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Challenges Still Facing U.S.-South Korea-Japan Trilateral Relations

Relations between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan are reportedly friendlier than ever. While both South Korea and Japan are treaty allies of the U.S., in previous decades this pair of powerful East Asian states struggled to reconcile over powerful historical grievances. These grievances largely stem from imperial Japan’s wartime abuses including the system of “comfort women” subjected to sexual slavery and the conscription of men into forced labor.


U.S. foreign policy has long aimed to repair the rift between Japan and South Korea and shore up cooperation on Indo-Pacific security, particularly against North Korean aggression and Chinese ambition. The high-level Camp David summit between U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in August 2023 indicated strong progress on this front. Additionally, on June 1, 2024, South Korea and Japan announced movement towards a bilateral defense agreement after cooperation was cut off six years ago due to a radar incident.  


But for all the signaled intentions by the U.S., South Korea and Japan to draw closer in pursuit of shared interests in Asia, a few major complications remain. These issues, if unaddressed, could hamper or even halt the progress already made. 


For one, South Korea and Japan maintain close economic ties with China as their close neighbor and largest trading partner. The trilateral meeting in late May 2024 –wherein leaders from China, South Korea and Japan discussed a variety of issues including technology, health, climate and trade– made a joint interest in regional stability clear. With the U.S. more aggressively pursuing protectionist policies aimed at blocking trade with China, such as the recent push to ban Chinese electric vehicles, South Korea and Japan’s hesitancy to support the U.S. on economic issues regarding China may introduce friction. America’s currently preferred method of antagonizing China through trade restrictions is at odds with South Korea and Japan’s interest in promoting stability and mutual prosperity through economic ties.  


For another, South Korea and Japan agreeing to cooperate on fundamental aspects of national security are far from agreeing to move on from the historical animosity that has plagued relations for decades. It’s possible to view Korean and Japanese willingness to face shared threats from China and North Korea as evidence that hurt feelings mean little in the face of national security challenges. However, this view downplays the role of public sentiment and political popularity in foreign policy creation. Anger due to historical grievances bubbling over at the wrong time in an increasingly risky region could present a major disruption. With wartime wounds of the past still unforgiven, preparing for future conflict side-by-side rests on shaky ground with limited mutual trust. 


In this particular matter, the U.S. can’t apologize on Japan’s behalf and can’t accept the apology on behalf of South Korea. What it can do is be a conduit for trust and discourage tit-for-tat escalations aimed at exploiting national anger for political gain and remind its allies of the risks associated with jeopardizing overall security strategy. Right now, that approach seems to be working well enough, but it’s too soon to bask in the success of the U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral partnership without also recognizing the diplomatic work that still needs to happen between the two Asian nations. 


Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author. 


4 Comments


Ellie Bai
Ellie Bai
Jun 28

Hi Mia,


Great job outlining the complex dynamics between the US, Japan, and South Korea regarding economic and national security. I agree that while the trilateral partnership is vital, it shouldn't overshadow the need to address specific issues between Japan and South Korea. The historical animosity and China's role add another layer of complexity. Moving forward, diplomatic efforts to address these concerns will be crucial for sure.

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Great article Mia,

Japan and Korea have long and complicated histories regarding one another. It is interesting that the American occupation of Japan and the decades of influence over South Korea may have created a situation in which they are 'allies', but they are not truly friendly. Both nations are scarred by the 20th century. There main incentive to cooperate is deterring future threats and pleasing the American hegemon.

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It truly is a layered situation. It's not possible for us to smooth over the historical grievances that have colored the relationship between South Korea and Japan. Even so, we must continue to de-escalate and look for ways to strengthen ties between the two as a matter of national security.

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Mason
Mason
Jun 20

This is a very thoughtful and insightful article. I think you did a good job explaining the issue. It is important to remember that our partnerships with South Korea and Japan should not be taken for granted, and this article highlights the details that reality.

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