This article is the first of a two-part series by Aidan Foster-Carter on the ongoing trade spat between South Korea and Japan.
Tracking North Korea also entails keeping a close eye on its neighbors. Right now two of them, Japan and South Korea, are falling out big-time. That can only help Pyongyang.
The issues are complex, so we’ll tackle them in two parts. This first article provides context and background, while raising some general considerations.
The second part focuses directly on the latest ominous twist in what has always been a dysfunctional relationship.
How does the DPRK survive? That question has many aspects, and multiple answers. One way, practiced by Pyongyang for decades now, is to exploit splits among its neighbors and other interlocutors.
This began in the 1960s, when the Sino-Soviet dispute shattered what the West erroneously thought was the monolithic unity of the communist bloc.
In that conflict, the DPRK was the sole small socialist state that succeeded in staying neutral between communism’s two giants. Kim Il Sung played off Moscow and Beijing against each other, milking both for aid as he leaned now this way, now that.
More recently North Korea had theoretically been a global pariah, censured and sanctioned by a dozen UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions – all unanimous, endorsed by Russia and China as well as the U.S. and its Western allies.
Yet that notional unity always had cracks, which Pyongyang exploited. One was, and is, the old Cold War divide. Moscow and especially Beijing have usually afforded successive Kims some diplomatic cover, and neither has fully enforced sanctions.
Nor is the West itself united. Democracy is not conducive to policy consistency, either over time or between allies. Before Donald Trump muddied the waters, in both the U.S. and South Korea right-wing governments mostly stressed deterrence, while left-leaning ones sometimes tried engagement.
Thus George W Bush reined in Bill Clinton’s outreach, putting him at odds with his more dovish ROK counterparts: first Kim Dae-jung, then Roh Moo-hyun.
Japan’s brief but brutal occupation of a then-united peninsula (1910-45) remains unforgotten and unforgiven, even after 74 years
TWO TRIANGLES, BOTH BENT
Furthermore, no two states’ interests ever align exactly. In Cold War days, the Korean stand-off was sometimes portrayed as two triangles. Just as North Korea had the USSR and China, South Korea had the U.S. and Japan.
Yet neither ‘had’ was simple. Paralleling the Sino-Soviet split, the other side had its fault-lines too. Seen from Washington, Japan and South Korea were each crucial allies in the struggle to contain communism. U.S. forces have been based in both ever since 1945.
From Seoul, things look very different. In both Koreas, Japan’s brief but brutal occupation of a then-united peninsula (1910-45) remains unforgotten and unforgiven, even after 74 years.
It took the ROK twenty years even to open diplomatic ties with Japan: a step which caused riots. Formal relations came with a big aid package, supposed to settle all claims forever.
Those funds were crucial in seeding South Korea’s industrialization. Though the companies that benefited (Samsung et al) are now global giants in their own right, many still depend on Japan for machinery and key components. (Remember this! – it’s important in part two.)
While business ties flourished, political issues festered. Other than rival claims to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islets, these mostly concerned the past.
Few Koreans believe Japan is truly contrite for the pre-1945 era. To take just one example, in recent years now-elderly former wartime “comfort women” (sex slaves) have come forward and demanded redress.
North Korea, meanwhile, still has no formal relations with Japan. (They used to have good contacts via Japan’s former Socialist Party (JSP), whose colonial guilt led it, perversely, to adopt a largely pro-DPRK and anti-ROK stance. But that’s another story, albeit fascinating.)
Koreans’ continuing anti-Japanese animus has always been a strategic headache for the U.S.
NORTH KOREA IN MORAL HIGH GROUND SHOCK
What the North does have, unusually, is the moral high ground – if only from a nationalist perspective. Just as North Korea, unlike the South, hosts no foreign military bases – a fact it used to exclude the ROK from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – the DPRK right from the start purged most Koreans who had worked for the Japanese.
The ROK, in sharp contrast, largely kept them on, including the hated police as well as civil servants and others.
Actually retention is the global norm in transitions from colonialism to independence. But many Koreans see it differently. Using the term “occupation” sets up distinct connotations. Resisters were patriots, collaborators were traitors.
That is a very misleading and unhelpfully polarizing template, yet it retains traction on both sides of the DMZ. Take for instance this 2016 article in Seoul’s leading progressive daily.
After 70 years, should South Koreans still be harping on about “collaborators”? Other countries suffered similarly, but have long since moved on to embrace more forward-looking politics. Korea seems mired in the painful past.
Koreans’ continuing anti-Japanese animus has always been a strategic headache for the U.S., limiting military co-operation between its two allies. (An excellent account, if you fancy a longer read, is this by MIT’s Eric Heginbotham, published by the Asan Institute.)
Sometimes trilateralism has worked. For a few years early in this century the three allies had a formal Trilateral Co-ordination and Oversight Group TCOG), with meetings and minutes, to ensure they were all singing from the same hymn-sheet regarding North Korea.
But as Heginbotham recounts, this fell apart as ROK-Japan relations worsened over the usual issues: revisionist Japanese textbooks whitewashing the imperial past, prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine (which memorializes convicted war criminals, among others), and so on. These concerns are hardy perennials, guaranteed to offend Korean sensibilities.
The return of Shinzo Abe as premier in 2012 made matters worse. Abe’s overt right-wing nationalism, and bid to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, rang alarm bells in both Koreas.
This added to the challenge facing the three (so far) South Korean Presidents who have had to deal with Abe.
Moon Jae-in’s conservative predecessors, Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) and Park Geun-hye, didn’t help by each performing abrupt policy U-turns – but in opposite directions. For further details see an earlier article of mine (January 2017) for NK News, here.
If Lee and Park were inconsistent, not so Moon Jae-in. On the contrary, during his two years (so far; three more to go) as South Korean President, Moon has managed – whether on purpose or not – to consistently antagonize Japan, on at least three separate fronts.
Now Japan has struck back, and the fecal matter is really hitting the fan. More in Part two. Don’t go away!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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