

On March 3, 2021, Jen Psaki named Japan and the ROK as key partners of the United States in combating the threats posed by North Korea, and another State Department official anonymously told the Yonhap news agency: “The United States has repeatedly emphasized that the practice of comfort women has been an egregious violation of human rights, but has called for continued collaborative work on this issue to promote recovery and reconciliation.

It seems that the ideal outcome for the US would have been for both sides to honor the 2015 agreement, because, as one commentator noted, no matter how much the democrats claimed that this deal did not correspond to the interests of the people, the agreement was never officially denounced, and the money paid out by Japan and spent on compensation was never returned.

On March 15, 2021, State Department spokesman Ned Price explicitly urged the two countries to act on the agreement, especially since Antony Blinken, who was Under Secretary of State from 2015-2017, played an important role in mediating it.

During the joint visit of Secretary Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, first to Tokyo and then to Seoul, high American officials also actively tried to join the discordant ends of the “letter L”. “Our alliances are what our military calls force multipliers, and we can accomplish much more with them than without them,” they said in a joint article published by the Washington Post.

But while things went smoothly in Japan, with Moon Jae-in it didn’t work out so well. In his March 18 meeting with Blinken and Austin, the president said that South Korea “will continue its efforts to restore relations with Japan”. Even though US representatives “praised Seoul’s determination” to improve relations with Tokyo and expressed hope for progress, such language suggests a lack of cooperation.

On March 22, 2021, the ROK Defense Ministry reiterated its desire to expand security cooperation with Japan, and earlier Defense Minister Seo Wook called the ties “a valuable asset”.

On March 30, a State Department official again emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation and did so when asked about the US position on the Dokdo problem. It seems that this and a number of other statements can be summed up in a less diplomatic language as “Stop your pointless arguments and just get on with your work”.

On March 31, Suh Hoon, head of the Presidential Security Service, met with his American and Japanese counterparts in the United States. We touched on this subject in some detail earlier, but note that, according to “anonymous well-informed sources,” the United States has again demanded cooperation from both sides.

On April 6, a US administration official said he felt “very optimistic” about Seoul and Tokyo: “I think our consistent message to both Seoul and Tokyo will express, you know, our understanding that this is a complex issue, but also, you know, our hope that as Japan and Korea look to the past, they can work together on the present and the future”.

On April 15, a high-ranking official in Washington said on condition of anonymity that during his talks with Yoshihide Suga, Joe Biden was going to discuss Japan-ROK cooperation.

On May 5, 2021, the State Department once again urged Seoul and Tokyo to work together “on issues related to history in ways that promote healing and reconciliation”. The remark, incidentally, was made in response to the question “why the US chose not to send a strong and clear message that Japanese military forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II was a violation of human rights”.

On May 12, after the administration of US President Joe Biden finalized its policy on the DPRK, Park Ji-won, head of the ROK National Intelligence Service, Avril Haynes, director of US National Intelligence, and Hiroaki Takizawa, director of the Cabinet Office Information and Research Bureau of Japan, met together in Tokyo.  The intelligence leaders exchanged views on North Korea, China and other geopolitical issues, but other details were withheld. Seoul has effectively refused to comment on the outcome of this meeting, as well as individual meetings between Park and Japanese leaders.

Japan’s Kyodo Tsushin news agency reported on May 15 that the leaders of the ROK, the US and Japan plan to meet on the sidelines of the June 11-13 G7 summit in Cornwall.  This summit will be the first such meeting since September 2017.

The topic of trilateral cooperation also came up on the margins of Moon’s visit to the United States in May 2021, but note that by and large, while cooperation on the military or security fronts is somehow facilitated by the “common threat” in the North, in other areas it ends in appeals, and the South Korean media periodically features articles with veiled expressions of displeasure with the American course, because, according to their authors, “the Biden administration supports Japan for political reasons“. The support is that the US is not obstructing Japanese plans to dump radioactive water and is trying to drag Korea into Quad, which would disrupt the ROK’s ability to balance the US and the PRC.

However, the author is confident that, although the Anti-Japanese sentiment as part of the fundamental state myth of the ROK cannot be completely eliminated, the state will tone down the pressure in Moon’s final years, and the most odious things will be dealt with through NGOs. Since all of Seoul’s independence in such matters is always limited by Washington’s first decision, and its populist image should not be able to deceive anyone.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Source: https://journal-neo.org/2021/06/10/shaping-the-washington-tokyo-seoul-triangle/

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