This summer has seen a slew of interesting developments on the geopolitical sphere. The US and China continue their back and forth tussle regarding trade, tensions have been running high between the West and Iran, the outcome of Brexit continues to be on the air, the Amazon’s fires have prominently featured on the headlines, and Argentina is once again on the verge of default, among many other things. But there has been one geopolitical chain of events that has gone relatively under the radar, and which could potentially have many serious repercussions for the current world order.
The crucial (yet surprisingly feeble) alliance in East Asia between South Korea, Japan, and the United States is experiencing renewed levels of tension that are already translating to retaliatory policies. Many variables such as North Korea’s aggressive shows of military force, China’s looming presence over the region, and the Japanese government’s increased efforts to change the constitution to significantly strengthen the country’s military can all result in severe instability. Japan, South Korea, and the US have collaborated extensively ever since the end of the second world war. The Americans have gone as far as getting involved in an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula and retain a substantial military presence on the Japanese islands to this day, as well as investing considerable amounts of money into the reconstruction and development of the two countries. Their efforts have ensured them geopolitical strength in the area.
The main issue lies in the fact that relations between Japan and S. Korea have been historically tense due to Japanese actions during their colonization period (1910 – 1945) when Koreans were coerced to work in Japanese factories to support the imperial expansion and women were used to keep Japanese soldiers pleased. In 1965 (while S. Korea was still a dictatorship) the two countries agreed on a settlement, in which Japan paid more than $500 million into a compensation fund for reparations, and while the Japanese deemed the issue solved, late last year Korean courts ruled that Japanese firms must pay compensations to the victims that sue them for their past transgressions.
Japan is dismissing this ruling by the Korean courts, claiming the dispute was settled back in 1965, ignoring the protests by Korean citizens near the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Koreans have also boycotted Japanese companies and stopped travelling for tourism, hurting the profits of a country already struggling with sustained low levels of inflation. Japan recently proceeded to remove South Korea from a list of nations with preferential trade treatment, an action that will have repercussions on the world’s supply lines for high-tech products. South Korea is purportedly going to proceed to also remove Japan from its own trade “whitelist”, subjecting it to stricter export conditions. What’s more important for the US, South Korea also decided to withdraw from a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, an action that will result in an inefficient military control of the region on the part of the Western alliance. The language between the countries’ diplomats has also been quite hawkish, risking further deterioration of relations.
Both the historical context of violence and resentment, as well as the current context of trade friction around the world have to be considered by officials in order to properly balance their actions. Without adequate care, escalation can occur through simple inertia. The US’ role will also be key, as the military-information sharing agreement between the 3 countries has been essential, and any break of relations between Korea and Japan will only mean the US will need to spend more resources, human and monetary, to maintain their oversight. Because of the reasons mentioned above, and without a solid alliance in place, a regional hegemony shift, or even war with North Korea could potentially loom on the horizon.