12.05.2022 Author: Petr Konovalov

Tensions between South Korea and Japan Hit US Plans


On April 22, 2022, the Japanese Foreign Ministry called the Southern Kuril Islands, ceded to Russia as a result of World War II, “illegally occupied” for the first time since 2003. This wording, which has not been used for 19 years, has put the final nail in the coffin of the current phase of Russian-Japanese peace negotiations, leaving them without result.

At first glance, the situation is simple: against the will of the West, Russia has launched the military special operation in Ukraine, Western countries have slapped numerous sanctions on Russia, and Japan, as a staunch US ally, has joined the sanctions. The long-standing alliance between Washington and Tokyo is well supported by the numerous US military bases on Japanese territory. It is therefore not surprising that Japan supports all major US endeavors, although this is hardly always in line with its own wishes.

However, it appears that Japan is not acting solely on the orders of Washington on the issue of the Kuril Islands. Revanchist tendencies and an increasingly aggressive nationalism are evident in contemporary Japanese society, and Tokyo is using increasingly virulent rhetoric not only towards opponents of the West, such as Russia or China, but also towards other states with which it has disagreements, even if their relations with the West are fine. South Korea, for example, is one such state.

South Korea (or the Republic of Korea, ROK), like Japan, is an economically developed East Asian state that also has a pro-Western democratic regime, is a US ally and has a strong US troop contingent on its territory. Like Japan, the ROK actively supports Washington and also joined anti-Russian sanctions in February 2022.

It would seem that two such similar countries under one mighty American wing should live in perfect harmony.

However, before the ROK and Japan came into the US sphere of influence, a lot of bad things happened between the two, from the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592-1598, during which the invaders showed incredible brutality and the Korean people lost about 1 million people, to the events of the first half of the 20th century, when Korea came under Japanese occupation. On the one hand, at that time Korea started modernization and industrialization. On the other hand, Koreans were discriminated against in those years, and during World War II they were forcibly used as a military and labor force. The forcible use of thousands of Korean women as comfort workers for Japanese soldiers left a particularly painful mark on the memory of the Korean people.

In 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated. Japan came under American occupation and Korea was split into two states, North and South Korea. South Korea, like Japan, also ended up under American occupation. Since then, relations between the ROK and Japan have been developing under the watchful eye of Washington, which needs to rally its allies to fight its main adversaries, Russia and China.

However, despite American mediation and the development of economic ties between the ROK and Japan in the second half of the twentieth century, the Korean and Japanese peoples still harbor animosity toward each other.

One of the stumbling blocks in Japan-Korea relations is the territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, which the Koreans call Dokdo and the Japanese call Takeshima. The ROK and Japan have been disputing ownership of the islands for years. And in 2018, three years before the Russian South Kurils were declared “illegally occupied”, Japan applied the same wording to the Liancourt Rocks, which of course could not improve Japan-South Korea relations.

These relations deteriorated further in 2019, when Japan refused to compensate Koreans for forced labor between 1910 and 1945. After that, a “trade war” broke out between the Land of the Rising Sun and the ROK when Japan restricted exports to Korea of high-tech products needed by Korean electronics manufacturers Samsung and LG, and Koreans began to reject Japanese-made goods en masse. As a result, Tokyo has removed the ROK from its “white list” of trusted trading partners and Seoul has announced that it has withdrawn from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), under which the ROK and Japan exchanged intelligence on DPRK activities.

Despite the fact that the treaty was officially bilateral in nature, the United States reacted to South Korea’s withdrawal: Mike Pompeo, then head of the Department of State, said that security cooperation between its main Asian allies was very important to Washington, and urged the ROK and Japan to continue this cooperation. It can be concluded that GSOMIA was part of a US project to build and coalesce a coalition of its allies in the Indo-Pacific region, and the withdrawal of the ROK from the agreement has damaged the project and shown that Washington does not fully control its allies after all.

And now, on March 22, 2022, the Japanese Foreign Ministry presented its annual “Diplomatic Bluebook”, which for the first time in 19 years recognized the Southern Kurils, as mentioned above, as “illegally occupied” by Russia, and the Liancourt Rocks as “illegally occupied” by South Korea for the fifth consecutive time.

Seoul protested strongly. On the same day, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said that the Liancourt Rocks belong to the ROK, that Tokyo’s claims to them are groundless, and that the ROK would firmly respond to any Japanese provocation over the islands. It has also been said that a renewed claim to the disputed islands would affect further development of South Korean-Japanese relations.

It is interesting that the Bluebook of 2022 is the first for Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Such a start could determine his entire policy course, in which case Japan-South Korea relations will face difficult times.

As mentioned above, Japan is experiencing a rapid rise in revanchism. For decades, the Land of the Rising Sun has been reproached for its history books not sufficiently covering the crimes of the Japanese government and army during World War II, and in the last decade Japanese officials have repeatedly claimed that these crimes did not occur or that their extent was exaggerated. More than once there have been calls in Japanese ruling circles for a revision of Article 9 of the Constitution, which declares that Japan renounces war as a means of solving political problems and renounces the army in its full sense: instead Japan has a limited contingent of Self-Defense Forces intended solely for the defense of the country. However, in 2015, the Japanese government permitted the use of the Self-Defense Forces abroad.

The sentiments in Japanese society are reflected in the comments online, which, as is now fashionable, are cited by the media at the end of their publications. Commenting on the Liancourt Rocks situation, Japanese users have demanded that the government impose sanctions on the ROK similar to those applied to Russia, make a forceful takeover of the islands, and some “jokers” are even calling for Korea to be invaded again and start using Koreans in forced labor and Korean women in “comfort services” again.

Interestingly enough, at the end of 2021, Japan’s new government approved a record $47 billion military budget for the country.

South Korea has a comparable military budget and one of the largest and best equipped armies in the world.

So far, both countries are loyal to the US and among the main pillars of US influence in Asia and US opposition to China. This is unlikely to change as long as tens of thousands of US troops are present in the territories of both the ROK and Japan. Nevertheless, the hostile relationship between the two countries is already having a negative impact on US plans to build an anti-China coalition. For example, when it comes to China’s joint naval deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region, Japan, India and Australia are among the main possible participants besides the US, while the ROK, despite its huge potential, does not feature in these plans, preferring to cooperate with the US bilaterally.

There is now a developing economic and political crisis in the US, and it is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain military bases overseas. Feeling their control diminishing, US-occupied “allies” will show more and more autonomy and take more actions that are not in line with Washington’s interests. What South Korea and Japan will do when US influence is truly diminished is anyone’s guess…

Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.