Geopolitics Redux: Explaining the Japan-Korea Dispute and Its Implications for Great Power Competition


Until recently, it seemed that the stories that defined East Asia were economic. China’s rise — perhaps the story of the century — followed economic miracles in Japan and South Korea. The Asian financial crisis was painful, but the region bounced back. A major exception was North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, which brought the region to the brink. For the most part, however, East Asia appeared relatively immune from the geopolitics that bedeviled other key regions.

That period is now decisively over. Geopolitical competition is Asia’s organizing principle. In March 2015, Beijing issued a statement on the Belt and Road Initiative, which it claimed would “promote the connectivity of Asian, European, and African countries and their adjacent seas.” Alarmed by China’s maritime expansion, the United States proposed an Indo-Pacific strategy whereby it would “pursue many belts and many roads by keeping [its] decades-old alliances strong and fostering growing partnerships.” Yet some of the United States’ crucial allies in the Indo-Pacific show disunity at a time when it is most needed. On Aug. 22, 2019, Seoul announced its withdrawal from the General Security of Military Information Agreement, an intelligence-sharing pact between Japan and South Korea signed in November 2016. Recently, the relationship between these two neighbors has deteriorated to its lowest point since the end of World War II. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to put historical disputes aside and move forward for closer defense cooperation, beginning with a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations, reaffirmed in 1998 with the Kim-Obuchi declaration that envisaged a new partnership for the 21st century, and culminating in the signing of the recently abandoned agreement in 2016.



These past efforts to mend ties make the downward trajectory of the relationship between the two U.S. allies even more puzzling. The current stalemate broke out after Japan removed South Korea from its white list for the export of strategic materials after the latter’s Constitutional Court decision requiring Japanese firms to compensate forced laborers under the colonial rule. While Tokyo has been framing the issue as a matter of trust between sovereign states over diplomatic agreements, Seoul believes it is leveling the playing field between them. As a result, disagreements over the 2015 bilateral accord to resolve the comfort women issue — seemingly a main source of tensions — have escalated.

While history is a prima facie cause, geopolitical calculations have actually driven the relationships between Japan and its neighbors, including both South Korea and China. The Sino-Japanese rapprochement of the 1980s, where Japan was heavily involved in assisting China’s economic development, occurred when both countries faced a common threat: the Soviet Union. By the same token, the 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo was signed based on Cold War exigencies whereby Washington aimed to foster South Korea’s economic development through Japanese financial aid and closer trade relations as part of its broader strategy to contain the Communist bloc.

Geography and power politics deserve much more attention in understanding the ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea. Underlying Seoul’s decision to not renew the intelligence pact are larger forces beyond daily political disputes, chiefly Japan’s status as a sea power and South Korea’s oscillation between continental and maritime orientations. These varying security calculations have resulted in diverging strategic priorities, which manifest themselves more clearly as great power competition reemerges. Some observers have argued that Seoul and Tokyo tend to set aside differences and cooperate when the U.S. security commitment to the region appears weak. But while this may be true, the size of the gap to be bridged continues to widen, due to the rise of China and the Japanese and South Korean reactions to increasing great power tension. Analysts and decision-makers should study the geopolitical dynamics between the two nations. Doing so will both explain the current state of affairs and guide future moves for all parties in the region.

Setting the Context: Geopolitics in Northeast Asia

A glance at a map reminds the reader why the Korean Peninsula is a theater of strategic rivalry and how Seoul and Tokyo’s geographic positions translate into different geopolitical orientations. There are two primary factors to consider: First, China, a traditional land power, is increasingly pursuing seaward expansion, changing broader regional dynamics. Beijing is altering not only the physical geography of the South China Sea through building artificial islands, but also strategic balance in the East China Sea. This could potentially threaten the security of Japan, which as a maritime nation depends on its sea lines of communication. In contrast, South Korea’s economic dependence on China, combined with its focus on unification with Chinese-aligned North Korea, makes it friendlier to Chinese interests.

Second, American naval dominance — what is referred to as the command of the commons — in the Indo-Pacific has increasingly been challenged by Chinese maritime expansion. U.S. strategy in Asia has been predicated on a “hub-and-spoke” system, a network of bilateral alliances along the Pacific Rim. Since sea powers benefit from the secure sea lines of communication essential to trade and commerce, they tend to align with the leading naval power for security, instead of balancing against it. Japan’s increasing awareness of itself as “a maritime state,” as underscored in Japan’s first National Security Strategy released in 2013, has corresponded with the looming great power competition in the Indo-Pacific. Japan has not only expanded its naval capability in an effort to align its strategic orientation with the United States; it has also engaged in balancing behavior against China. Further, Tokyo has deepened its security ties with other like-minded nations, such as Australia and India, building on the interlocking bilateral alliances underpinning Asian security since the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951.

Unlike Japan, South Korea is split between continental and maritime orientations. Its strategic ambivalence also has its roots in geopolitics. A gateway to the Asian mainland and a bridgehead to the Pacific, the Korean Peninsula has been contested by land and sea powers. Historically, political instability there has invited great power intervention. For instance, the immediate cause of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 was the court of the Kingdom of Choson’s inability to quell domestic rebellion. Seoul asked Beijing to send troops. In response, Tokyo also dispatched its own soldiers to defend its position according to the Li-Ito Convention of 1885. After Japan’s victory, Russia filled the vacuum created by China’s downfall in Korea and Manchuria. Japan and Russia’s competition, catalyzed by Seoul’s inability to reform itself, ultimately led to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. History has had a lasting influence on South Korea’s strategic calculation, inclining it toward balancing strategies.

South Korea’s Dilemma Between the Great Powers

Seoul is faced with a dual dilemma: It is dependent on Washington for security, but reliant on Beijing economically. South Korea is a trading nation — trade represents more than 83 percent of its gross domestic product — and almost a quarter of today’s exports are destined for China. But the economic and security spheres can no longer be kept separate. Beijing recently intervened to dissuade Seoul from hosting American missile defense batteries. That it did so using economic measures highlights this dilemma. In 2017, Seoul announced the “three no’s” policy, refusing involvement in three elements of the U.S.-led regional defense architecture, though it is unclear whether it will be able to adhere to this policy for long. Even former President Park Geun-hye, who pursued otherwise conventional foreign policy, tried to maintain a “balance” between the United States and China.

Therefore, while some commentators have expressed frustration over current President Moon Jae-in’s sympathetic stance toward North Korea, his policy has its own logic: to build “a nation that cannot be shaken.” Moon has underscored the importance of “autonomous defense” — the ability of South Korea to defend itself without foreign support — to achieve national sovereignty and strategic independence. In his view, Korea has been invaded and carved up by foreign powers when it was weak; only a strong nation can defend its sovereignty. Unification is required to build a strong and self-reliant nation. But it is only one part, if an essential one. Last year, Moon proposed an 8.2 percent increase in the defense budget for 2019, the largest such increase in a decade.

Anyone who knows Korea’s history can sympathize with its desire for security. After all, most major wars in East Asia — the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Korean War — were fought on the Korean Peninsula, and it was ordinary citizens who paid the highest price. A popular narrative in Seoul is that these conflicts occurred at times of global power transition. Amid another contest between the United States and China, South Korea should, so the thinking goes, have enough diplomatic sovereignty to maintain balance, instead of being committed to a declining, impotent ally in the United States.

The Moon Administration’s Dangerous Balancing Act

If Moon’s worldview is understandable, his policy is immature at best. The idea of “balance” is erroneous on multiple fronts. Former President Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Moon served as chief of staff, advocated for the modern concept of balance for South Korea. The crux of his idea was that Seoul should be East Asia’s “balancer,” thereby profiting from all sides and maintaining regional stability. But for lesser powers to serve as a balancing buffer, great powers should have reached a modus vivendi in the region first. A geopolitical “shrimp” squeezed in between great power “whales,” South Korea can only do so much in the face of the rising U.S.-China rivalry.

Moreover, Seoul’s pursuit of unification to safeguard sovereignty will only accelerate its continental orientation, notwithstanding Moon’s desire to maintain “balance.” This is largely because many policymakers believe a rapprochement with North Korea’s continental patrons — China and Russia — is the key to unification. President Roh Tae-woo’s Nordpolitik policy of the late 1980s is the true progenitor to South Korea’s continental orientation in the post-World War II era. Named after West Germany’s Ostpolitik, its basic idea was to diplomatically encircle Pyongyang by establishing relationships with other communist states, thereby eventually encouraging it to come to the negotiation table. Looking beyond North Korea, Roh envisioned a greater Korea becoming a bridgehead connecting the Pacific to the vast landmass of Eurasia. While Moon has proposed both a “New Northern Policy” as well as a “New Southern Policy” to signal his “balanced” approach to foreign policy, he will likely resort to continental orientation as long as unification remains a priority.

Great Power Competition and Alliance Disunity

For these reasons, recent South Korean administrations — both conservative and progressive — have courted China. Because of Japan’s difficult ties with China, cultivating differences with it over historical issues is a palatable way to show alignment with China without overtly acting against the United States in the region. Seen in this light, the history issue is a catalyst, not an underlying cause. In fact, Moon already said in a 2017 interview that a further development of the trilateral security cooperation into a formal alliance was undesirable.

The different strategic calculations made by Japan and South Korea have translated into discord between the allies that has increasingly made alliance management difficult. The current discord took place in this context. Japan has made a clear choice to strongly align with the United States. In contrast, South Korea’s precarious balancing unnerves Japan. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle whereby Tokyo’s attempts to clarify Seoul’s position would push it further away, toward continental orientation.

For the United States, the lack of alliance cohesion — as manifested in the disunity between Japan and South Korea — hinders the effective implementation of coercive diplomacy, making the management of its rivalry with China more difficult. Alliance disunity could even derail U.S. efforts to reinforce commitments in managing great power competition in the region. While maritime competition in the South China Sea is undoubtedly a major sticking point, potential contingencies in the Korean Peninsula and the challenges in alliance management in Northeast Asia may open a new front in great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.

Rifts between allies could also be exploited by adversaries pursuing a wedging strategy to further disrupt collaboration between these countries. As one observer notes, Seoul has been vulnerable to Beijing’s strategy to undermine the U.S.-Korean alliance. China and Russia, for instance, have probed Japanese and South Korean responses by sending bombers into airspace adjacent to a set of islands whose ownership has been disputed by the two nations. The disunity between U.S. allies has, unfortunately, offered China and Russia an opportunity to work together.

The Path Forward

While policies and strategies may change, geopolitics offers an enduring, interest-based lens through which to view international events. The fundamental divergence between Japan and South Korea is a geopolitical one. Japan is a seafaring nation that is primarily worried about China. South Korea, on the other hand, sees China as a vital economic partner that can be useful in realizing its most important geopolitical ambition — unifying the Korean Peninsula on its own terms. Issues of history and memory between Seoul and Tokyo are fraught and will make it harder to reconcile competing interests. However, disagreements about history are not the core challenge in Northeast Asia — it’s geopolitics.

As geopolitical tensions between Japan and South Korea rise, alliance management becomes a crucial task for U.S. policymakers in preparing for the coming geopolitical rivalry. For instance, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver reiterated Washington’s “strong concern” and “disappointment” over Seoul’s decision to withdraw from the intelligence-sharing pact. Meanwhile, he also urged the two nations to engage in “meaningful dialogue” to “insulate” security matters from other political disputes. In this process, the historical disputes should not be viewed as a sharp dichotomy between denial and contrition.

The Japan-South Korea relationship is often seen as driven by sentiment, not by interest. Despite its potential impact on regional security, political leaders in both countries tend to treat the bilateral relations as an exclusive issue between them. As Schriver’s remarks suggest, however, it is useful to encourage Seoul and Tokyo to view the consequences of these political disputes in a larger context. Meanwhile, Washington should prevent both sides from making unnecessary moves that could further exacerbate the situation.

With respect to Korean unification, Washington should manage South Korea’s expectations. The problem of North Korea is not confined merely to the Peninsula, but should be seen within the framework of Asian geopolitics and the Indo-Pacific, which encompasses security, economics, and ideology. As such, Korea’s unification is more likely to occur with the United States’ support. After all, Germany’s peaceful unification was possible when Bonn and Washington were in lockstep, not when either of them pursued its own policy. It would be a mistake for South Korea to pursue unification with such single-mindedness that it comes at the expense of its ties with its maritime partners — Japan and the United States.



Takuya Matsuda is a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London. He holds an MA from Johns Hopkin University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Jaehan Park is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkin University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is also a Non-resident Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Image: Voice of America