In-Depth: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced this bipartisan, bicameral resolution to reaffirm the vital role of the U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Japan alliances in promoting peace, stability, and security in the Indo-Pacific region. In a letter to his Congressional colleagues seeking cosponsors for this bill, he wrote:
“Since 1945, the United States has maintained alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries to further our vital political and economic interests. Our mutually beneficial alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea are amongst our most indispensable strategic assets, underpinned by our shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Department of Defense assessed that ‘the U.S. network of alliances and partnerships remain the backbone of global security’ and that increased and sustained investment in these vital partnerships is necessary to achieve our security goals in Asia as well as globally. I urge you to join me and my colleagues from both sides of the aisle in cosponsoring this resolution and upholding the United State’s enduring commitment to its allies in Asia.”
In a letter to President Trump pressing him to strengthen the Japan-South Korea relationship, Rep. Engel and House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) expounded upon the need for the two countries to work together:
“We are deeply concerned by the deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea, particularly as escalating tensions have impacted economic and security dimensions of the relationship. At a time when the United States, Japan, and South Korea should be working together to address regional security threats ranging from North Korea’s provocative ballistic missile tests to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the ongoing dispute between Tokyo and Seoul undermines our shared interests in a peaceful, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Not only this, but recent tensions in the relationship have now spilled over into the economic and security domain, which have a real implications for America’s security and American businesses… Although we appreciate the Department of States’ efforts thus far in promoting dialogue between the two nations, we believe more sustained, high-level U.S. leadership is required to resolve the ongoing dispute between two crucial U.S. allies. While we agree with Assistant Secretary Stillwell that the United States should not take sides in this dispute, which originates from long-standing historic grievance, it is imperative for the United States to engage leaders in both capitals and to help both sides find an ‘ off-ramp’ to further escalation, and to facilitate the resolution of existing tensions… Allowing relations between Tokyo and Seoul, two economic powerhouses, to deteriorate not only endangers regional security, but also risks hurting the U.S. economic interests. We encourage the administration to proactively mediate between Japan and South Korea and provide a platform for both countries to resolve their differences.”
Shin Kak-soo, a former South Korean ambassador to Japan, says three-way cooperation between Japan, Korea, and the U.S. is more important than ever given that “fluid and unpredictable strategic environment in Northeast Asia that stems from the North Korean nuclear threat as well as China’s rise.” He adds:
“The reinforced northern triangle relations among North Korea, China and Russia are making the southern trilateral relations among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan look pale in a conspicuous way.”
This legislation unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee with the support of 27 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 16 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Its Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), passed the Senate by voice vote with the support of three bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including two Democrats and one Republican.
Of Note: In late fall 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of a dozen plaintiffs seeking compensation from Japanese firms, including Japan’s biggest steelmaker, Nippon Steel, that used forced Korean labor during World War II. The court ordered Nippon Steel to compensate some Korean survivors with about $89,000 each and seized shares that Nippon Steel has in a South Korean firm to finance the compensations (but hasn’t yet sold the shares to generate cash).
In response to the ruling, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo South Abe Korea removed South Korea from Japan’s “white list” of trusted countries for trade in sensitive materials. In retaliation, South Korea announced its decision to terminate an intelligence-sharing agreement, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which had governed security cooperation between the two countries, on August 22, 2019.
When the decision was announced, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s spokesperson specifically cited Japan’s sanctions:
“The government deemed that Japan caused grave change in the bilateral security cooperation environment [by imposing the sanctions]. Under such circumstances, the government decided that it does not coincide with our national interest to maintain the agreement that was signed to exchange sensitive military information.”
Observing this situation, Celeste Arrington, Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, and Andrew Yeo, Associate Professor of Politics and Director of Asian Studies at the Catholic University of America, wrote in Foreign Affairs:
“Seoul and Tokyo have quarreled in the past, but their current feud has serious implications for U.S. interests in Asia. Left unresolved, tension between Japan and South Korea could not only damage the global economy but undermine the Trump administration’s policies toward North Korea and the Indo-Pacific. And yet the White House has shown little interest in mediating the dispute. Continued indifference would be a major mistake. The United States’ strategy in Asia depends on trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea. It should make resolving the conflict between its allies a priority.”
Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Centre for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo, expressed the opinion that President Trump’s personal opposition to traditional alliances is at the root of U.S. failure to act to reconcile its allies:
“I don’t believe Trump really seeks much value in these alliances, so I don’t think he’s prepared to spend any of his political capital getting them to work on these issues. That requires an understanding of detail, nuance, and strategic interest that this president just doesn’t seem much interested in either acquiring or mastering.”
The 1965 Normalization Treaty signed between South Korea and Japan at the height of the Cold War is central to the two countries’ present dispute. This treaty, which was passed after years of intense U.S. pressure, formed the cornerstone of the “1965 system” that helped make South Korea an industrial power and serves as the basis for the trilateral security relationship between the three countries today. In the context of the case against Japanese companies for forced Korean labor, Japan also argues that the treaty — which included a monetary settlement — means it has already made amends for World War II.
The Nation reports that the treaty, which brought Japan back to the Korean Peninsula for the first time since its surrender in 1945, was largely the work of U.S. intelligence and manipulation. The Korean signatory was the foreign minister for Park Chung-hee, a dictator who seized power in a military coup in 1961. On the Japanese side, Eisaku Sato was one of the first in a strong of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leaders who ruled Japan after the 1950s and secretly received millions of dollars from the CIA.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Oleksii Liskonih)