If South Korea Wants a Cold War with Japan, Trump Won’t Stop It

shutterstock_1042795348This is a re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. I am also happy to say that I was translated into Japanese, here.

So everyone knows that South Korea and Japan are having another spat – this time over compensation of Korean forced labor during the Imperial period. Korean courts have opened the door for lawsuits, while Japan continues to insist that all such claims were resolved at the time of normalization treaty. Korean officials I’ve talked with tell me that there is nothing the government can do. This is coming from the courts. I find that highly unlikely given the extreme presidentialization of the South Korean constitutional order and regular POTROK flouting of checks-and-balances.

But my concern here is that the  South Korean push on Japan on yet another issue will not lead to pushback. Trump doesn’t care about this stuff. He’s racist, dislikes allies, and gets most animated when telling them to pay more. SK conservatives, who have traditionally slowed the march to a precipice with Japan, are out of power. And Abe is burned out on this issue (‘Korea fatigue’).

So if the South Korean left genuinely wants a breach with Japan, and a slide into a cold war over Dokdo/Takeshima, Sea of Japan/East Sea, comfort women, labor reparations, and so on, then they’ll get it this time. This is very worrisome, but also a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time.

The full essay follows the jump…


Relations between South Korea and Japan are spiraling downwardagain. This is a depressingly regular event. Every few years, these neighbors slide into a serious spat, driven usually by disputes over historical interpretation – the record of Japan’s colonialism in Korea from 1910 to 1945 – or territory – Dokdo to Korea, Takeshima to Japan, and the Liancourt Rocks to the rest of us. It often gets pretty nasty pretty fast, as this one is becoming too.

The commentary on this topic has been enormous (start here). Western analysts particularly tend to be flummoxed that South Korea exerts so much effort on this question, despite living flush against three dictatorships (North Korea, China, and Russia). Much international relations theory – balance of threat realism and democratic peace theory particularly – suggest that these two states should cooperate far more. But the South Koreans are simply not interested: anti-Japanism is a core nationalist narrative here. Japan has increasingly responded in kind.

There is no need to go over all these details again (my own thinking is here). This time the fight is over wartime compensation for Korean forced labor in wartime Japan (here is the movie version which pretty well captures the South Korean national attitude on this issue). The Korean side is now threatening to even expropriate Japanese corporate assets in South Korea to pay these claims.

The morality of this South Korean claim is arguable, but suffice to say that Japan will not accept these claims. It is threatening to respond, starting with tariffs on Korean products and restricting market access, and likely threatening to block any later South Korean accession to the CPTPP.

My concern here however is the lack of the usual brakes on these spirals, specifically the American administration and South Korean conservatives.

Trump Won’t Bother

The primary brake on these disputes has traditionally been the Americans. Indeed, the Americans have often been the informal umpire of this dispute, particularly for the South Korean side. South Koreans and Korean-Americans have made a concerted effort to ‘win’ American opinion to their cause on Japan by erecting comfort women statues in the United States, lobbying to change the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea in US textbooks and maps, and bringing the issue up directly in bilateral talks with the Americans. Many South Koreans over the years here have told me that the US should push Japan much harder on these questions.

The Japanese initially sought to ignore this, but the South Korean effort has been successful enough, that Japan now routinely protest these changes.

The American government’s position is officially neutrality, but increasingly that is difficult. The US has been forced to intervene repeatedly. President Barack Obama explicitly met with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bridge a split three years ago. US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked current South Korean President Moon Jae-In this year on his visit to Washington to avoid breach with Japan.

But with Donald Trump now in the presidency, it is unclear if he is willing to do the same. Trump is famously disdainful of US allies. His primary interest in Japan has been trade tariffs, car imports, and getting nominated for a Nobel Prize. His primary interest in South Korea has been demanding increased payment for US security guarantees. He has been burned in dealing Korea to date over the Northern nuclear program. Trump is also a racist. It is unlikely that he cares much if America’s Asian allies tear each other.

South Korea’s Conservatives are Out of Power

The other traditional constraint on deterioration is the presence of conservatives and national security hawks in South Korea’s government. The South Korean right has long shared a basic hawkish alignment preference for the US and Japan, in opposition to North Korea, the Soviet Union in the past, and China today.

In a curious reversal of traditional left-right political patterns, the South Korean right is the ‘internationalist’ bloc, while the South Korean left is the nationalist one. It is the South Korean left, for example, which has emphasized the common ‘Koreanness’ between North and South Korea and has sought various breakthroughs with Pyongyang over the decades. Conversely, it is the South Korean right which has emphasized an international ideological alignment of South Korea with other liberal, democratic and anti-communist states, most obviously the US and Japan.

It must also be said that many South Korean conservatives are descended from the founder fathers of South Korea, many of whom were collaborators with the Japanese empire. This remains a thorny issue of nationalist contention in South Korea.

Whatever the background issues, the point is that the South Korean right has often tried to maintain a basic working relationship with Japan and avoid an open breach over divisive, highly politicized historical issues. Former President Park, for example, sought to put to rest the comfort women dispute with a deal several years ago.

The South Korean left rejects this outreach and emphasizes, often with great militancy, Japan’s need to apologize continuously. The current leftist president has abandoned Park’s comfort women deal and has made no effort to head off the emerging legal battle of reparatory confiscations of Japanese corporate assets. The South Korean right has been left carping on the sidelines.

Thomas Friedman has long argued that US ties allow centrists in the Middle East to defeat their maximalists by insisting that Washington ties their hands. I believe the same is the case in South Korea and Japan. Maximalists on both sides – often NGOs and ‘citizens groups’ – would drive the relationship to the brink, but US pressure, often behind the scenes, acted as a critical brake. Centrist elites who lacked the courage to directly challenge maximalists could blame their restraint on the Americans.

This no longer operates and is particularly relevant for South Korea, as the forced labor compensation issue here is driving the current downswing. If this drive in South Korea picks up national momentum, the Moon government may not be able to stop it. Indeed, the Moon government may not want to, and Trump likely does not care enough to bother to intervene. We could be racing toward a real cliff here.

Japanese colleagues and friends have long asked me if the South Koreans actually want a breach, a genuinely competitive or cold war-like relationship with Japan. I have always thought that was not the case, and I still believe a majority of South Koreans want a better relationship – but they fear saying this publicly given intense nationalist emotions on this question. We may now found out just how far South Korea is willing to go. Its president is publicly aggressive on Japanese historical issues; a new historical issue – wartime labor – has just arisen and is sliding quickly into the standard nationalist framing of relations with Japan; the Japanese prime minister is a conservative exhausted with the Korea question; and the Trump administration is checked out on this issue. Yikes.

12 thoughts on “If South Korea Wants a Cold War with Japan, Trump Won’t Stop It

  1. My wife’s father was one of those people who was taken away for a few years for slave labor. He passed away in his 80s about 15 years ago. Japan could do like Germany: apologize, some public display of their error, a bit of reparations. I do not understand why this is difficult. We lived in Germany for over 20 years and were always surprised by their continual “We are sorry.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In writing that former President Park “sought to put to rest the comfort women dispute with a deal”, you imply that she was reaching out to both sides of the aisle to reconcile warring sides and find a solution that both could find it in their hearts to support. The reality was far different. She was stonewalling the voices of both the halmoni and Korean liberals, obviously banking on the fact that few survivors are left, more are passing away each year, and it won’t be too long until none of them are left anymore. Hardly what I’d call a formula for lasting, agreed-upon peace.

    In characterizing the Korean left as “nationalist” without providing any other contextualizing explanation, you are also invoking the baggage carred in Western countries by the world “nationalist”, without making an effort to assess how well that baggage fits Korea’s political landscape. The political right here may well be called “internationalist”, but not only do they have no problem being far more xenophobic and racist than the political left, they’re not advocating for trade and cultural exchange between equals that enrich all parties concerned (which is what “internationalism” has come to stand as shorthand for in domestic American and European politics). The Korean conservatives’ version of internationalism involves painting Korean culture as inherently inferior to both American and Japanese culture, ultimately belittling and undermining Koreans’ capacity to govern themselves. This rhetoric on their part, not just their party lineage, is what directly links them to the rhetoric used by Japan and its collaborators to justify the forcible annexation of Korea.

    Not to mention, the political alignment of nationalism in Korean politics is only a “curiosity” if you treat South Korea as a state that has always enjoyed the luxury of political sovereignty and independence, which obviously has not been the case. If you see it as a cohort with countries like Lebanon and Ireland, where colonial rule have been a recent part of their history, it’s not at all anomalous.

    I suppose native issues of social justice don’t really concern someone like yourself, versed in international relations and diplomacy. It makes sense: after all, CEOs of mega-corporations would find themselves ill-equipped to restructure if they cared about all the people whose livelihoods dependended on their actions. At the same time, don’t assume that the reason South Koreans (both the politicial elite and the non-political commons) are not on board with the US’s political agenda is necessarily because we’re short-sighted and can’t look to our own political advantage, or because we’re blinded by rabid (that is to say, xenophobic and racist) nationalism.


  3. 제목부터 뭔가 웃기는군 Haha, I leave a long mention as Native south Korean. First of all, Your title sounds something nitpicking Korea that victimized korea insults Criminal Japan for benefits. Hey , Please Rewrite the Title first. “If Japan is keep insulting Korea ” . That would be correct.👌
    When i read an articles by westerners, Most had a lack of Korean relationships and sad history between Doggy America and Japan.
    To add further, In Josun-Dynasty of Korea , Dirty Japanese Islanders started to attack Korea to avoid their natural disasters by instincts from 1300 . That’s why Korea had to be conservative and not to opend easily.
    By the way, Most uneducated westerners didn’t know why asia was conservative without knowledge bring bad unhealthy Drugs . Unfortunately Many of great Asian countries were victimized by arrogant Western countries . One of them was Roothless immigrants America in shorten history. Trash America also invaded Incheon of Korea to open a port forcely 1866 and1871 with general shaman. After that American indulgence, The American military government was set Korea by themselves to colonize. Even selfish Roosevelt President wanted Japan to colonize Korea for Having Philippines . That was a well known fact “Teft Agreement” 1905.
    He took agreements from Germany and England, and France like bad emperialists. Unavoidably Trash Japan had been stolen Korean lands, beheaded, raped, experimented on living bodies in Manchuria.
    Uncountable Koreans Chineses were killed by them Annually almost 50 years. Trash America and Japan shared all datas for benefits pouring a lot of Money to Japan instead of it during our Koreans, chineses Ancestors were erased cruelly by Trash Japan . In 1936 ~ 1942 The Japanese unit 731 was set under the US military . Diggy insane Japanese troops erased Organs without Anesthesia abandoned being human.
    Same Trash America just calculated Dollar watching them . Dumb idiots thought they are “Advanced Country ” or they had developed gracefully like foolishness. Only their Scumbness and Crimes were advanced in the world. According to proven amount of our victimized records in korea and china, America made the Korean war using a chemical weapons with Global Criminals Japan and England.
    Trash Japan still want our Korean assets arrogantly despite they murdered our korean last queen, had occurred over 15 massacres each country. They never apologized and compensated yet. Dokdo Island was proven that Japan had published Dokdo is a korean island in 1600. We have many historic datas. Dakeshima was also occupied by japan without Korean agreement. From the Japanese Forced Colonization 1905~ 1945, Trash Japan destroyed and forcely annexed and stolen Korean cultural assets and whole lands .
    Killing using korean people slavery .
    Trash Criminal American Trump knows Now what is the new spot for making money without any notion and Apology. But They must apologize deeply and proper compensation donating their all financial assets before “Human rights” or “Justice” like doggy biting.
    Two Dogs will Not make their Faked glory anymore.


    • This guy is almost certainly NOT Korean and is a Chinese troll. It should be noted by Koreans the evil monster next door to them in China prefers they fight with Japan and is flaming the flames. In particular the Sino-Nazi above seems overly preoccupied with deaths of Chinese in korea and ignores China’s own oppression and invasions of Korea that far predate anything Japan did and went on for much longer. See his comment ; “Uncountable Koreans Chineses were killed by them Annually almost 50 years.”

      First your English is so bad you come across as Chinese on that alone.

      Second, this comment from you is also trash, “Dirty Japanese Islanders started to attack Korea to avoid their natural disasters by instincts from 1300 .”

      Chinese started attacking Korea and taking away Korea’s freedom and subjecting to being a tributary waaaay before that. Also so what if the Japanese were pirates in the 1300s. The Chinese were genocidal colonialist starting 3000 years ago.

      The rest of the Sino-Nazis trite BS devolves into general US hating and in particular hating on Trump; which is something the Chinese tend to do.

      And if you are Korean; you are even more pathetic than the Chinese because you didn’t grow up in a 1984 state propaganda system to excuse you idiocy.


      • @Guillrrmo Lahera One uneducated Idiot Western Insect feigns to know our historic knowledge . Do not put the cause of Japanese colonizatio to China . Dumb asshole. Your Lack of Asian history soundsed so embarrassed as same human.
        Great China in a long history with deep cultures waw also a VICTIM by Trash Japan and At least China Never colonized for one geat Korea 50 years even other east asia too. Your dumb uneducated Knowledge is this. Historically China and korea had been trading and handed over each culture in a good relationship . Surely Many wars occurred in the ancient period. but that was an old story of BC3 ~ 800 AD. Korea had a peaceful relationship with china for 500 years before Japan invaded. Not only japanese Invasion, Japan planned The Japanese Forced Colonization for having Philippines under Criminal America then they had been erased Organs without Anesthesia on Koreans, Chineses living bodies . They had cut woman’s breasts after rapping , speared everything, they had stolen korean cultural assets for 50 years. So many young Korean men had to drag to be use as suicide bombers to japan.

        Hey dumb Western MORON~!!! DO NOT BITE my Bloody history as your taste ~!! Your fucking english wothout right education soundnded so ridiculously funny. Most victimized Asian People know what Trash Japan did. But Most Dumb uneducated westerner is gibberishing without Notion. Hey I am native korean was born in 1978. Do not bite like A mental disorder.

        Why All koreans are demonstrating against Japan Now ??? Why All Koreans are boycotting against Japan Now???
        Trash Japan Never apologized deeply and compensated properly. Never

        Shut your dirty mouth up . We S.korea also had some political issueswith china but I can Surely speak china was brutally victimized by Doggy Japan with uncountable massacres

        I have many proven datas in korean, chinese, english
        That’s a well known fact in the northern chinese historic Museum .

        One Doggy Western Moron feigns to know My bloody history . just Go to the clinic for your mental illness.


      • @guillrrmolahera 🚫This uneducated westernern MORON Can NOT distinguish “General invasion” and “Colonization ” . This Dumb Idiot Even know Every ASIA was brutally victimized by Trash Japan. Sounds like Dumb you are a dog of Japan hahaha


  4. I evaluate myself as an objective observer. And I’m not even interested in whether Japan apologize or not. But to be honest, regardless of that, you just look like one of the spokesmen of Japan in Korea.

    For you, it seems like everything is already defined as good(right) or bad(stupid). Doesn’t it sound like an elementary school boy who believes the stronger one is always right? I’m going to be quite surprised if you say you’re a democracy supporter, not a monarchy. Are you? 🙂


  5. BTW, I’m so curious what your criteria are?

    Because Japan is the third country in the world by GDP? If so, China is always right against Japan, Germany against France, and so on? There shouldn’t be any issues raised against the stronger one? It would be great if it works that simple. No complicated laws will be required. I don’t know why I am seeing so many disputes and wars still?

    By any chance, do you know most Koreans expect Abe to remain Prime Minister of Japan for a long long time? 🙂

    I respect any opinion as long as there are certain values, beliefs, or criteria, but I don’t see any consistency in your logic. Your writing looks like copy-and-paste of the so-called “creepy” Japanese rightist’s claims according to you.

    So again, what are your criteria on this type of matter if you have any?


  6. Pingback: How Does Syngman Rhee’s Friendship with America Still Matter Today? - War on the Rocks

  7. Your writing, if I have to call it so, is vulnerable while we can hardly find to dig into a loophole from a scholar’s. However, I do agree with you on that Koreans are stupid enough to hire you as a professor.


  8. According to your value, why don’t you just shut the fuck up and stay down as you are inferior and poor? Wasn’t it what you insist?


  9. Pingback: The Japan-South Korea dispute isn’t just about the past – Washington Post – Nihon Digital

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