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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