Mr Biden faces challenge to heal Japan-Korea alliance

Disagreements stemming from historical factors in Japan-Korea relations are said to be a major challenge for Mr. Biden when he visits the two allies this week.

US President Joe Biden will embark on his first trip to Asia since taking office on May 20. After his visit to South Korea, Mr. Biden will travel to Japan to meet Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and attend a meeting of the Quartet, a security mechanism set up by the US, Japan, Australia and India to address the impact of today’s growth in China to respond in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States views Japan and South Korea, two close allies, as important in building an “alliance of like-minded countries” to counter Chinese and North Korean influence in the region, according to Paula Hancocks, a veteran commentator on CNN on Northeast Asian affairs.

President Biden (right) descends from a helicopter May 18 in front of the White House.  Photo: AFP.

President Biden (right) descends from a helicopter May 18 in front of the White House. Picture: AFP.

Though US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was focused on responding to Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, on March 3 he called China’s rise “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted 15 missile launches since the beginning of this year, and South Korean intelligence believes Pyongyang has completed preparations to conduct a nuclear test at any time. US intelligence is concerned that North Korea could launch an ICBM or conduct a nuclear test on the eve of President Biden’s visit to South Korea.

Hancocks said President Biden’s visit demonstrates the US desire to unify Japan-South Korea ties in response to the current situation.

However, the relationship between these two countries is often “not good rice, not sweet soup” in connection with the controversy over sex slavery during World War II and the sovereignty dispute over an archipelago in the ocean of Japan, which Korea calls the East Sea.

Therefore, according to the Hancocks, restoring the relationship between the two biggest allies in Asia is seen as a difficult task that President Biden faces during this Asia trip.

Historical contradictions

South Korea and Japan historically have a “bitter and difficult relationship” dating back to the issue of forced labor between 1910 and 1945 when the Korean Peninsula was a Japanese colony.

South Korea accuses Japan of forcing many of its wives to work in military brothels during World War II. Scholars continue to disagree about the number of victims forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during this period, but activists estimate the number could be as high as 200,000 women in South Korea and North Korea in 2019.

Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) shakes hands with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Chengdu, China, 24 December 2019.  Photo: Reuters.

Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) shakes hands with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Chengdu, China, 24 December 2019. Picture: Reuters.

Japan apologized in 1993 for its past actions. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a bilateral agreement on comfort women with Seoul during his tenure in December 2015, laying the foundation for bilateral relations.

However, this process was halted when Moon Jae-in was elected President of South Korea in 2017.

In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that two Japanese companies must compensate Koreans for forced labor during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. However, the Japanese government believes the ruling violates the 1965 agreement to normalize and establish diplomatic relations between the two countries, which agreed to end the issue of forced labour.

In July 2019, Tokyo imposed trade restrictions with Seoul, saying the move was due to a loss of confidence in South Korea. Seoul strongly condemned the decision, accusing Japan of using its commercial advantage to resist the court’s verdict.

In response, the Koreans launched a boycott of Japanese goods, and the government threatened to withdraw from the Military Intelligence Exchange Agreement (GSOMIA), pushing Japan-Korea relations to their lowest levels after five decades of normalization.

territorial disputes

The Japan-Korea conflict is also related to sovereignty disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima archipelago in the Sea of ​​Japan. South Korea currently controls this group of islands and calls them Dokdo, but Japan also claims them and calls them Takeshima.

South Korea claims to have liberated the archipelago from Japanese rule since 1945, while Tokyo accuses Seoul of illegally occupying the feature.

In November 2021, Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori canceled a press conference with his Korean and American counterparts to protest the visit of Kim Chang-yong, Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA), to this archipelago.

Tensions increased further on May 17 when Chief of Cabinet Hirokazu Matsuno asked Seoul to explain through diplomatic channels that a Korean state-owned company was conducting surveying activities near the Dokdo/Takeshima island group. Mr. Matsuno confirmed that Tokyo will not accept exploration and surveying activities in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Location of the Dokdo/Takesshima archipelago.  Graphic: DW.

Location of the Dokdo/Takesshima archipelago. Graphic: DW.

Evans Revere, a former US diplomat, said that as tensions between Japan and Korea rise on security and economic issues, it will be difficult for the US to honor its commitments to them and deal with China, China and North Korea in Tokyo and Seoul do not actively negotiate or cooperate with each other.

However, Revere said Biden’s healing task will be somewhat easier if both South Korea and Japan have new leaders who share tough views on China and North Korea and a desire to develop military ties with the United States.

South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol said he would consider allowing South Korea to join the Quartet at the group’s upcoming summit in Japan.

Both Mr Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida have also shown signs that they are ready to put the past behind them. Mr Yoon last month extended an olive branch to Japan and sent a delegation to Tokyo ahead of his inauguration as part of a plan to give South Korea a “fresh start” as an “important country” campaign speech.

The Korean delegation presented Mr. Kishida with a letter from Mr. Yoon. Premier Kishida, after receiving the letter, said that strategic cooperation between the US, Japan and Korea on international security threats is more necessary than ever, and sent Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to President Yoon’s inauguration ceremony a month ago.

Commentator Hancocks said, however, that even as the leaders of Japan and Korea put national interests ahead of past disagreements, they still need to watch out for the reaction of domestic public opinion ahead of the election.

South Korea will hold local elections in June, while Japan will elect the upper house in July.

Professor Kohtaro Ito, an expert at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), said the majority of voters in Japan belong to the older generation, have nationalistic views and favor a tougher approach towards Korea. Therefore, Mr. Ito said President Biden is unlikely to make a breakthrough during the visit.

Revere shares the same opinion. “Nationalism often has a tremendous impact on relations and historical issues between the two countries, which can hamper any reconciliation efforts,” he said.

Duc Trung (Corresponding CNN/Kyodo News)