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Japan-South Korea-US Trilateral – Breaking Ice in East Asia?

The third Nuclear Security Summit that concluded at The Hague on 25 March may have achieved its purpose of strengthening nuclear security, reducing the continuing threat of nuclear terrorism and assessing the progress made since the Washington summit in 2010. But what emerged as the most remarkable achievement from the Northeast Asia’s security point of view was President Barack Obama succeeded in brokering peace between America’s two most important allies in East Asia – Japan and South Korea. In terms of significance of this trilateral meeting between Obama, Shinzo Abe of Japan and Park Geun-hye of South Korea – the joint statement by Obama and Abe on contributions to global minimization of nuclear materials is pushed to the second place.

It was indeed a herculean task for Obama to bring together the estranged leaders of Japan and South Korea for a peacemaking session at The Hague. For the past few months, the US has been engaged in intense behind-the-scene diplomacy to patch up the deteriorating relations between its two Asian allies. The US was worried that even when ties between its two most important allies in northeast Asia were deteriorating, ties between China and South Korea were warming up. The ties between Japan and South Korea had deteriorated to such an extent that both Abe and Park seemed not to be even on speaking terms.

What are the reasons behind this? The feud is quite complex, rooted in World War II history as well as the conservative and nationalist political leanings of both the leaders. China seems to be taking advantage of the situation and strengthening its ties with South Korea. Obama on his part is worried that China would use the opportunity and can have a freer hand in the East China Sea. If both Japan and South Korea continue to remain divided, it will be more difficult for Obama to deal with North Korea’s nuclear issue.

During the trilateral meet, it was Abe who made the first move in greeting Park by saying “President Park, I am glad to meet you”. The anti-Japanese sentiment is so strong in South Korea that the Korean media reported Park was unimpressed by Abe’s gesture and that she replied by staring ahead “stony-faced”. But as matured leaders, the three preferred not to touch wartime history and island issue but discussed the North Korean issue on which the three could easily agree. There is consensus among the three for the need to cooperate in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear programs. The issues related to Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula and sovereignty over a pair of South Korean controlled islets in the Sea of Japan (called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan) have remained the main bone of contentions between the two countries.

This trilateral meeting marked the first formal talks between the leaders of Japan and Korea since the two leaders took office, Abe in December 2012 and Park in February 2013. The two leaders had only exchanged pleasantries on the sidelines of previous international events. The two countries have not held a formal one-on-one summit between their leaders for the past 22 months since May 2012 when former President Lee Myung-bak met then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

President Obama is scheduled to visit both Japan and South Korea in April and he was keen to resolve this neighbourhood quarrel before that. A neutral ground was found appropriate to take the initiative. Though Abe was keen to have a summit meeting with Park as soon as possible, South Korea was irked by Abe’s nationalistic posturing and stance on Japan’s sincere apologies for past atrocities and visit to Yasukuni Shrine on 26 December 2013, a memorial to the Japanese war dead, much against the advice of US Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Meeting of Vice Ministers Undeterred and being prodded by the US, Abe dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki to Seoul for talk with his counterpart Cho Tae-yong in the second week of March to clarify Japan’s position on the history issue. This was the first contact between senior officials from the two countries in eight months. Tokyo had hoped that Abe and Park could hold their first one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague but the Korean media reported that the purpose of Saiki’s visit was to propose a trilateral summit between Abe, Park and Obama. Saiki clarified that both countries “share basic values” and the Abe administration intends to “uphold the historical views” of previous Japanese governments.

In 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement in which he admitted that Japanese Imperial Army was involved, directly or indirectly, in wartime atrocities and in the sexual enslavement of Asian women for troops, and that coercion was used. Later Japanese administrations generally upheld the statement, but the Abe administration has voiced its intention to revise it. Even when Saiki was in Seoul, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga chose a press conference to claim that there was “no coercion” in the mobilization of sex slaves, slamming the doors on any imminent summit with Seoul. Suga said there was “no evidence” that the Japanese military had been involved in the mobilization of sex slaves. Such contradictory statements led Saiki to abruptly cut short his trip and rush back home.

While Abe was trying to convince Park about the importance of a summit, Park was using Saiki’s visit to gauge Tokyo’s commitment to a campaign of resurgent chauvinism and denial of its past atrocities.[1] When Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se lambasted at the UN Japan’s attempts to whitewash its World War II atrocities, Suga in a partial climb down announced that Abe administration does not intend to revise a 1993 statement by his predecessor Yohei Kono admitting imperial Japan’s wartime atrocities. Seoul insists that there can be no radical improvement in bilateral relations unless Japan truly repents its past atrocities.

The Park administration believes it is impossible to sit face to face with Abe as long as his government downplays Japanese wartime guilt. Abe tried several times since last year to arrange a summit with Park whilst keeping up a barrage of revisionist rhetoric at home. Even when low-ranking officials met to discuss a possible summit at the Davos Forum in January, the plans were immediately dropped when Abe decided to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013.

Role of Media and history issue

Earlier, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun in an editorial had criticised Park’s diplomatic policies. The daily observed that China and South Korea are becoming rapidly closer, “indicating that both are set to strengthen ties through their mutually shared anti-Japan sentiment” [2] , amid uncertainties over North Korea. The daily condemned Park for blaming Japan for the failure to maintain security cooperation between the two countries in a meeting with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. The editorial observed: “It is highly questionable for a country’s leader to criticise Japan during a meeting with a senior official from a third country ….It is hard to accept her self-centered opinion”.[3] The Korean media highlighted the editorial in a major way.[4]

Visit to Yasukuni Shrine

On his side, Abe cannot also be without fault. At this point of time when so much of suspicions that have bedevilled ties between Japan with China and Japan and South Korea, there was no need for Abe to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on the first anniversary of his government on 26 December 2013. This single incident plunged Japan’s ties with Seoul into a deep freeze.[5] Did he not assume that the visit would lead to deterioration of Japan’s relations with China and South Korea? Probably he knew and was prepared to handle the reactions from Beijing and Seoul. But Abe apparently did not imagine that the visit would invite “disappointment” from the US government. [6]

Even when Obama was trying to make efforts to mediate between Japan and South Korea, China took advantage of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in promoting aggressively an anti-Japan public relations campaign around the world, with a view to driving wedges between Tokyo and Washington and Tokyo and Seoul, making Obama’s position more difficult.[7] Given the tough position adopted by Park on the history issue, the ground was well laid for China-South Korea ties to improve as both found common ground against Japan. According to a survey made by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 74.5 per cent said Seoul should cooperate with Beijing in pressuring Japan on history issues.[8] The report observed: “A shared grievance over Japan’s perceived whitewashing of history and territorial disputes has created a large swath of common ground between South Korea and China”. [9]

Abe’s explanation that his visit to the Tokyo shrine honouring the war dead – more than 2.4 million, including the 14 Class-A war criminals – was meant to be a way of pledging that Japan “must never wage war again” based on “severe remorse for the past” did not assuage the hurt feelings of Koreans and Chinese. Abe said he did not go to pay homage to Class-A war criminals or to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people. Both South Korea and China regard Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese militarism and refuse to accept Abe’s stated intention.

Comfort women issue

South Korea’s deepest grievance is the issue of “comfort women”, the euphemism for sex slaves, thousands of girls and women who were abducted or lured by Japanese military to work in prostitution camps during World War II. Things seemed to have settled following the Kono statement but when there were indications that Japan was going to review the statement, it caused outrage in Seoul and Beijing. Then Abe had to take the conciliatory tone in telling the Japanese Diet that there is no plan in his government either to alter or retract the statement but the damage was already done. South Korea earmarked a 4.58 billion won ($4.23 million) budget in 2014, an increase from the previous year’s allocation of 2 billion won, for programs and events to raise global awareness about the comfort women issue. From his side, Abe is of the view that the door for dialogue is always open but Park shunned a summit with Abe, demanding that Japan must first take steps to resolve long-running grievances over its colonial-era actions, including the comfort women issue. It transpires that Park’s strong persistence on this issue is proving the biggest obstacle to bilateral summit talks with Abe. Therefore, when she agreed for the trilateral meeting initiated by Obama at The Hague, she discussed only security issues such as North Korea’s nuclear development program.

Why is Park insistent on resolving the comfort women issue and keeps it as a precondition to a summit talk with Abe? She sticks to the issue because of a decision handed down by the South Korean Constitutional Court in August 2011. The court had ruled that it is unconstitutional for the South Korean government to make no tangible effort to resolve the dispute with Japan over the comfort women issue in terms of the former comfort women’s rights to demand compensation.[10] The initial move by the Abe administration to examine the process behind the creation of the 1993 “Kono statement”, a document considered an official apology by Japan on the issue, further hardened Parks resolve, forcing Abe subsequently to make the statement in the Diet that his administration does not have any such intention. Taking advantage of the situation, China joined hands with South Korea to push Japan to the corner. These create headache for Obama as deteriorating of ties between two of US allies would complicate and make the situation more precarious than now.

US Role

Even there was disapproval in Washington as the Obama administration knew that inflamed sentiment, if not controlled, can trigger into bigger problems and China will be emboldened to take advantage of the fissures in Japan-South Korea ties, a situation that Washington would not rejoice. In rebalancing US foreign policy to the Asia Pacific region, Obama first planned to make a trip to the region in October 2013 but cancelled due to government shutdown. Then he rescheduled his trip to late April 2014. First he had planned to visit Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. This made sense. While Japan is Washington’s biggest ally in the region, the Philippines needed help as it was clobbered by Typhoon Haiyan and reassurance in the face of Chinese pressure over territorial disputes, and Malaysia was emerging as a major trade and potential diplomatic partner. Excluding China from the list was not a big problem as Obama had already a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the summer of 2013 in California and again would travel for another regional meet later in 2014.

Excluding South Korea from the itinerary made no sense. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Michael Green, Richard Armitage and Victor Cha observed that “visiting key treaty allies Tokyo and Manila, while skipping another key ally, South Korea, on Obama’s first trip to Asia of his second term would be an embarrassment” for Park, particularly given how prickly relations are between Tokyo and Seoul. If anything, North Korean threats and Chinese muscle-flexing should put a premium on Obama ensuring that our two democratic allies in North Asia not work against each other.” These three important persons did not recommend Obama “try to arbitrate the complex historical problems between Japan and South Korea”, but remarked the “trip is the ideal opportunity to keep the leadership in Tokyo and Seoul focused” on what Washington can and must do together in the future with its allies.[11] So, after much internal debate, the White House added Seoul to the itinerary.

As said, the relationship between Japan and South Korea has suffered due to historical issues and territorial disputes. China and South Korea have common complaint against Japan on such issues. More recently, South Koreans succeeded in having the Virginia State Assembly approve a bill requiring public school textbooks in the state refer to the Sea of Japan also as the East Sea, the name the South Korean government insists be used.[12]

Even though Obama succeeded in having the trilateral meeting at The Hague, he will find it hard to ease the disputes between the two allies. “Its expression of disappointment over Abe’s visit to the shrine does not seem likely to stop the right-wing Japanese politician from taking more actions to anger its neighbors, which were victims of Japanese militarism during WWII.” [13]

Obama is also seized of the territorial disputes between Japan and China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in China) Islands in the East China Sea. Tensions between Japan and China have risen since the Japanese government nationalised the islands in late 2012. While Washington is treaty bound to defend its ally Japan, should a conflict breaks out between Japan and China, it is working at the same time to build a constructive relationship with China. Washington may take comfort with the fact that it has an ever intertwined economic and trade relationship with Beijing and also cooperated on key issues, such as climate change and the nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea but these do not guarantee that its mediation between Japan and China shall be effective.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that there is no sign of downscaling in Abe’s nationalist agenda as he does not deviate from his “creed” over the country’s strategic interests even if it means disregarding the advice from members of his inner circle, who prefer to see strategic benefits in strengthening the country’s security ties with the US.

On 12 February 2014, Abe delivered a keynote address at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was applauded for the success of his Abenomics. Subsequently, he remarked at a press conference in Japanese that the year 2014 marked the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. Moderating a discussion between Abe and a group of international journalists, Gideon Rachman asked Abe whether a war between Japan and China was “conceivable”. While Abe did not take the chance to say that any such conflict was out of the question, he explicitly compared the tensions between Japan and China now to the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years before the World War I, despite their mutual economic interdependence, and that each had been the biggest trading partner of the other. Abe remarked that Japan and China are now in “similar situation”. He explained that though Britain and Germany had strong trading relationship in 1914 like Japan and China have at present, this did not prevent strategic tensions leading to the outbreak of conflict. Therefore, he would regard any “inadvertent” conflict as a disaster and repeated his [14] call for the opening of a military-to-military communication between Japan and China. Abe’s remarks drew criticism from the press bureau chief of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and surprise from European and American members of the press.

Does it imply that Abe is preparing for a military confrontation with China as he views that a major source of instability in the Pacific region is the steady increase in Chinese military spending, which is increasing by 10 per cent every year? There is no dispute on Abe’s assertion of such a view on China and the rest of Asia would agree with him. But in furthering his nationalistic agenda, if a military clash really takes place, the entire Asia will suffer. As the leader of the third largest economy in the world, Abe would be expected to exercise caution and should spare no effort to prevent a military showdown with China. As the prime minister of a sovereign state, Abe should be expected to keep room for accommodating other perspectives in pursuing his nationalistic agenda of foreign policy.


Notwithstanding the acrimony and suspicions towards each other, it is desirable for both Park and Abe to be flexible and adopt a spirit of tolerance and accommodation. Addressing the bigger challenges – that of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program – should be the priority rather than wasting time on digging the past. After all bilateral ties between the two Asian neighbours have never been so confrontational since end of World War II. It may be recalled that in 1998, then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi issued a joint declaration called “A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership Toward the 21st Century”.[15] Obuchi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the historical fact that Japan, through its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, imposed great damage and pain on the South Korean people. Kim appreciated Obuchi’s apology and stressed the importance of mutual efforts to build future-oriented relations by overcoming their unfortunate shared history. [16]

This joint statement opened the doors for South Korea to Japanese cultural products such as books, television shows, movies and popular songs that had been banned earlier. This also led both the countries to co-sponsor the 2002 World Cup soccer games. Public sentiment towards each other soared as a result. In an editorial, The New York Times noted the result of an opinion taken in early March 2014 in South Korea that as much as 75 per cent respondents want ties with Japan should be improved. The editorial wished if the Kim-Obuchi spirit can be rekindled by Abe and Kim again. [17]

With the Obama-brokered trilateral meeting being materialised in a neutral venue, does it mean it will pave the way for a bilateral summit between Abe and Park soon? At the hindsight though the trilateral was welcome, notwithstanding Obama’s assertion that “the ties between our peoples run deep” and that Washington’s commitment to the security of both Japan and South Korea remains “unwavering”, it is only a small step towards warmer relations between Washington’s two Asian allies. Though the North Korean issue will facilitate both the countries to speak in the common voice, no breakthrough in their strained relations is likely unless there is a changed perception in Korea about Abe’s perceived nationalist image. But given the unpredictable behaviour of the North Korean leadership, it is the mutual interests of both Japan and South Korea to forge closer ties to deal with regional problems in cooperation with the US, their common security ally. It is to be seen if this initiative will pave the way for Abe and Park to establish “a multi-layered relationship in a future-oriented manner” between Japan and South Korea.

Possible scenarios

One positive outcome of the trilateral meeting has been the agreement reached by both Japan and South Korea to hold talks between their foreign ministries at the director-general level, with an aim to improve strained bilateral relations. The topics that are to be taken up for discussion are yet to be agreed upon. Park would like the issue of comfort women exclusively to be taken up for discussion. Abe would like to place a wide range of issues on the table, including the territorial dispute over a group of islets and damage compensation litigation filed against Japanese firms that forced Koreans to work for them during World War II. The Korean side wants this talk to take place in mid-April. If the Korean side takes up the comfort women issue exclusively and demands compensation for individual Koreans, it is unclear if the Japanese side will change its earlier stance that the issue was resolved completely and finally with the agreement on property claims and economic cooperation that was reached in 1965. A senior official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry seemed to have observed that “it is not possible for the government to accept legal responsibility for the issue or provide government funds for relevant persons”.

It seems likely that either side will concede or retract from their stated positions. In that case, both can return to business as usual and continue the blame game. This would mean that the trilateral at The Hague was a one-off event to save the face of Obama. The other scenario could be that South Korea changes track and adopts a positive approach by agreeing to the Japanese proposal by strictly separating historical, security (North Korea), economic and political issues. The third scenario could be if Seoul prefers to remain rigid, Tokyo can too adopt an attitude of indifference and continue pursuing its nationalist agenda such as revising the peace Constitution, and turning the Self-Defense Forces into a regular Army. A fourth scenario could be Seoul would adopt additional measures to strengthen ties with Beijing and Beijing will be too willing to cooperate to settle its score with Japan over its own territorial disputes. Even at The Hague when Park met Chinese President Xi Jinping two days before the trilateral meet, both expressed common stance against Japan over territorial perspectives. They reportedly agreed that the recent opening of a memorial hall in Harbin, northeast China, honouring Korean independence hero Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated the first resident-general of Japan-controlled Korea, Hirobumi Ito, in 1909 (Japanese call him a terrorist), has helped strengthen unity between the two countries. In such a situation, when South Korea’s relations with China would be strengthened, Japan’s relations with China would nosedive further.

If China is really itching for a military clash with Japan, as seems likely, Abe will go all hog to prepare to face the Chinese challenge. That would mean drawing the US into the military conflict because of ally obligations and security commitments. Will South Korea listen to the US as an ally and remain neutral and not support China is another unknown scenario. What happens if North Korea takes advantage of this messy situation and drops a nuclear bomb or launches missile attack onto the Japanese territories to please its elder brother China? These possibilities make the region a volatile one and a veritable flashpoint with unpredictable consequences. One only hopes that better sense prevails in the leaderships in Japan and South Korea and they coordinate respective policies so that a possible untoward incident is averted. (The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda, is The Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail: —- [1] “Korean, Japanese Vice Foreign Ministers to Meet in Seoul”,, 11 March 2014, [2] The Yomiuri Shimbun, editorial, 5 January 2014. [3]Ibid [4] “Japanese Paper Slams Park’s reluctance to work with Tokyo”, 6 January 2014, [5] Mark Landler, “Obama aims to bring Asian allies together”, The New York Times, 26 March 2014. [6] Takamitsu Sawa, “Yamatoism is coming back”, The Japan Times, 26 March 2014. [7]Ko Hirano, “U.S. Urges pragmatic rapprochement”, The Japan Times, 19 February 2014. [8]“Japan-Korea Relations in 2014”, [9] Ibid. [10] “Comfort women issue remains on top for Park”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 28 March 2014. [11]Richard Armitage, Victor Cha and Michael Green, “Obama should add Seoul to his Asia itinerary, The Washington Post, 31 January 2014, [12] “Obama to visit four Asian countries”, The China Daily, 13 February 2014, [13]Ibid. [14]Gideon Rachman, “Davos leaders: Shinzo Abe on WWII parallels, economics and women at work”, 22 January 2014, [15]“Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration: A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership Towards the Twenty-first Century”, 8 October 1998, [16] “Highlights of Kim-Obuchi declaration”, The Japan Times, 8 October 1998. [17] “Breaking the Ice in East Asia”, The New York Time, editorial, 28 March 2014.

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