Trump and Japanese-Korean relations: managing the train wreck

Picture of Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki

On 8 March China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at a press conference in Beijing, described the situation on the Korean Peninsula as being "like two accelerating trains coming towards each other with neither side willing to give way” and warned of the dangers of a massive collision. Wang is right, but his similie can be expanded. Several trains are heading at dangerous speed towards the junction that is East Asia. It will require both a clear bird’s eye view of the situation and some skilled hands on the points levers to ensure they pass one another by without disaster.

The advent of the Trump presidency is only one reason for escalating levels of instability in the region. A major problem lies in the fact that this untested and unsettling US regime has come to power at a time when other forces were already shaking the foundations of a precariously balanced regional system. From a historical perspective, shifting power balances between China and Japan have repeatedly created moments of heightened tension in East Asia, and the Korean Peninsula has always found itself uncomfortably placed at the centre of these tensions.

This pattern was evident in the final decades of the nineteenth century and in the decade immediately after the end of the Asia-Pacific War. The same pattern is being played out again in the second decade of the twenty-first century, as the rise of China stirs old antagonisms in Japan, and as the region struggles to deal with the intractable problems of the world’s one remaining Cold War divide: the division of the Korean Peninsula.

Over the past decade, fears of increasing Chinese economic and military might have evoked nationalist reactions in Japan, with collateral damage to Japan-South Korea relations. Meanwhile, Japan’s relationship with North Korea has remained on ice, frozen by the legacy of the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1980s, and by political fall out from more recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests. What impact is the Trump presidency having on these relationships?

Japan, South Korea and the history issue

Ever since the advent of Japan’s Abe regime in 2012, the United States has played a crucial role in keeping a lid on possible Japan-South Korea tensions, particularly over vexed historical issues, of which the most important is the 'comfort women' issue. A significant part of Prime Minister Abe’s support base, and perhaps Abe himself, would like to rescind the 1993 Kōno Statement: the Japanese government’s first and most significant statement of apology on the 'comfort women'. But such a step would provoke outrage in South Korea and China (and beyond).

In April 2014, the Abe government initiated a review of the processes leading up to the issuing of the Kōno Statement, resulting in a report that significantly undermined Japanese public confidence in, and respect for, the statement. Officially though, the Japanese government promised that it would “uphold” (or more precisely “inherit” – keishō suru) Kōno’s commitments. Its approach to the issue was clearly constrained by fears of inflaming South Korean opinion, but it was also powerfully influenced by the United States.

American diplomatic pressures are widely believed to have helped produce the December 2015 verbal agreement between Japan and South Korea on the 'comfort women' issue, though the effectiveness of this agreement itself remains controversial.

It is hard to imagine Donald Trump trying to rein in the Japanese government’s historical revisionist tendencies on the 'comfort women' issue, or on any other topic. Meanwhile, right-wing groups within Japan are energetically lobbying the Abe government to take a harder stance on these issues, while also developing a remarkably extensive overseas lobbying campaign, with or without the support of elements within the Japanese government.

One particularly bizarre aspect of this campaign became visible in December 2016 when a group calling itself the “Australia-Japan Community Network” lodged a complaint under Clause 18C of the Australian Racial Discrimination Act against Ashfield Uniting Church in Sydney for erecting a 'comfort woman' statue on its grounds.

In the early months of 2016, political debate within Japan has focused on scandals surrounding a nationalistic preschool, Moritomo Gakuen, whose activities have been linked by the media to the prime minister and his wife. But if Abe can avoid significant damage to his position from this affair, and can build on his widely reported friendly relationship with Trump, some of the restraints that have so far held back his more radical right tendencies on the history issue may be removed.

With South Korea likely to shift towards the centre-left in the forthcoming presidential election, the chances of ongoing Japan-South Korea tensions seem high, at the very time when the two countries most urgently need to cooperate to address the challenges of dealing with North Korea.

Japan and North Korea

The uncertainties surrounding US intentions in East Asia are, of course, greatly outweighed by the uncertainties surrounding North Korea. The global media tend to dismiss missile tests and bellicose rhetoric by the North Korean regime as mere signs of craziness, or as symptoms of Kim Jong-un’s growing power and aggressiveness. But there is another way of reading them: that is, that they are signs of growing anxiety and insecurity on the part of the North Korean regime.

The lesson of history is that dictatorships generally become most vulnerable to internal challenge, not when social conditions are at their most grim, but when conditions begin to improve. All the evidence suggests the North Korean economy has been doing relatively well for the past few years. Pyongyang’s consumer economy has been growing, and its citizens are gradually becoming more connected to the outside world. By the same token, wealth gaps between the capital and the rest of the country are growing.

A popular uprising against the North Korean regime is virtually impossible to imagine, but it is not impossible that ongoing purges might ultimately drive some small group within the elite to decide to “do before they are done to”. The very public media spectacle of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, generally believed to have been orchestrated in Pyongyang, might be read as a dramatic message of warning to politically outspoken external dissidents, and read in that light, it looks like the act of a very anxious regime.

Political change in North Korea is something that many of the region’s governments have long hoped for, but it needs to be remembered that there is nothing more dangerous than a nervous dictator. An internal power shift within North Korea would also create an enormously delicate political and diplomatic conundrum that the rest of the region would need to be well prepared to deal with.

Until now, in dealing with the unpredictable acts of the Kim Jong-un regime, the region has relied on the capacity of other regimes to remain calm and avoid overreacting to provocation. The greatest concern is whether a Trump administration, with a depleted infrastructure of State Department professionals, will be able to continue to keep cool and avoid reactions that ramp up regional tensions.

The Japanese Constitution and the region

All of this has very important ramifications for another issue even more fundamental to Japan’s role in the region than the history issue: possible revision of the Japanese constitution to allow a much greater role for the military. Revision of Japan’s postwar constitution has been a long-standing aim of the political right, and of Prime Minister Abe himself.

The Japanese government currently has the majority it needs in parliament to push for constitutional change, though it would still need to win a referendum on the issue. Successive American administrations over the past two decades have expressed support for greater military 'burden sharing' by Japan, but have also recognised the possibly destabilising implications of a fully fledged constitutional revision.

A major barrier to revision has been Japanese public opinion, which remains attached to the postwar constitution and wary of change, but the current massive media reporting in Japan of the North Korea missile threat may be shifting the public mood. Trump himself is on record as calling, during his election campaign, for Japan to take responsibility for its own military security, and even to acquire nuclear arms. If the Japanese government were to push ahead on constitutional change, the long-term consequences – domestic, regional and even global – would be profound.

Rising tensions to our north should be a matter of huge concern to people in Australia. Media rhetoric, particularly since the advent of Trump, abounds with references to 'military options' in the region, but there is no sane military option.

An actual war in Northeast Asia would be a catastrophe on a scale that none of us has seen in our generation. In that context, it is important that Australia’s decision makers should, metaphorically speaking, be standing ready to apply their hands judiciously to the points levers as needed, rather than riding towards collision on someone else’s train.

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team