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Things Fall Apart
Japan and South Korea Ties Fray Amid Leadership Void

South Korea’s presidential impeachment scandal has unleashed chaos onto the political scene in Seoul, as presidential aspirants jockey for attention and unorthodox views bubble to the surface. Last week, we noted that one upstart candidate was railing against the security alliance with the United States. Now, on the anniversary of a controversial deal to settle the “comfort women” dispute with Japan, that historically charged issue is rearing its ugly ahead once again and threatening to upend Seoul’s relationship with Tokyo.

Karl Friedhoff opines on the situation in Seoul for The Wall Street Journal:

The issue arises now as South Korea finds its domestic politics in chaos. South Korean activists unhappy with the deal placed a new comfort-women statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan to protest the one-year anniversary of the agreement. South Korean politicians, jockeying for position to become the country’s next president, have also promised to renege on the deal. In response, Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul as well as its consul general to Busan.

This intra-alliance discord comes at a time of great uncertainty for U.S. foreign policy in Asia. Most evidence points to a Trump administration that will take a harder line on China than did the Obama administration. […]

South Korea’s foreign policy is in complete disarray. It is effectively leaderless as the country’s president is being impeached. There is no consensus on policies toward North Korea and China.

Friedhoff is correct to write that repairing this fractious state of affairs will be an early challenge for Trump, who has promised to deter aggression from China and North Korea. The Obama administration recognized that Japan and South Korea should be key partners in that effort, and accordingly facilitated some productive exchanges between the two countries, including an intelligence-sharing pact and missile defense drills. But that rapprochement always rested on rocky ground given entrenched historical resentments. Seoul’s current leadership vacuum has only made such disagreements all the more apparent, re-opening a rift that could be exploited by China or North Korea.

If the Trump administration is serious about restraining Beijing and Pyongyang, it cannot afford to ignore these destabilizing dynamics. Trump has not yet proven that nursing delicate alliance relationships is within his skill set; if anything, his campaign trail rhetoric questioning America’s alliance commitments has only fueled uncertainty in South Korea and Japan. But if he hopes to make any headway in deterring China, Trump will need to devote serious attention to mending ties between the two countries.

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  • KremlinKryptonite

    It’s not really a big issue here in Seoul. It’s used as a hot button issue amongst the very oldest of Koreans here whose political power is fading, yet are still a somewhat powerful voting block of course.
    Talking to people almost daily about these issues I overwhelmingly sense the concern over the unelected regime in Beijing and the Kim regime it supports. Also, the agreements recently to share more intel and coordinate bilaterally (without needing the US to push the two together) are a big deal.
    Koreans and Japanese under 50 basically love each other. Koreans can’t wait to go to Japan for shopping and concerts, and food. Same goes for Japanese coming here.

  • Disappeared4x

    TeamObama44 made climate change their priority with China. Was that not a CaptainAhabobsession, at the expense of “nursing delicate alliance relationships” on other issues?

    “…(Kerry was sworn in as secretary of state on February 1, 2013. Eleven days later, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test. He
    traveled to China in April.) …”

    My cognitive dissonance trigger was “…Trump has not yet proven that nursing delicate alliance relationships is within his skill set; …”

    • Disappeared4x

      63 years later, South Korea still dependent on the USA’s refusal to ‘normalize’ relations with North Korea, let alone negotiate a final peace treaty, which means ObamaKerry DID succeed in a Two-State Solution: in Korea. No word on about settlements in Seoul. …revealing my implicit bias for sarcasm, and suspicion every time I see the word “normalize”.

      >>>”North Korea: A Problem Without a Solution” By Rodger Baker January 11, 2017

      “… 1991, the United Nations simultaneously admitted North and South Korea, which most countries had previously recognized as a single country ruled by Pyongyang or Seoul, as coequals. Though Washington accepted North Korea as a U.N. member, it did not establish formal diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. The United States recognized North Korea’s existence without formally recognizing the legitimacy of its government, a decision that still complicates relations between the two.

      Washington has continued to tie recognition of North Korea to Pyongyang’s past terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons. So long as North Korea continues its quest for nuclear arms, the United States will not open talks to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War with a formal peace accord, nor will it engage the country to normalize relations. Pyongyang, meanwhile, insists that it is pursuing nuclear weapons in large part because Washington does not recognize its legitimacy.

  • Sigh…not this drama again. Honestly, these Koreans and Japanese need to learn to move on from the past, like the U.S. and Britain have done with Germany.

    • Tom

      It’s a bit easier for the latter than the former–Germany didn’t take over either Britain or the USA for forty years.

      • Well, even Israel has established military ties with Germany despite everything…

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