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The South Korea-Japan Alliance is needed more than ever

With South Korean president Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un having signed the September Pyongyang Joint Declaration this week, the two Koreas seem poised to take bilateral relations to new levels. Yet amid the two leaders’ smiling faces and confidence-inspiring posing for the cameras, it is important to keep the feet firmly on the ground. Seoul must continue to hedge its bets and hone its relationship with Japan to deal with adverse conditions of the current international environment.

After all, the Joint Declaration is not the diplomatic triumph it is portrayed to be. While it does include important military confidence building measures intended to slowly demilitarise the Peninsula, the Declaration is replete with ambiguities when denuclearisation is concerned. Overall, Korea watchers have described the results as a mix of “satisfactory move towards the promised denuclearisation and repeated mere rhetoric”, owing to the fact that Kim is unlikely to ever fully relinquish his nuclear program.

This means that – despite Moon’s dovish handling of Pyongyang and tireless efforts to bring them to the table – the North’s inherently threatening posture towards its Southern neighbour will not fundamentally change, rendering Moon’s ambitions ultimately unrealistic. This is a serious blow to a president who before the summit had proclaimed the meeting would end the “Cold War” on the peninsula. It also strengthens his critics who have long criticised his posturing towards Kim not as diplomatic masterwork but simple “bending over backwards” pandering to appease Pyongyang.

The implications are clear: Seoul will need to rely on strong allies across the region to guarantee stability in its own hinterland. Tokyo is the primary strategic diplomatic partner. Both countries are united in their desire to contain Pyongyang and prevent its missile program from advancing further. This past week at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even affirmed their cooperation over the denuclearisation of North Korea.

The move signals that both sides are acutely aware of their need for mutual support. However, in the past, a truly close friendship and strong bilateral cooperation has failed to materialize owing to the distrust generated by numerous historical grievances.

A significant proportion of South Koreans are still not ready for amicable relations with Japan, the biggest hindrance being the issue over “comfort women” – South Korean women forced into sexual services by members of Japan’s Imperial army during WWII. In the eyes of the South, the issue has not been sufficiently addressed. Two prime ministerial apologies from Tokyo in 1995 and 2015 have thus far failed to stir Seoul to reconciliation, citing the failure of Japanese officials to mention the country by name in either statements.

But as with so many things in East Asia, the “comfort women” issue is neither a solitary nor simple black-and-white matter. In a region marked by brutal ideological wars, the crimes of one are often those of the others too, and South Korea is no exception.

During the Vietnam War, South Korea deployed as many as 320,000 soldiers to the country, and evidence provided by NGOs is pointing to large-scale sexual violence committed by South Korean soldiers on girls as young as 12 and 13. Today, the children of those women are referred to as the “Lai Dai Han”, living lives largely forgotten by Vietnamese society. Only 800 women subjected to sexual violence during the war are still alive, but they have received little to no attention in the South Korean media.

South Korean reconciliation with Vietnam may be a long time away, but at least with Japan, the current international environment provides avenues for both Seoul and Tokyo to approach each other and incentivises them to overcome their differences. For just as both hope to contain North Korea, they are equally intent on limiting negative fallout from US President Trump’s fickle policies in the region.

The White House’s “America First” policy has provoked dormant concerns in Tokyo and Seoul over the reliability of the longstanding American presence in East Asia. Concern turned into hair-raising alarm when the administration announced steel and aluminium tariffs in March, from which neither Japan nor South Korea would be exempt. It is no surprise that such antagonism from a supposed ally would bring the two countries closer together.

Through a coalition of international partners in the EU, Canada, and Mexico, Japan and South Korea are cooperating in pushing back against the Trump administration’s auto tariff threats. Japan’s Toyota and Korea’s Hyundai would both be heavily impacted by tariffs, and driven by economic considerations Moon and Abe have been extremely proactive in trying to present the US with a unified front.

In May, South Korea’s Trade Minister announced after a meeting with his Japanese counterpart that the country would decide on its participation in TPP by the end of 2018. The minister from Japan announced concurrently that the two countries would continue to explore options for closer economic ties, and committed to joint efforts to ensure that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between the two countries and ASEAN would reach a conclusion by the end of the year as well.

At times as uncertain as these, close cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is imperative if mutual formidable challenges are to be overcome. With Washington being petulant and progress on the Korean nuclear issue perhaps proving rather fleeting, both countries must continue working towards maintaining the momentum in their rapprochement.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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