A challenging dispute in the East China Sea has focused international attention on the dangerous twist in Sino-Japanese relations. The island row, despite Washington’s best efforts to stay out of it, has also drawn in the United States and prompted some Chinese analysts to point to this as a prima facie indication that Obama’s rebalance is aimed at containing China. The U.S.-China relationship has also been scrutinized as a result of North Korea’s latest nuclear test and series of provocative threats following the new UNSC sanctions placed on Pyongyang.
But amid these tensions there is another bilateral relationship in Northeast Asia that has been largely sidelined – Japan and South Korea. One of the reasons why Tokyo’s relations with Seoul have been downplayed is that both sides, with newly-minted leaders, are playing a delicate political game of “no news is good news” in hopes of burying their vitriolic exchange of diplomatic barbs during previous administrations. The strategic partnership between Japan and South Korea has deteriorated to the point where several U.S. officials were at one point questioning whether trilateral engagement with Seoul and Tokyo was even worth the effort.
The roots of the distrust and fractures are well known. South Korea accuses Japan of not coming to terms with its actions during World War II. This is mostly voiced in terms of South Korea’s belief that Japan has not adequately apologized and compensated for the issue of “comfort women.” Further inflaming this issue is South Korea’s concern, whether grounded or not, that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will amend the Kono and Murayama statements, which are widely seen in Japan as sufficient expressions of guilt for the Imperial Army’s crimes during the war.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, Abe did float this idea during his political campaign before he was elected as prime minister in December of last year. However, Abe has stepped back from this position since he recognizes–at least temporarily– the realities of governing and seeks better ties with Seoul. In fact, in early January Abe sent an envoy to South Korea to begin the process of mending ties. The follow month Japan's deputy prime minister led a delegation of Japanese officials on a trip to South Korea to attend President Park Geun-Hye's inauguration. Dialogue between the two sides has quietly continued albeit, only among lower level officials.
The second main strain in relations is the territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima. The rhetoric on the island row has ebbed and flowed over the past several years but reached its peak last year when former South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made his unprecedented visit to the atoll. This was largely an act of political posturing aimed at silencing critics at home but the result was a further deterioration in the bilateral relationship – dooming efforts to reach an accommodation on the comfort women issue or conclude the important General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which would have allowed for greater information sharing on the common threat Seoul and Tokyo face from North Korea.