My December Diplomat Essay: US Alliance with Japan Sparks a Korean Grand Strategy Debate

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hagel japan

This is a re-up of my most recent monthly essay for the Diplomat. The original is here.

The idea here is to explore why Korea is not simply going to line up with the US and Japan against China. A lot of Americans, understandably focused on China in Asia, assume Korea will just join up. I really doubt that. I have been arguing this point for awhile on this site (start here), but Korea is way more alienated from Japan, for all sorts of reasons, than a lot of westerners realize. And it simply does not worry that much about China (no, I don’t understand that either). When I go to the conferences, Americans worry about China, the Japanese really worry…but the Koreans are like, ‘meh…whatever,’ but they get really activated over Dokdo. That dichotomy in response drives just about every American analyst I know up the wall, but it is the way it is. We need to realize that instead of trying to force Korea into the kind of black-and-white, good-guys-vs-bad-guys cold war frame Americans usually insist on in world politics. The essay follows the jump.


“The recent trip by US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel to Japan, with its strong affirmation of the US-Japan alliance, has sparked a major, arguably grand, strategy debate in the Korean media. In the almost six years I have taught international relations in Korea, this is the most far-reaching debate I have yet seen. Koreans are increasingly aware that they are stuck between the US and China, that Japan is increasingly openly aligning against China, and that the US pivot to Asia is not a broad-based ‘cultural reorientation’ of the US as a ‘Pacific country,’ but a straightforward military-diplomatic ‘let’s-not-call-it-containment’ effort to prevent China from dominating Asia. (Variations and expansions of the following argument may be found in my recent essays at Newsweek Korea and Newsweek Japan.)

Non-Koreans, particularly Americans, tend to assume that Korea will simply line up with the United States, Japan, Australia, and other regional democracies. The American conversation about Asia, not surprisingly, is dominated by China. China has 1.3 billion people. It is the world’s second largest economy. Its rise is ending the period of US sole superpowerdom, what international relations theory calls “unipolarity,” creating great angst that the US is in decline. Worse, it is an authoritarian great power, frequently compared to Wilhelmine Germany. There is a broad fear that China is seeking to forge something like a Sinic ‘Monroe Doctrine’ and push the US in the Pacific back to Hawaii. Hagel’s visit to Japan made all this pretty clear, as he tacitly endorsed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japanese nationalism and an expanded JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Forces) role.

(For the record, I actually reject this critique of China and have written so for the Diplomat in the past. I think China faces much greater constraints than many in US foreign policy circles believe. Nevertheless, this is the minority point of view.)

Koreans however do not share this threat assessment of China. Specifically, they view Japan with greater hostility than China, according to a recent Asan Institute poll of South Korean opinion. And Chinese President Xi Jinping got approval ratings more than triple those of Abe. The Chosun Daily, Korea’s largest newspaper, actually wrote of the Abe administration: “Japanese rightwing fanatics are only hungry for power and short-term gratification.” All this has gotten wide play in Japan and is fuelling a similarly harsh Japanese attitude toward Korea. In response to Hagel’s visit, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, in a pique of nationalist resentment, jetted off to Southeast Asia, cheered on by the reliably anti-Japanese Korean media, to forge a counter-Japanese regional diplomatic track.

The American response to all this tends to be an unhelpful, ‘enough is enough!’ frustration, which after many years living and working here, I can guarantee Koreans will ignore (barring genuinely extreme US threats of abandonment). Japanese-Korean tension is the single biggest hindrance to an ‘Asian NATO,’ and American policy makers should learn its contours, rather than just suggesting to the Koreans, as Hagel did, ‘isn’t it time to move on?’ Because I can all-but guarantee Korean will not. So here is:

Why South Korea Likes China…

China is the primary backer of North Korea, which means a South Korean alignment against China only lengthens the division that has dominated Korean political life since the war. This reason alone is sufficient for the Koreans to reject the pivot-cum-containment.

China is South Korea’s largest export market now.

China had strong cultural connections to Korea for a very long time in the classic Korean feudal period – the beloved Chosun Dynasty. Korea enjoyed pride of place in that Sinocentric tribute system, while Japan was badly behaved little brother. Americans, with the minimal knowledge of East Asian history, generally do not know this or care. But this is deeply important for Koreans, who have a strong (rather exaggerated actually) sense of their national distinctiveness and cultural age.

Finally, the Ming dynasty helped Korea defeat a Japanese invasion in the 1590s (the Imjin War). Again, this is the sort of long-past historical event Americans do not much care to hear about, but the Korean admiral of that conflict is one of the most celebrated figures in Korean history. His statue is all over Korea.

and Dislikes Japan

Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are an annual irritant (to the Chinese and Americans as well). It would help enormously if Japan could find a way to honor its war dead without the moral ambiguity of Yasukuni’s presentation of the war.

Dokdo/Takeshima/the Liancourt Rocks has become a symbol to Koreans all out of proportion to its actual value. The actual geographic focal point of Korean nationalism should be Mt. Paektu, near the Chinese border, the mythological birthplace of the Korean race. Unfortunately it is under North Korean control, and Southern opinion on the North is deeply divided. Hence, the Liancourt Rocks are a clearer, morally easier symbol of Korean nationalism: Japan was Korea’s colonialist, so controlling the Rocks is a way of showing Japan that Korea is sovereign, independent, and proud. All Koreans can agree on that without a confused debate on which Korea is the ‘real’ Korea.

The ‘comfort women’ – Korean women impressed into forced sexual service to the Japanese imperial army – is another deeply divisive issue. Korean public attitudes toward sexuality are still deeply conservative, so the ‘comfort women’ are a national humiliation. My Japanese colleagues often ask me why this issue regularly comes up, despite the 1965 Japan-Korea treaty that legally ended reparation claims. Here Korea seeks not just financial compensation, but moral recognition. Ultimately in Korea, this is not a legal or financial issue, but a moral one. Koreans want an admission of guilt from Japan, along the lines of German attitudes toward the Holocaust, and they expect contrition from Japanese politicians on this point.

Finally, there is regular concern in Korea about the way in which history is taught in Japan. Again, the issue is likened to Germany’s post-WWII contrition about Nazism. Koreans expect that from Japan, and expect youth education in Japan to openly reject Japanese colonialism as aggressive imperialism.

These differences indefinitely inhibit a Korean-Japanese rapprochement and encourage Korean waffling on the Sino-US competition. Indeed Koreans broadly feel that Abe is moving in the wrong direction on this. Korean elites have rather zero-sum view of the US alliance with Korea and Japan, and the current strategy debate in the Korean media flows from the perception that the US is taking Japan’s side.

To join a US-Japanese anti-Chinese coalition would not only antagonize China, it would align Korea with its “ancient foe.” Worse, the mutual US alliances mean that nationalists and maximalists in Korea and Japan can make whatever outrageous claims they like about the other, yet face little geopolitical consequence. US alliances are a form of ‘moral hazard’ that ironically worsen the problem by reducing the incentives for rapprochement.

Given how long-standing this problem is and how deeply entrenched the hostility is, particularly on the Korea side, the only possible way I can see the US to overcome this would be a genuine threat to exit the region. But US policy-makers would never level such an extreme threat.” PS: I am not recommending making such a threat, as some of my Diplomat commenters thought; I am only arguing that a really serious ultimatum like that would stand a chance of changing Korean geopolitical behavior toward Japan.

Filed under: Japan, Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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