Before Moscow’s unprovoked war, European nations were divided over issues ranging from Russian oil pipelines to Brexit and, with lingering resentments dating back to Trump-era trade disputes and the Iraq war, some even seemed be reconsidering its relationship with Washington.
The stakes could hardly be higher. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently referred to China’s rise as “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” and that was after the Russian invasion.
Hence Washington’s desire for Japan and South Korea to unite.
The problem for Biden? While both seem eager to get closer to Washington, when it comes to the other, the two countries just don’t get along. They have a historically bitter and contentious relationship that has its roots in Japan’s colonization of South Korea from 1910 to 1945, and was inflamed by Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves in brothels, victims to whom now euphemistically referred to as “comfort women”. What’s more, they remain locked in a 70-year dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islets in the Sea of Japan.
These differences are not historical curiosities, but live disputes. In one of the most recent attempts at trilateral talks, in November 2021, a joint press conference was derailed when Japan’s deputy foreign minister objected to a visit by a South Korean police chief to the islets, known like Dokdo for South Korea but Takeshima for Japan. . Lawsuits brought against Japanese companies for the use of wartime forced labor remain unresolved. Recent years have seen widening gaps in economic and security issues.
evans bows, a former American diplomat who has been in and out of government for the past 50 years, with stints at desks in Korea and Japan, has seen the bitterness of the relationship undermine alliances over a period of decades.
“If Tokyo and Seoul are not actively talking to each other, if they are not cooperating with each other, it is very difficult for the US to carry out not only its obligations to them, but also its strategy of dealing with China, dealing with South Korea. North”. ,” he said.
Signs of a thaw
Fortunately for Biden, Revere says he feels more hopeful now than he has in a long time.
Crucially, the two new leaders have also shown signs of putting the past behind them. Yoon offered an olive branch to Japan last month by sending a delegation to Tokyo ahead of his inauguration as part of his plan, outlined in a campaign speech, for South Korea to have a “fresh start” as a ” global ground state. ”
His team personally delivered a letter from Yoon to Kishida, and the move was reciprocated this month when Japan sent Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to Yoon’s inauguration with a letter of reply.
After receiving the letter, Kishida said strategic cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea was more necessary than ever as the rules-based international order is under threat.
But even if country leaders see the benefit of putting the past behind them, they will be keen to avoid alienating voters who may not be as forgiving.
Professor Kohtaro Ito, a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said that while Yoon had shown signs of a change in focus, he chose a foreign minister in Park Jin who could speak English and Japanese and is popular in the world. japanese parliament. — Any breakthrough during Biden’s trip is unlikely.
That’s because both still have to navigate looming local elections (South Korea has local elections in June and Japan has upper house elections in July) and neither leader will want to antagonize nationalist voters less willing to forget. the past.
The barrier of nationalism
This is not the first time that the two countries have tried to overcome their differences. In 1965 they signed a treaty that normalized relations and was supposed to resolve some of the most controversial issues, including “comfort women.”
But South Korea was a military dictatorship at the time, and many Koreans never accepted the treaty. For some, subsequent apologies and settlements by Japanese prime ministers have yet to achieve what they consider to be sufficient reparations.
Choi Eunmi, a Japanese Studies fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said a Japan-South Korea alliance would be vital to Biden’s hopes of building a coalition, but felt his visit would do little to resolve these issues.
“It is too sensitive and controversial and there is no room for the United States to solve the problems,” he said.
You have to think about the voters.
Revere highlights “the nationalism that often drives perceptions of this relationship and the historical issues in both capitals” as a deteriorating factor and the role of South Korean courts which, through their rulings on wartime disputes , “could bring any reconciliation effort.” collapsing.”
For decades, families of Korean victims of forced labor have been fighting for compensation through the courts, taking direct aim at Japanese companies.
It’s an issue that infuriated Tokyo, which believes things were settled with the 1965 treaty, and one that Yoon can hardly tackle without being accused of interfering with the independence of the judiciary.
Yoon also begins his only five-year term with the lowest approval ratings of any incoming president. and has to work with a parliament dominated by the opposition.
In Japan, the older and generally more conservative generation is largely supportive of a tougher approach toward South Korea and Kishida will know this very well, Ito said, adding that the older generation voted in much larger numbers than the younger.
However, Biden likely has a clear message that could remove any lingering political doubts Kishida or Yoon harbor: the importance of alliances and cooperation, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrated.
“The US president has been absolutely instrumental in mobilizing the international community, mobilizing NATO allies and others to support Ukraine in its time of need,” Revere said.
“What better statement about the importance and utility value of alliances than what is happening right now.”