Fractures opening across democratic Northeast Asia defense front
While some might assume that coordination over the issues of China and North Korea would bring Japan and South Korea together, longstanding disagreements are threatening the country’s bilateral and regional relationships. While the two countries share many cultural, economic, and political values, disagreements extend across sectors from security and territorial to judicial and diplomatic. Diplomatically and historically, South Korea condemns Japanese actions in the first half of the 20th century while Japan alternates from compensation and apologies to revisionist history in its school curriculums and state visits to controversial sites. The issue of “comfort women” was settled between the governments in 2015 through a formal Japanese apology and compensation program. Today, however, this agreement has largely dissolved. Territorially, the two countries contest an island in what Japan calls the Sea of Japan and South Korea calls “The East Sea.” Occupied by South Korea, the country has conducted extensive drills on the island in practice of its defense. In the domain of security, “Japanese and [South Korean] defense institutions have engaged with one another quite well at the operational level, including joint exercises, port calls, exchanges of defense cadets and personnel…[but] relations are now affected by politics and it will be hard to upgrade or even exercise defense cooperation between the two,” lamented a visiting Japanese professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University. Both counties appear to be using anti-Japanese or anti-South Korean sentiment for political gain, and the fallout threatens to further destabilize the Northeast Asian region. At a time when the U.S. is engaged in a protracted disagreement with South Korea over cost-sharing, disagreements are proliferating at a time when the need for understanding and coordination is at its most vital.