By Britt Robinson, Contributing Writer

In July of 2019 historical tensions erupted once again between two of the United States’ key allies in the Asia Pacific Region, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan. Since the liberalization of the Korean peninsula and democratization of South Korea and Japan, these two nations have stood as the United States’ major democracy foothold in Asia with a post-WWII relationship, sometimes described as the “NATO of the East.” 

The “can do” foreign policy approach of the United States emphasizes the potential and possibility of the United States-Japan-ROK Trilateral Alliance but shows an amnesic understanding of the complex history of these two nations. This has been detrimental in the United States’ ability to strengthen trilateral ties, as demonstrated by the 2015 Comfort Women agreement mediated by the Obama Administration.  

The 2015 Comfort Women agreement stated that South Korea and Japan would put the comfort women issue to final rest, closing the book on this historical chapter, with Japan offering an informal apology and a small settlement for comfort women survivors. This agreement is seen as a farce by the Korean people who still demand a proper apology from Japan. If the United States, as a mediator, had done its due diligence to understand the historical grievances and past attempts to handle this issue; perhaps a long-term solution that included surviving comfort women, civil society, and buy-in from the Japanese National Assembly would have been proposed. The eagerness to buttress the Trilateral Alliance against the rise of China and North Korea resulted in a short-term, disingenuous, fix-it solution. 

In 2019, historical grievances once again claimed the spotlight in an escalating “tit for tat” between Japan and South Korea – which is showing signs of continuance into 2020. The South Korean high courts ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay reparations to Koreans subjected to forced labor during the Japanese colonization or face asset repossession. Japan responded with trade restrictions and by removing South Korea from its White List. South Korea then called for the ROK-Japan intelligence sharing agreement (GSOMIA) to be terminated, a national security issue that threatens the ROK and Japan’s ability to respond promptly to North Korean and Chinese threats. With fraying ties between the ROK and Japan; and the threat of North Korea and China posturing themselves with authoritarian vigor, the United States must determine how best to move forward as a mediary, and consider that the answer might be in the past.  

The history of Korea-Japan tensions started long before Japanese colonization (1910-1945) and is fraught with cultural inferiority complexes and a strong “us versus them” dichotomy.  The Imjin War (1592-1598), arguably the first major international conflict in the Asia Pacific region, was a campaign launched by Japan that brought the mighty Ming China Dynasty to the brink of bankruptcy and ravaged the Korean Peninsula, setting education, governance, artistry, agriculture, and technology industries back a century. 

To understand the nuanced relationship between these nations, knowing their history is essential given that the Imjin War laid the groundwork for Korea and Japan to define themselves as nations. The intense brutality of this war forged a Korean national identity and established the “us versus them” dichotomy, further reinforced through numerous Japanese invasions and eventual colonization. As Japan’s economy and culture flourished well into the 20th century they gained a sense of cultural superiority while Korea was seen as a backward and inferior agrarian society. The competition for cultural superiority in East Asia has raged for centuries; today both South Korea and Japan have flourishing democracies, with world-class economies, and a high level of cultural soft power that most nations dream to possess. Nevertheless, Korea has always seen itself as “a shrimp amongst whales,” whereas Japan views Korea as “the dagger pointed at the heart of Japan,” and their respective foreign policies heavily reflect these ideologies. 

The United States has a documented ability to strategize and react to short-term, international diplomatic conflicts; however, strengthening the trilateral alliance requires a long-term foreign policy strategy with an ability to recognize the past and use it to cast a new path forward. In order to achieve this goal and to act as a useful intermediary between the ROK and Japan, the United States must endeavor to understand and acknowledge these nuanced historical issues between the ROK and Japan, born out of cultural superiority, an antagonistic dichotomy, and a survivalist foreign policy. This will only happen when the U.S. State Department recognizes the valuable contributions of regional and historical specialists to inform U.S. foreign policy strategy and equip each regional team at the State Department with a specialist that can analyze and consult on policy with a historical, cultural, and regional lens. 

Britt Robinson is an M.A. in Asian Studies candidate at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. She specializes in Korean peninsula affairs, global gender policy, human rights, and nonprofit management. Prior to her graduate studies, Britt worked on the development team for Liberty in North Korea, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that assists in rescuing and resettling North Korean refugees. 

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