Can Korea-Japan Relations Survive 2017?

Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken leads the first U.S.-Korea-Japan deputy-level trilateral meeting, April 16, 2015
Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken leads the first U.S.-Korea-Japan deputy-level trilateral meeting, April 16, 2015

Mintaro Oba worked at the U.S. Department of State on Korea-Japan issues until September 2016. These are his personal views.

As the United States grappled with a difficult 2016, one bright spot held steady throughout the year: an improving relationship between two U.S. allies, Korea and Japan.

Last December, the two countries concluded an agreement regarding Korean women -- referred to euphemistically as “comfort women” -- trafficked for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II. Though the agreement encountered opposition from some, implementation has been smooth. That agreement has paved the way for a burst of U.S.-Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation on everything from isolating North Korea to curing cancer.

But one year after the agreement, prospects for the relationship look bleak.

That's because the Korea-Japan relationship, unpopular even in the best of times, is deeply vulnerable to Korea's politics. The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye due to a corruption scandal has thrust Korean politics into turmoil. A new presidential election is likely in the coming months. As a new U.S. administration takes charge in Washington, it must act quickly to preserve recent gains and build a U.S.-Korea-Japan partnership that can withstand the ups and downs of domestic politics.

The wounds from Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea throughout the first half of the twentieth century still run deep. An Asan Institute survey of Korean views of other countries from 2014-2016 consistently ranked Japan as less favorable than China or Russia; at low points in 2014, Japan even fell below North Korea. “Criticizing Japan has become such an integral part of Korean daily mentality,” former Brookings Institution Korea Chair Katharine Moon notes in a 2015 interview, “it’s moved from the realm of politics and policy to something very personal in people’s work life, home life.”

Those sentiments make improving Korea-Japan relations a risk for Korean leaders. When a military info sharing agreement with Japan was first negotiated under Park's predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, Korea withdrew less than an hour before the signing ceremony due to domestic opposition. For the first two years of her tenure, Park refused even to meet with the Japanese Prime Minister. The comfort women agreement came only as Park enjoyed a healthy 43% approval rating at the end of 2015.

Now, with Park impeached and contenders emerging for a new presidential contest in Korea, there is no one with the capital to move the Korea-Japan relationship forward. Opposition candidates have every incentive to score political points by attacking her administration’s achievements in Korea-Japan relations — thereby stoking both anti-Park and anti-Japan sentiments. Leading progressive candidate Moon Jae-in has already called for renegotiation of the comfort women agreement and further review of the military information-sharing pact signed last month.

Korea-Japan relations have consistently failed to withstand difficult periods in domestic politics like this one. Is there anything the United States can do to break the cycle this time? The odds are long. But there are a couple of things the incoming Trump administration could do that can help.

First, the Trump administration should designate champions for the Korea-Japan relationship within the U.S. government. Under the current administration, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken drove the relationship forward by initiating quarterly trilateral meetings and insisting on concrete results. Similar high-level advocates in the next Administration can send a strong signal that the focus on Korea-Japan relations will continue. Vice President-elect Pence and Ivanka Trump are possibilities worth considering.

Second, while we may not be able to stop the next downturn in Korea-Japan relations, we can raise the costs of such a downturn for powerful constituencies.

I call it the “Obamacare strategy.” When the Affordable Care Act was just a concept, it was controversial and deeply vulnerable to ideological opposition. Now that 20 million people have gained health insurance under Obamacare, the benefits from Obamacare seem indispensable — even to many Trump voters. Obamacare now has a real constituency. Though Republicans may well follow through on their threat to repeal Obamacare, the cost of repeal grows higher the more people gain indispensable benefits from Obamacare.

Similarly, if trilateral cooperation can produce concrete, indispensable benefits for constituencies in Korea, more people and interest groups will stand to lose if a downturn in Korea-Japan relations puts an end to those benefits.

That means evolving our approach to trilateral cooperation to target powerful constituencies that could become advocates for good relations. The Obama administration’s approach to trilateral cooperation has been to debut as many initiatives as possible, as often as possible. That made sense in the past year, when the United States needed to generate a sense of momentum in a nascent partnership in the months after the comfort women agreement. Deputy Secretary Blinken’s efforts have transformed the trilateral partnership from an abstraction to something with a real architecture, rhythm, and results. He deserves tremendous credit.

Now, it’s time to regularize and strengthen the trilateral initiatives that are most likely to become indispensable — especially in Korea. The more U.S.-Korea-Japan cooperation plays a unique role in isolating North Korea, for example, the more strategists in Korea will want to preserve that cooperation.  In Japan, where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is the dominant player, trilateral initiatives that counter Chinese aggression and improve security cooperation can assure the support of hawkish factions within the party.  Trilateral cooperation opportunities that bring economic benefits to businesses can turn those businesses into advocates for good relations. The Trump administration needs to focus on generating a high volume of regular benefits from the most promising trilateral cooperation rather than producing a large quantity of new trilateral initiatives.

Finally, much depends on Japan. The burden of reconciliation is mostly on Japan; after all, it was the clear aggressor. Further Japanese steps to redress its difficult past will empower those who favor Korea-Japan reconciliation and undercut the legitimacy of anti-Japanese sentiments expressed during the Korean election campaign. If, in this time of turbulence in Korea, Japan undertakes provocative actions such as a prime ministerial visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, the critics win. U.S. officials must strongly urge Japan not only to smoothly implement the comfort women agreement, but to take additional high-profile steps that go above and beyond the letter of that agreement.

As President-elect Trump faces an aggressive China and Russia and a host of intense challenges that cut across borders, he will find that the United States is not powerful enough or popular enough to go it alone.

We need partners who share the values we seek in the world and have the capabilities to help us achieve them.

We need Korea and Japan, and we need them together.