Dovish Blue House policies and America First White House demands are straining US-South Korean relations.
South Korea’s changing relationships with Japan, China and the US are transforming East Asia diplomacy.
– The Japan–South Korea diplomatic relationship will continue to disintegrate as their trade war continues
– China is slowly becoming closer to South Korea, giving Beijing greater foothold in North Asia
– US losing influence in East Asia as South Korea relationship turns sour
On 23 November, the South Korean government decided to continue its intelligence pact with Japan — a mere six hours before the agreement would have expired. This decision was of great relief to the US, which had been lobbying South Korea to remain in the pact. The 11th-hour reprieve demonstrates how the relationship between the US and South Korea, once one of Washington’s strongest allies, has become fractured. South Korean tensions with Japan, together with Seoul’s warming up to China and North Korea, have created an uncertain diplomatic environment in East Asia. The latest distraction — President Donald Trump’s frustration with the cost of maintaining a US military presence in South Korea — has exposed the possibility of a fragmentation of the established diplomatic order.
South Korea’s relationship with China has, for the past few years, been quite chilly. Tensions arose when South Korea facilitated the installation of US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence systems in 2017. The THAAD systems were deployed ostensibly as a defence against North Korean missile threats, but the Chinese government claimed that THAAD’s radar system allowed the US to spy on the country. China retaliated against South Korea’s role in the deployment of THAAD with economic sanctions and a ban on Chinese tourist tours to South Korea.
Despite a bilateral diplomatic reset in October 2018, there is still a chilly attitude towards South Korea and tourism restrictions remain. However, there were signs of a thaw recently when, on 18 November, China and South Korea signed a defence agreement in which the two nations agreed to establish stronger military communications to “foster bilateral exchanges and cooperation in defence.”
In comparison, the bond between South Korea and the US is slowly unravelling. Trump has been pressuring South Korea to alter a long-standing deal that stations 28,500 US troops in South Korea. On November 19, Trump demanded that South Korea increase its contribution to covering the costs for the troop deployment by 400% to $5 billion. When South Korea refused, US negotiators walked out of the meeting. Trump has threatened to pull all US troops out of Korea if his demands are not met, prompting anti-US protests in Seoul, during which protesters broke into the US embassy.
A FRACTURING BOND
The current animosity between South Korea and Japan has its roots in history. Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 which included abuses and war crimes, notably the large-scale sexual slavery of Korean ‘comfort women’, is still a bitter memory for South Korea. South Koreans perceive Japanese attempts at reconciliation as lacking, despite a 2015 agreement that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called “the final and irreversible resolution.” The deal was unpopular among South Koreans and a government-assigned panel in 2017 found that the previous South Korean administration had failed to represent the victims’ demands during negotiations. The agreement was dismantled by incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s government in 2018, against the protests of the US government. In the same year, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies that used forced Korean labour during the colonial period had to pay compensation to the families of the victims.
This festering bitterness has been compounded by economic tensions that have resulted in a trade war. On July 1, Japan tightened export controls on three key materials used in producing semiconductors and flat-screen displays — critical to its trade relationship with South Korea — and then removed South Korea from its white list of trusted trading partners in August. Tokyo claims the actions are necessary because high-tech exports to South Korea had fallen into North Korean hands.
North Korea is also driving a wedge between South Korea and Japan. President Moon and his left-wing party have been eager to develop more peaceful relations with the North and Moon has stated that before the end of his term in 2022, he wants to achieve a peace declaration Pyongyang. Yet Abe and most Japanese see North Korea as an existential threat. Despite recurrent North Korean missile tests, the South Korean government has attempted to downplay the danger, but Japan remains deeply concerned.
A DIPLOMATIC VOID
If the South Korea–US relationship continues to fracture, Seoul might move closer towards Beijing. There are signs that the latter relationship is improving, such as a recent meeting between Moon and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during which they vowed to deepen cooperation. China has also been trying to position itself as an alternative mediator between North and South Korea. If North Korea–US negotiations concerning North Korea’s denuclearisation collapse — as they may soon do given that Pyongyang has announced that denuclearisation is off the table — China could step in to entrench its influence in the Korean peninsula and create a greater rift between the US and East Asia.
Without the benefit of a US intermediary, the Japan–South Korea relationship could get even more hostile and the trade war becoming fiercer. There are already South Korean boycotts of Japanese goods and calls for the Japanese ‘rising sun’ flag to be banned at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which has been described by South Korean lawmakers as akin to the Nazi swastika. The status of the intelligence pact may also come back into question.
Fractious South Korean–Japanese relations and the possibility that Trump will order all US troops to pull out of the Korean peninsula could lead to South Korea pushing forward towards friendly ties with North Korean. A recent poll shows South Koreans have a more positive view of Kim Jong Un than Abe. Another poll shows that in a North Korean–Japanese conflict, 45.5% of South Koreans would support North Korea, while only 15.1% would support Japan. South Koreans are turning away from Japan and no longer see North Korea as a common threat. Although North Korea–US denuclearisation talks might eventually fall apart, the South Korean government will remain motivated to find greater connections with its northern neighbour.