Before Moscow’s provocative war, European countries, from the Russian power pipeline to Brexit and – with Trump-era trade disputes and prolonged discontent with the Iraq war – have been seen reconsidering their relations with Washington.
The bet can hardly be any higher. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently described China’s rise as “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” – and that was after the Russian invasion.
So Washington wants to see Japan and South Korea together.
Problems for Biden? Although both seem keen to move closer to Washington, the two countries do not come together when it comes to each other. They have a historically bitter and fragile relationship that pervaded the South Korean colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945, and was inflated by the use of sex slaves in Japan’s wartime brothels – the victims are now gently referred to as “comfortable women”. What’s more, they are embroiled in a 70-year dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands in the Sea of Japan.
These differences are not historical curiosities, but living conflicts. In one of the most recent attempts at tripartite talks, a joint press conference was derailed in November 2021 when Japan’s vice foreign minister objected to the visit of South Korean police chiefs to the islands – known as South Korea’s Dokdo but Japan’s Takeshima. . Cases filed against Japanese companies for using forced labor during the war remain unresolved. Recent years have seen increasing differences in security and economic issues.
Evans River, A former U.S. diplomat who has been in and out of government for the past 50 years, working at desks in both Korea and Japan, has seen the bitterness of the relationship for decades.
“If Tokyo and Seoul do not talk to each other actively, if they do not cooperate with each other, it will be very difficult for the United States to maintain not only its obligations to them, but also its strategy to deal with China, with North Korea.” He said.
Symptoms of melting
Grateful for Biden, Rever says he’s feeling more optimistic now than ever before.
Importantly, the two new leaders have also shown signs of leaving the past behind. Eun sent a delegation to Tokyo last month before his inauguration as part of his plan to offer Japan an olive branch – outlined in a campaign speech – to “make a fresh start” for South Korea as a “world power”. ”
His party did worse than expected from opinion polls, which saw them at gaining about a third of the support of the UN Security Council.
After receiving the letter, Kishida said that strategic cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea was needed “more than ever, because the rule-based international system is under threat.”
But even if the leaders of the countries see the benefits of leaving the past behind, they will be keen to avoid alienating voters who are not forgiving.
Professor Kohtaro Ito, a senior research fellow at The Canon Institute for Global Studies, says that when Eun showed signs of a changing approach – Park Geun-hye chose a foreign minister who could speak both English and Japanese and was popular in the Japanese parliament. – No progress during Biden’s visit is unlikely.
This is because both have to navigate the upcoming local elections – South Korea’s local elections in June and Japan’s upper house elections in July – and neither leader wants to alienate nationalist voters who have been less settled in the past.
Obstacles to nationalism
This is the first time the two countries have tried to overcome their differences. In 1965, they signed an agreement that normalized the relationship and resolved some contentious issues – including “comfortable women”.
But South Korea was then a military dictator and many Koreans never accepted the agreement. For some, the subsequent apology from the Japanese prime minister and the agreements still do not appear to be sufficient compensation.
Choi Yunmi, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies on Japanese Studies, said a Japan-South Korea alliance would be important for Biden’s hopes for forming an alliance, but said his visit would rarely address these issues.
“It’s very sensitive and very controversial and there is no place for America to solve problems,” he said.
There is a need to think about the voters.
Rever highlights “the nationalism that often drives the realization of this relationship and the historical issues in both capitals” is a destructive factor and the role of South Korean courts that – through their ruling on wartime disputes – could bring down any attempt at reconciliation.
For decades, families of victims of Korean forced labor have been fighting for compensation through the courts, directly targeting Japanese companies.
This is an issue that has angered Tokyo, which believes that issues were resolved through the 1965 agreement, and that Eun could hardly resolve it without accusing it of interfering in the independence of the judiciary.
Eun began his single five-year term with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president And work with opposition-dominated parliaments.
In Japan, the older and generally more conservative generation supports a tougher approach to South Korea, and Kishida will be well aware of this, Ito said, adding that the older generation voted far more than the younger generation.
However, Biden may have a clear message that any long-standing political skepticism sheltered by Kishida or Yunus could be dispelled: the importance of alliance and cooperation, as demonstrated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The President of the United States has been instrumental in uniting the international community, uniting NATO allies and others to support Ukraine in its time of need,” Rever said.
“What better statement than the importance and value of the utility of the alliance than what is happening at the moment.”