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For U.S., Japan-South Korea ties are too important to fail

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WASHINGTON - One of the biggest disappointments of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Asia policy has been his inability to facilitate stronger relations between Japan and South Korea — America’s two most important allies in the region.

For more than 20 years, Japanese and South Korean leaders have discussed building a “future-oriented” relationship, but fundamental historical differences remain an insurmountable obstacle. Seoul’s recent effective withdrawal from a 2015 agreement with Tokyo on the “comfort women” issue, as well as South Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate Koreans conscripted for wartime labor during Japan’s colonial rule, have aggravated historical tensions.

In March, South Korean shop owners launched a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods, with lawmakers from Gyeonggi province near Seoul even proposing that all such products be affixed with a “made by war criminals” sticker. Following last month’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka, where the extent of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s interaction with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was a perfunctory handshake during the formal welcoming ceremony, Japan imposed export regulations on South Korea that threaten to disrupt global supply chains of microchips and smartphone displays. In response, Samsung’s heir apparent and South Korean trade officials have engaged Japanese counterparts in Tokyo without success, and the Moon administration is preparing a case against Japan at the World Trade Organization.

Domestic politics also contributes to this paradoxical cycle of rapprochement and tensions. The two countries’ economic interdependence provides a safety net for leaders on both sides to parlay nationalist sentiments tied to historical differences into political leverage without fully severing their necessary relationship. A notable example is former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s ploy to “show the flag” against Japan with a visit to the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo islands in 2012, which saw his approval ratings nearly double in just two weeks. Tokyo’s and Seoul’s heated responses to an unresolved incident between a South Korean navy vessel and Japanese reconnaissance plane last December suggest that both governments remain willing to play nationalist politics no matter the broader strategic consequences.

Since the 1990s, the United States has tried to unite its two democratic allies by focusing on North Korea. However, while North Korean denuclearization remains a necessary focus of cooperation, the present contradictions in U.S., Japanese, and South Korean views on dealing with Pyongyang underscore the difficulty of forging a unified approach.........

© The Japan Times