Chinese leaders must be salivating at the prospect of yet another rough patch in the strained relationship between America’s regional allies, South Korea and Japan.
Relations between the two countries have been deteriorating sharply in recent years. And despite the recent transition to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving PM, most analysts believe that Tokyo’s relationship with Seoul will remain troubled.
It’s a trend that Beijing is keen to exacerbate.
As the two most important democracies in Northeast Asia, South Korea and Japan share clear strategic and economic interests, and yet they maintain poor relations that represent a risk to U.S. national security and regional stability. This is all the more worrisome in the context of America’s push to restrain China’s increasingly aggressive posturing, from the obliteration of the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong to the attempts at territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
The tensions between Tokyo and Seoul are sometimes confusing to outsiders, as they relate to disputes with roots going back more than three-quarters of a century, to the 35-year inter-war period when Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula. These issues have increasingly come to permeate all areas of the relationship, impeding cooperation on diplomatic, economic, and military fronts. South Korean courts have issued rulings against prominent Japanese companies demanding payments related to occupation-era grievances, while Japan, and some legal scholars, argue that these issues were settled under the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral diplomatic relations.
China may take advantage of any weakness in South Korea–Japan relations or South Korea–U.S. relations. And, with an already-slowing economy pummeled by the coronavirus, South Korea is in a uniquely weak position. Sandwiched between Japan and China, geographically and culturally, the Republic of Korea is seen by China as “the weakest link in the U.S. alliance network,” Jung H. Pak, the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies, wrote in a paper for the Brookings Institution.
President Donald Trump has also not gotten along well with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in. He has threatened to draw down troops stationed in South Korea if Seoul didn’t quintuple its funding of the bases where they reside. He has also allegedly insulted the country, according to Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, who is married to a Korean–American citizen.
China’s points of leverage with South Korea are numerous. Twenty-seven percent of South Korean exports go to China, twice as much as go to the U.S. The supply chain of South Korea’s tech industry is closely tied to China — Samsung is one of Huawei’s biggest suppliers, and Huawei components are used in one of Korea’s 5G networks. Korean pop and dramas are very popular in China, and Korea felt the economic hit in 2017 when China limited the exposure of Korean cultural exports due to Korea’s deployment of the American THAAD missile-defense system. Since the Joseun Dynasty, Koreans have a long tradition of venerating China’s Confucian culture, an influence that still permeates Korean culture to this day.
China has had relatively positive relations with the Moon administration. During the pandemic, neither country banned travel to the other. And in fact, this August, China allowed South Koreans to apply for visas, making Korea the first country whose citizens China is allowing in since it closed its borders to the rest of the world.
Like North and South Korea, China experienced a period of Japanese occupation in the 20th century, and maintains grievances over the Imperial Japanese Army’s war crimes. There has been some speculation that China and/or North Korea directly or indirectly support the activities of South Korean activists who highlight those crimes, as a means of exacerbating the standoff between Seoul and Tokyo. Japanese activist groups and Korean conservatives have made this claim, though it has not been conclusively proven, and former senator Norm Coleman wrote in an op-ed for CNN that The Korean Council, known in Korean as Chong Dae Hyup, one of the activists’ main advocacy organizations, is “believed to have ties to North Korea.”
What is indisputable is that Yoon Mee-hyang, who has long served as head of Chong Dae Hyup, has now been indicted and is awaiting trial for allegedly exploiting former victims of the Japanese army and embezzling donations for personal use. She faced criticism from 91-year-old victim Lee Yong-soo, who said she and other former “comfort women” — the Japanese euphemism for those forced into sex slavery by Imperial Army soldiers — are being used as political pawns to win power and divert donations for private gain. While there is no doubt that many Koreans harbor rancor over Japan’s war-time atrocities, the two countries must resolve or set aside their complicated history and address the pressing present-day security and political concerns they both share.
There are reasons to hope that this might happen. Shortly following his election, Prime Minister Suga expressed a desire to improve the relationship in a call with President Moon Jae-in. “I told President Moon that we cannot leave our current very difficult relations where they are now,” he said to reporters after the call. “Cooperation between Japan and South Korea, as well as between Japan, the United States and South Korea, is crucial to deal with North Korea and other issues.”
Still, there is clearly more work to do. Empirical evidence suggests that direct intervention on behalf of one party or the other is not the answer for Washington: Too often in recent years, the U.S. has made heavy-handed demands on both South Korea and Japan, which have had the effect of diminishing good will and trust among the South Korean and Japanese publics. Instead, the relationship should be left for Seoul and Tokyo to figure out on their own, with the clear message imparted by Washington that critical national-security interests shared by all three countries must come before the merry-go-round of perceived insults and apologies that China would love nothing more than to keep spinning.