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  • Subject area(s): Business
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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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It is no secret that the United States chooses its allies carefully and we could say even more so when it comes to the Asian continent. South Korea and Japan were no random picks, but the beginning of a group of alliances that would diminish the pacific threat, as well as guaranteeing having two strong and growing countries on its side. Ever since the end of World War II, both relationships have grown economically – U.S. as Japan’s primary trade partner, Japan as U.S’ fourth  - as well as militarily – U.S troops in ROK, Korean troops sent to Iraq and Vietnam on US’s request -. However, the American link did not seem to be strong enough to bring the two countries together right away. Over the last Century, relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea could be summed up as a ‘rollercoaster’. Starting in 1910 with South Korea as an addition of the Japanese Empire, to friendly terms in 1965 and all kinds of problems in between. In this essay, I will argue that the United States involvement has indeed promoted cooperation between Japan and South Korea, though not meaning they have become allies themselves.  

On the one hand, the liberation of South Korea from Japanese leadership after the World War II meant the beginning of the Washington-Seoul relations. With the American support against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during the Korean War, came the security agreement. Ever since 1954, the North Korean threat has been the glue for this alliance, however stronger stands from the Obama administration and President Lee Myung-bak awoke prompted reactions from North Korea. In response, the American and South Korean governments strengthened their cooperation not only in security issues, but in “economic diplomatic and humanitarian challenges.”  Even though South Korean and U.S. points of view meet on general strategic matters in Northeast Asia, there are areas where they significantly differ. For instance, South Korea often hesitates to take steps that antagonize China and differs with Washington on how to respond to Beijing’s rise as well as how to handle Japan-ROK relations, as well as its mistrust of Japan’s efforts to expand its military capabilities.     On the other hand, Japan-US relations began in the late 18th century and were maintained cordial until early 20th century, when the Asia-Pacific war put on a hiatus this friendly peace. Following the end of World War II, the Washington-Tokyo relations have been steady and politically, economically and militarily active. But, how is it possible for the two America’s major allies in East Asia to be taking this long in build a good relationship?

It is necessary to understand the situation where Japan and South Korea stand and the reasons why they reject to go further with their relations than through the US. In an interview with The Diplomat Brad Glosserman stated that “Natural expectation of foreign policy realists that Japan and South Korea, by virtue of their shared geographical location, common democratic and market economic system, and shared values would be natural security partners with each other. Instead, they are frequently at odds, to the point of jeopardizing much needed diplomatic and security cooperation.” .   The lack of mutual interests and feeling of unity in Northeast Asia was explicable in terms of power politics. The region was forced into the framework of great politics under the Cold War regime, which split the neighbour states into the two blocs. The ideological-territorial deadlock erased any forms of talks between North Korea and South Korea, sometimes even bringing on a war or a threat. The end of the Cold War did not carry significant changes in security affairs surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, previous historical hostilities failed to assist the development of trustworthy relationships between Japan, on the one hand, and China and South Korea, on the other.  

Dealing with North Korea is the dominant strategic concern of the U.S.-South Korean relationship. Under South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Seoul and Washington maintained tight coordination over North Korea policy, following a joint approach that contains elements of pressure and engagement. However, North Korea’s dangerous activity in the past recent years has led officials in Tokyo to join the US-ROK alliance in calling for a strong response. These concerns raising in East Asia require the US to accentuate its commitment to the region and to find peace in the Korean peninsula.  With this mindset, a strong trilateral alliance would take weight off America’s shoulders, as well as reassuring a strong military front against North Korean threats.

Due to the current situation, the idea of a Japanese-S. Korean cooperation seems closer than ever since the 1994 ‘Agreed Framework’ Pact between the two Koreas, Japan and the US. With the 2015 first official meeting of the two new leaders, and the ‘settling’ – although still a lot to work on – of the “comfort women” issue, it seems like diplomacy is a step closer of bringing the two countries together.   

The United States has treaty obligations to defend both South Korea and Japan.

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