Home / Articles / U.S. Policy toward Japan and Korea under Obama
With many other issues crowding its agenda, the Obama administration may pay too little attention to relations with Japan and Korea, except concerning North Korea. It should avoid this, since relations with both countries have become unusually sensitive in recent years. Dealing effectively with North Korea and serving broader U.S. interests in Northeast Asia require sustained and serious attention to bilateral relations with Japan and with Korea and to trilateral relations as well. Much work needs to be done to overcome recent obstacles and to build cooperation across security, values and economic issues.
How the Obama administration deals with Japan and Korea will reflect the importance of these alliances to the U.S. and provide greater clarity after two decades of post-Cold War transition about the enduring nature of these relations.
Japan and Korea are clearly not the most important countries for most issues atop the list of Obama’s security concerns. In dealing with the global financial crisis, the Obama administration will turn to Japan as well as China as a leading economic power and creditor state, with South Korea not far down the list, among other partners. But under pressure from a Democratic Congress, the crisis might also lead it to take some protectionist measures that would harm U.S. relations with Korea and Japan and make them less important in U.S. policy. In managing the five security priorities of North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and Israel-Palestine, Obama will look for substantial support abroad, but Tokyo and Seoul likely have little to offer except on North Korea and even there Beijing has a more important role than the U.S.’s regional allies. Finally, in pursuit of long-term or idealistic goals such as climate change, humanitarian intervention, and women’s rights, the Obama administration may not look for much from the Northeast Asian allies, since in comparison to most European states they have neglected such causes.
Continued U.S. engagement at an appropriate level in Northeast Asia is in doubt for other reasons as well. First, preoccupation with terrorism and instability in Islamic settings from the Middle East to South Asia diverts U.S. attention from Northeast Asia. Second, the rise of China and the growing role of Sino-U.S. consultations in addressing global issues suggest outsourcing problems to the country capable of doing the most to resolve them or at least to keep them from exploding. Third, the serious crisis sweeping over the U.S. economy threatens to leave it with little money to address overseas problems and also the inclination in a region with sizable capital reserves to reduce reliance on U.S. resources. Finally, loss of U.S. confidence in Japan, which has been incapacitated by domestic politics and its inability to reach agreement on alliance-boosting measures such as base relocation, and in South Korea, whose president suffers from low popularity ratings and political opposition that limits the scope of agreements with the United States, will tempt Washington to turn elsewhere.
Even on the potentially explosive issue of North Korea, the Obama team will have to work to overcome impediments to securing necessary cooperation from Seoul and Tokyo. In 2001 the prime concern in East Asia was an assertive U.S. foreign policy that would heighten tensions in Northeast Asia. In more recent years, balancing the Six-Party Talks, as a multilateral framework centered on Sino-U.S. coordination in addressing North Korea, and bilateral alliances has increasingly strained U.S. ties in the region. After the February 2007 Joint Agreement, it proved difficult to steer a middle road between Shinzo Abe’s alarm that the U.S. move put Japan’s security interests at risk and should be followed by tough demands on the North to determine if it really is sincere about denuclearization and Roh Moo-hyun’s rush to reward the North to the extent it would prioritize inter-Korean relations without conditioning progress on the course of denuclearization.
After the December 2008 impasse in completing the second phase of the Joint Agreement, the challenges are different. In 2009, the principal concern in the region has become fear of U.S. withdrawal that would leave North Korea to brandish its nuclear weapons and China in a position to exert ever more influence. Many Japanese had lost faith in the Six-Party Talks, fearing that the United States had, at least before North Korea refused in December to commit in writing to verification procedures, relaxed its demands due to priorities elsewhere. If Washington did not take North Korea’s growing threat or China’s rising military power as seriously as Tokyo did, many assumed the alliance would lose vitality. South Koreans were more divided. As the North responded to President Lee Myung-bak by cutting many inter-Korean ties, some feared that continued U.S.-North Korean talks would result in a deal that would leave the South marginalized, while others feared that the failure of such talks would lead to a crisis exposing them to military provocations and the threat of war.
No less than Taro Aso, Lee Myung-bak sought cautious insistence by Obama that the North, as the first of many clear proofs of its sincerity, confirm in writing through the Six-Party Talks its agreement to verification measures regarding its nuclear activities. While the Chinese urged patience, treating the December setback as not so significant at a time the North was awaiting a new U.S. president, and South Korean progressives echoed this view with calls for both Obama and Lee to redouble their country’s efforts to engage Kim Jong-il at a high official level as he recovered from his stroke, the allied leaders were more concerned about consolidating bilateral ties as a means to face the common threat and show that Obama will give renewed priority to U.S. alliance commitments in the region.
Obama has no time to waste in testing North Korean intentions and, at the same time, reassuring these two allies of the U.S. commitment to their security and also to a sustained, engaged regional strategy not overlooked due to urgent problems elsewhere.
As this suggests, beyond the North Korea issue, Obama faces diplomatic challenges in broader bilateral relations with Japan and South Korea, but those challenges are accompanied by opportunities. With Japanese politics in disarray due to a lingering standoff between the two leading parties–the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)–and an election to the Lower House required by September 2009 at the latest, the Obama administration will have to be patient and should send a clear signal that this relationship is valued as much as any other. Boosting alliance ties will no doubt receive continued priority in Washington] as well as Tokyo as force realignment proceeds. This will require the strong support of conservatives in both the LDP and DPJ, but winning such support may make it more difficult for Washington to build triangular (U.S.-Japan-Korea) ties, which must overcome the current thinking of some conservatives. In the face of revisionist appeals on historical memory issues and territorial disputes as well as recent emotionalism about North Korean abductions and the “China threat,” it will be difficult to keep Japan’s policymakers focused on the strategic interests in Asia shared with the United States.
Despite the urgency of global security problems, there is no likelihood that Japan’s politicians or public will offer the kind of support Washington understandably expects from an ally. Yet, despite the difficulties, Obama administration initiatives can have a positive effect. Renewed U.S. attention to broad security cooperation at a time of sharp economic downturn and alarm about North Korea in the region may, after some inescapable Japanese hesitation, yield an increased and perhaps unprecedented commitment to joint endeavors.
In the case of U.S.-South Korea relations, Obama administration policy should heed, and not repeat, the lessons of Kim Dae-jung’s March 2001 visit to Washington and Lee Myung-bak’s April 2008 meeting with Bush. In 2001 Kim went home empty-handed with his Sunshine Policy stymied, giving rise to an upsurge in anti-Americanism in Korea. In 2008 Lee’s consent to U.S. demands to lift the ban on imports of U.S. beef left him exposed as too pro-American in the midst of daily demonstrations that sapped his popularity. Under Obama, U.S.-Korea relations will face additional early strains due to uncertainty about the U.S.-South Korean FTA agreement that Democrats insist must be renegotiated, the agreement for realigning U.S. military bases in Korea in which cost-sharing issues have not been resolved, and the mix of carrots and sticks in North Korean negotiations which remain an area of likely disagreement between Washington and Seoul.
Despite these several challenges, here too, there are openings for U.S. policy. Notwithstanding the sharp divisions between Korean conservatives and progressives and the low popularity of Lee, his pro-American leanings provide an opportunity cautiously to consolidate relations. In the face of severe economic anxiety in Korea and shocking reversals in inter-Korean cooperation, the time may be ripe for the U.S. to press for, and secure, renewed mutual commitment to the alliance, extending to issues beyond the immediate North Korean threat
While strengthening and broadening bilateral relations with Japan and Korea, and avoiding mistakes that led to deterioration in relations with each of the two U.S. allies during the Bush presidency, are important policy goals for the new administration, it is no less important for Obama to prepare for a nested strategic approach to East Asia, including trilateral relations, and Northeast Asian multilateralism.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul mean more now to the United States than at any previous time. Presidents since Harry Truman have wanted to improve them. Efforts by U.S. leaders contributed to normalization in 1965 and other improvements such as the start of Japanese-South Korean summits in the early 1980s. Yet, since the Korean War, when there was no prospect of direct Japanese military support, no danger has made it necessary for Washington to forge a triangular alliance structure. In the 1990s the first North Korean nuclear crisis put this on the agenda. but it is only Obama who is likely to face an imminent threat while U.S. forces are heavily committed elsewhere.
Although in 2008 the alliance triangle had begun to regain the momentum that was predicted a decade earlier when a Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group took shape, this agenda still faces significant hurdles. The biggest barriers to solidifying this triangle remain Japanese revisionist provocations against South Korean national identity and progressive Koreans’ exaggerated fear of Japan’s realist revival. The inclination to view measured Japanese defensive steps as signs of remilitarization has needlessly complicated triangular relations. Divergences between Seoul’s and Tokyo’s approaches to the North Korean issues, and China’s regional role, are part of the problem as well, and were made worse by early Bush administration policies. Discussions in 2007-08 in preparation for the fifth working group of the Six-Party Talks revealed sharp differences between Japan and South Korea on how to build a Northeast Asian peace and security mechanism. Washington officials, led by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, took an interest in developing the norms and principles for such a far-reaching mechanism while making sure to condition serious discussion on success in the Six-Party Talks at least to the point of advancing into the third phase of dismantling the North’s nuclear assets. In South Korea under both Roh and Lee, these efforts drew support.
In contrast, in Japan there was resistance to even considering the principles for this type of mechanism. This divergence stems largely from the different views in the two U.S. allies of China’s rise and of Sino-U.S. relations. As Washington increasingly treated dialogue with China as the main means to address diverse problems in Asia, Tokyo grew nervous. If Seoul also has been concerned, it has been more welcoming to new prospects for regional stability to which China can contribute. It is less hesitant to add China to the mix, unless of course a new Sino-U.S.-Japanese triangle would leave it in the shadows even on vital concerns such as North Korea.
To cope with coordination problems, if the North leaves doubt of its denuclearization, the U.S. must take vigorous efforts to build a framework of 5 + 1 to pressure the North with encouragement to China and also Russia to work with the U.S. and its allies more closely. This requires tightening ties to Japan and South Korea and in no way giving the impression of bypassing them.
Beyond avoiding problems that are linked to North Korean and Chinese issues in bilateral allied relations, Obama has an opportunity to boost the alliance triangle to a level never before reached. To do this, he must avoid open-ended support of Japan that was typical of the early Bush-Koizumi ties and reassure Koreans of respect for their quest for balanced regional relations.. How far this proceeds depends not only on the state of Japanese-South Korean relations, but also on the degree to which the U.S. also can promote the broader, multilateral framework working with China and in the 5 + 1 or six-party framework
Concretely, in security affairs a strengthened triangular alliance may mean joint missile defense, interoperability of forces, Japan’s active role in collective defense, and South Korean rejection of the notion that a new Japanese military build-up signifies remilitarization rather than a realist response to jointly faced threats.
While those security tasks will fall largely to the Department of Defense, the State Department should lead efforts to build trilateral coordination on values. Widening the usual stress on universal values to incorporate history issues and shared values, such as trust in forward-looking mutual accommodation, with appeal to non-allies in the region may be essential. Here too, trilateralism faces the challenge of developing a new form of three-way diplomacy that alleviates value concerns in the U.S.’s two key regional allies. It can build on the more positive attitude toward Japan of Lee after Roh’s outbursts in 2005-07 against the entire process of normalization with Japan and the December 2008 reversal in Japan of summer textbook guidelines that threatened to make the territorial issue with South Korea a continuous thorn in relations. A renewed emphasis in U.S. policy on a wide-ranging mix of values must avoid exacerbating the regional divide over democratization and human rights , which could excessively alienate other regional actors and remains a point of foreign policy divergence among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington even though those values are strongly shared among the three powers and are important elements of alliance triangularity.
The Obama administration and its counterparts in Japan and Korea must also find a way to cool historical passions that have been fueled by neoconservatives in Japan and progressives in South Korea and that impede cohesion on values and trilateral relations more broadly. North Korea’s belligerence may provide just the jolt that is needed for Washington to get Seoul and Tokyo (and itself) to focus attention and pursue moves parallel to those a half century ago in Western Europe for wide-ranging appreciation of shared values as well as common, coordinated approaches to security challenges. This will require U.S. strategic leadership that succeeds in putting values in a context open to multilateralism such as through the peace and security mechanism of the Six-Party Talks without losing sight of security threats.
In the past, concern about South Korean economic problems has produced U.S. efforts to secure economic assistance from Japan or, in 1997, to dissuade Japan from its own regional approach at odds with a shared international strategy. In the current crisis a better approach would be to explore genuine three-way planning. However serious the crisis may be for the two larger economies, South Korea is bound to be more vulnerable due to its greater dependence on exports and narrower range of competitive products.
The Obama administration is likely to, and should, pursue a more disciplined and coordinated regional approach to relations with Japan and South Korea. It is important to avoid repeating the patterns of the George W. Bush administration, when policy toward the region changed repeatedly and dramatically, in part due to shifts in influence and personnel in a divided administration, when policy was overly affected by ideology, in part due to Vice President Cheney’s influence, and when policy, at least in the early years, consisted primarily of fragmented, country-centered approaches. Obama’s administration can, and should, instead pursue an overarching strategy for the region under the guidance of regional policy teams chosen for their prior experience and problem-solving orientation.
The financial team has drawn the earliest attention, and its work inevitably will include a focus on Japan and Korea as, along with China, key collaborators in addressing the global economic crisis. Its agenda, however, will likely be driven by global considerations more than regional specifics. The security team, in contrast, cannot avoid concentrating on the distinct regional problem of North Korea with its multi-sided complications. If the North treats negotiations as an opportunity to receive rewards without showing its hand on nuclear abandonment, then the single serious challenge from Pyongyang will drive U.S. policy toward the region. Responding to threatening moves aimed at arousing tension in the region, U.S. diplomacy will need to mix credible enhancement of alliance military capabilities with reasonable appeals to states suspicious of sanctions and other tough measures.
Success on this front and broader success in the important if less obviously urgent task of strengthening U.S.-Korea and U.S.-Japan alliances and trilateral U.S.-Japan-Korea relations requires U.S. policy to place security and economics in the forefront, and to supplement those agendas with a new, long-range focus on values component. This approach, along with increased attention to triangular ties, is uniquely capable of bolstering the U.S.’s two key alliances in Northeast Asia and constructively engaging and, where necessary, challenging other regional actors .The fact that Hillary Clinton’s first trip abroad as secretary of state was to East Asia sent the right message of U.S. attentiveness. Given the wide range of issues on the U.S. agenda, the State Department is the appropriate place to set the direction for policy, taking a long-term outlook and making a stronger alliance triangle a principal means to realizing U.S. objectives. North Korea seems determined to act quickly to flex its threat potential and strain these alliances. The most immediate challenge is to unify this group of three and appeal to China and Russia in order to manage this North Korean challenge.