Can Japan and South Korea Handle Peace With Pyongyang?

Expert Guest, Sheila Smith, explains the challenges for South Korea and Japan as the US tries diplomacy with North Korea

The sharp pivot to diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in early 2018 has rekindled longstanding dilemmas for South Korea and Japan. These two U.S. allies have come together during times of crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but they often have difficulty finding common ground when an opportunity for negotiation with Pyongyang emerges.

The Fault Lines That Remain

Several fault lines could complicate the relationship between Japan and South Korea with the ongoing effort to conduct talks with North Korea. The first is the ever-present politics of memory linked to Japanese military actions in World War II, as well as an outstanding territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea over islands in the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea, according to Seoul) that dates back to 1905. These islands, little more than rocky outcroppings, are known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. Seventy years have done little to diminish the need in South Korea to highlight the raw legacy of the past. Meanwhile, in Japan, conservatives and liberals alike now seem more willing to exacerbate old wounds than to find the salve to heal them.

Can Seoul and Tokyo Coordinate Further Diplomacy?

Abe praised the Moon-Kim as a success, but past efforts at negotiation with the North have not always been easy for Seoul and Tokyo. This time, the breakneck pace and unpredictability of recent summitry have been particularly surprising for Tokyo. In a matter of months, North and South Korea have transitioned to a rapidly evolving diplomatic process. In the meantime, Kim also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and began the process toward an unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit. This time around, instead of competing with each other for Washington’s attention, Seoul and Tokyo may find it useful to deepen their friendship to win greater leverage in U.S. decision-making.

A Reconfiguration of Northeast Asian Security?

The dramatic meeting between the two Korean leaders at Panmunjom has created excitement about a possible end to the state of war on the peninsula and the armistice that has militarily divided the countries since the end of the Korean War. A comprehensive peace settlement will mean a dismantling of the demilitarized zone and thus a reconfiguration of forces on the ground. Japan cannot help but worry about this possibility. The approximately twenty-eight thousand U.S. forces in South Korea, largely ground forces, may head back to the United States. Some of these forces, however, are important to Japan’s security: the U.S. Air Force maintains its 8th and 51st Fighter Wings in South Korea and the U.S. Navy regularly visits Chinhae Navy Base near Busan. Removing them from the Korean Peninsula would remove an important layer of deterrence that Japan has relied upon in its own security calculations.

The Tasks Ahead

The terms of the North-South peace regime for the Korean Peninsula and the military balance for the region are delicate topics, and perhaps it is too early to expect that South Korea and Japan can share a vision. This new phase of trilateral diplomacy between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington will evolve as more is learned about Kim’s approach to the future of the Korean Peninsula. Despite the excitement around a new, more peaceful future, it might be wise for each to consider what rapid changes to Northeast Asia’s security environment might bring. There is a window of opportunity here for South Korea and Japan to seize the benefits of their association as U.S. allies and plan how to sidestep the traps that await.

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