President Obama and Japan-South Korean Relations

"Preparing for Obama’s April Trip to Asia"

President Obama’s trip to Asia in April will have a full agenda, and should result in some important accomplishments. He will have his work cut out for him, however. The region’s challenges are far deeper and the solutions to problems far more complex than most Americans realize. One trip alone cannot address all the issues that demand the president’s attention, but this trip will strengthen some very important relationships—and stimulate some constructive attention to a diplomatic logjam between Tokyo and Seoul.

The April trip includes four destinations, each with its own agenda for the US president. Two of his stops are to countries that were expecting him last fall, when he was due to participate in the East Asia Summit. A US president had not visited Malaysia for nearly fifty years; so it was particularly wrenching when politics in Washington took priority. In Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib Razak seeks to transform his nation, and instill in its economy a new embrace of competitiveness and global reach. He faces domestic pressures on his effort to conclude the TPP, and the president’s visit will help focus attention on the benefits to be had from his transformative agenda. It will also give the two leaders a chance to discuss the growing pressures Malaysia is facing from Beijing.

In Manila, President Benigno Aquino will be particularly keen to have Obama’s support as his government continues to confront Chinese pressure over their maritime and territorial disputes. Manila’s decision to revamp its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States comes from its own difficulties with Beijing, and undoubtedly Aquino will be looking to Obama for support in broadening his diplomatic effort to manage China’s economic pressures on the Philippine economy. Expectations are high for what a visit from Obama can bring to both of these Southeast Asian economies.

The US Role in Reconciliation Diplomacy

The president will start his visit in Northeast Asia with stays in Tokyo and Seoul, and it is here that the more difficult challenge resides. Washington’s bilateral relations with its two allies are quite strong, but it is their relationship with each other that has suffered over the past eighteen months. Popular sentiments have become increasingly sensitive as diplomacy between President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stalled. Obama and his staff have worked hard with colleagues in Tokyo and Seoul to lay the groundwork for a leader’s summit at the Nuclear Security Summit next week at The Hague. Given the theme of that meeting, it is likely that the three leaders will focus their discussions on North Korea and steps to coordinate their policies for coping with nuclear and missile proliferation. Washington has an interest in discussing regional cooperation in ballistic missile defense and other aspects of security cooperation.

Obama’s meeting with Abe and Park demonstrates his commitment to facilitating communication between the two US allies, and the time between the Nuclear Security Summit and the president’s visit to the region in April should offer an opportunity to work through some of the issues that caused their estrangement. The momentum of the trilateral next week ought to serve as encouragement for both Park and Abe to tackle head on some of their outstanding differences. But it will be important to recognize the causes, the consequences, and the role of the US president in facilitating better relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

The Causes of Japan-Korea Estrangement

The perceived cause of the estrangement is different in each capital. In Seoul there is a growing sense that the Japanese government is reneging on past statements of remorse for World War II, and Abe’s ambiguous statements about the past in the early months of his return to power raised questions about his commitment to the Japanese government’s official positions on the past: the Murayama Statement of 1995 and the Kono Statement of 1993. Moreover, by last fall, there was a growing worry in Seoul that Japan’s defense reforms would somehow impinge on Korea’s own security, a worry that seemed particularly misplaced when it was focused on the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines review announced last October at the Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting in Tokyo between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry and their Japanese counterparts, Minister of Defense Onodera Itsunori and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Kishida Fumio.

The tensions, of course, predate Abe and Park. In Tokyo, President Lee Myung-bak’s ill-fated visit to Dokdo Island (Takeshima) in the summer of 2012 compounded a growing unease about the trajectory of Korea’s domestic politics. Activism related to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula focused attention on an array of issues, including a court case over the sexual slavery of Korean women during the war as well as legal claims for compensation for forced labor under Japanese companies. The issues were not new, but the mechanism of protest puts new pressures on the South Korean government. The use of the courts to adjudicate victim compensation and to compel the government to advocate for those who felt Japan needed to do more to demonstrate its remorse, despite the bilateral treaty of 1965 and the discussion of compensation that accompanied it, came due to new generations of South Koreans pressing their government for greater accountability and a more forceful representation of their interests in negotiations.

Leadership transitions in both countries also contributed to the growing frictions in 2012. As the presidential election approached, Lee found himself increasingly confronting a contentious legislature. Likewise in Tokyo, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko found his government constrained by a “twisted” parliament, with opposition critics in the Upper House particularly confrontational. Elections in December 2012 produced a chance to reset the relationship, but unfortunately the initial diplomatic overtures just raised more hackles. In February 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro’s visit with newly elected president Park did not go well, and later efforts to establish contact with the Blue House were unable to undo the damage.

Park was clearly focused on her relationship with the leaders of the United States and China. Early in her tenure, she traveled to both capitals and was received by appreciative audiences. Abe, in contrast, received a cold shoulder from the new Korean president, and was also confronted by the legacy of the downturn in Japan-China relations that resulted after his predecessor purchased the Senkaku Islands, inflaming Chinese popular outrage and anti-Japan demonstrations across the country. Park’s obvious interest in her relationship with Xi Jinping, and her lack of interest in a dialogue with Abe only served to exacerbate the relationship.

Protracted diplomatic silence over this past year has allowed the popular feelings in both countries to decline precipitously. Public opinion polls have revealed a striking drop off in trust between the two countries. Indeed, in South Korea, the Asan Institute revealed that Kim Jong-un seemed to rank higher in the Korean public’s estimation than Japan’s prime minister. In Japan, outbursts of anti-Korean demonstrations shocked the nation as hateful speech and discriminatory language poured from the vocal minority offended by South Korean actions. A counter effort by citizens who opposed this kind of discriminatory behavior towards Koreans also emerged, with volunteers confronting those with an anti-Korean bent and erasing hateful graffiti from public spaces. With no dialogue between the two leaders, the political opportunity for antagonism and nationalism was allowed to grow in both countries.

Ties between Japanese and South Korean non-government groups remain strong, but the political frictions are beginning to take their toll. Although Japanese companies continue to have good relations with their Korean partners, a drop in economic activity between Japan and South Korea was visible in 2013. Trade between them took a slight dip in 2012, but rebounded in 2013. Total trade grew 5.96 percent from 2010 to 2011; shrank 4.35 percent in 2012; and grew 10.55 percent in 2013. FDI was strong through 2012, but Japanese investment in South Korea shrank in 2013.It grew from USD 1.085 billion in 2010 to USD 2.439 billion in 2011 to USD 3.996 billion in 2012, before shrinking approximately 17.8 percent in 2013 to USD 3.286 billion. South Korean investment in the Japanese economy shrank an alarming 91.6 percent in 2013, down to USD 47 million from a high of USD 559 million in 2012. The prospect of a court judgment in favor of redress for forced POW labor by Japanese companies, however, could have a serious impact on business relations between Japan and the ROK.

The President and US-Japan-ROK Summitry

From last year, the costs of this estrangement between Seoul and Tokyo became a focal point in Washington’s diplomacy towards both countries. In large part, however, the consensus was that the United States government could not broker reconciliation between them. Only Park and Abe could do that, and yet, the worsening relations and the frustrations that were brewing between the governments became troubling to US policymakers. The costs seemed all too obvious: a belligerent and adventurous North Korea could easily upset the region again.

More difficult was the growing criticism from Beijing and Seoul of Tokyo. Diplomatic isolation of Japan served no one’s interests, and shook the premise of stability that informal strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea offered the region. By the end of 2013, the actions of both Park and Abe suggested worsening rather than improving relations. For over three months now, the US challenge has been to facilitate a different approach, and to find a way, at the highest level, to lead a trilateral dialogue on shared interests. That hard work has paid off, and next week the three leaders will meet on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit. Obama’s participation in the meeting offers the opportunity for Abe and Park to meet face to face and to demonstrate their political commitment to repairing their damaged ties. No less important is the demonstration at that summit of Obama’s political commitment to ensuring continued effort at improvement.

For many, this may seem to be a photo op—designed to paper over differences—but the significance goes far beyond that. Last week, Abe in the Japanese Diet clearly stated that he would support the Murayama Statement and, most importantly for Park, the Kono Statement. Leaving no room for ambiguity about his intentions, he confronted those in the Japanese parliament who had already begun to demand an investigation into the Kono Statement—how the evidence it relied upon was produced and even the reliability of the statements from the victims of the military brothels. This investigation will proceed, but the Abe Cabinet has committed itself to maintaining the statement of remorse issued by Cabinet Secretary Kono to the women forced into sexual slavery during the war.

For its part, the Korean government now will need to consider its own way forward. Park has advocated a “correct understanding of history,” yet the practical steps for a reconciliation strategy remain vague. She too has publicly stated that the time has come to improve South Korea’s relations with Japan, and she may in fact have the support of the Korean people behind her in that objective. Her participation in a trilateral summit indicates her commitment to act.

April and Beyond: The Parameters of Reassurance

Obama has played a crucial role in helping Park and Abe find their way to a summit meeting, and this is no small achievement. From here on out, the question continues to be how to reestablish a firm foundation for the trilateral conversation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. North Korea, nonproliferation, and regional security (including trilateral military cooperation) offer an agenda that reflects their shared security goals. This will be more than enough for The Hague meeting.

What comes afterwards remains to be seen, but the process has begun with the commitment to meet. Already the minimum requirements of Park have been met. Abe has reaffirmed, clearly and without reservation, the Murayama and Kono statements. His government has also reassured both Washington and Seoul that the Kono Statement will not be revised, no matter what sort of procedural review is conducted in response to the Diet. The other side of the equation now is for Park to reassure Tokyo that her government has no intention of reopening discussions on wartime compensation, a discussion that both governments completed in their 1965 peace treaty. These two bookends should define the parameters of reassurance needed for Tokyo and Seoul to proceed to consider what other practical steps might be taken to demonstrate their mutual commitment to deepening their ties.

As he looks ahead to this conversation, Obama should not hesitate to consider the history of reconciliation that successive US governments have forged with Seoul and Tokyo. US willingness to own up to past mistakes has been tested in both relationships. One of the pillars of strength in the US relationship with Japan continues to be historical reconciliation. While the United States cannot define the terms of reconciliation between others, Obama can encourage and support the objective itself. He can be the facilitator-in-chief, and should not underestimate his ability to appeal not only to Abe and Park but also to the citizens of both of their countries. His April visit offers just such an opportunity. It may take time, but the United States will continue to stand by both of its allies in Northeast Asia as they attempt to find a lasting and sustainable vision for reassurance and reconciliation.

1. Data are from MOF Trade Statistics,

2. Korean FDI to Japan was USD 274 million in 2010, USD 197 million in 2011, USD 559 million in 2012, and apparently shrank 91.6 percent in 2013 to only USD 47 million. FDI from JETRO (in dollars),; 2013 numbers are provisional.