The United States, Japan, and South Korea. There was never any question of the latter two being key Asian allies of the superpower. But for the US to have to choose between Tokyo and Seoul sounds unthinkable. The US is synonymous with invincibility, indestructibility. And then again, there was 9/11.
Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) are the fourth and sixth biggest trade partners of the United States, with each country having over $100 billion in two-way trade. They also have the most number of US military bases, with the biggest, Camp Humphreys located in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, near the DMV (demilitarized zone) that separates North from South Korea.
The most recent threat to security comes from North Korea, where its despotic ruler Kim Jong-un has launched ballistic missiles in numerous tests and stoked global fear and outrage with his provocative statements. President Trump is no better, giving a measure for measure in their word war.
But with the political changes, the dynamics of the alliance ties have shifted in varying degrees. The ROK government, once a staunch US supporter, has a new president with liberal views. Moon Jae-in, taking over from the ousted Park Geun-Hye, reached out to its communist half to engage in talks rather than warfare. Thus far, Kim has responded surprisingly cordially, and a North-South summit is on the calendar. Moon has also convinced the warring Kim and Trump to meet in a three-way summit and, although both have given their nods, what happens next is as unpredictable as a fickle lady’s mind.
Moon’s approach to North Korea, in direct contrast to Trump’s rants, sends a message to the US that the ROK is no longer its underling. By being so, it is pulling away from its longtime keeper. It’s complicated though. Both countries stand to lose a lot in economics and politics. The trade deal renegotiation is underway, and some terms have been agreed upon in principle. The cost of maintaining the THAAD system is another thorn in the US-ROK ties, as is the presence of US military troops in South Korea. The troops were once held in high esteem by the South Koreans, its very presence a symbol of their security blanket, warding off an attack from the North.
On June 25, 2014, that admiration sank when South Koreans learned how the ROK government exploited their own women during the American occupation through the Korean War. Former Korean prostitutes, now old, impoverished and scorned by society, filed a lawsuit claiming that they were “actively encouraged” into prostitution by the South Korean officials who even praised them for being patriots to their motherland, and taught them etiquette and the English language. Documents proved that former president Park Chung-hee dictated the government’s actions to promote prostitution exclusively for the US military and confined to the camp towns, as the surrounding villages were called. The US military doctors conducted regular checkups on the Korean comfort women to avoid spreading sexually transmitted diseases, and accounts from soldiers who had been posted in the ROK substantiated the women’s claim.
On February 8, 2018, Seoul High Court ruled in favor of the women and ordered the government to pay them seven million wons each. The US government has kept mum on the subject including the fact ROK government had been highly involved with prostitution, and so has most of the Western media.
Japan’s role in Asian security matters is significant, while its relations with South Korea remain sensitive over the past. But, Japanese media do not suffer from a perception of threat from North Korea. Its alliance with the United States is driven more by its territorial dispute with China rather than the North Korean issue. The Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to China) dispute of ownership is escalating, with neither side budging. China has been quite aggressive, ramming a Japanese fishing vessel, sending a sub to the area, and performing military exercises in the South China Sea and Western Pacific. The United States Navy has also assigned two fleets to the Western Pacific.
Meanwhile, the US wants a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan, but Tokyo is prioritizing the completion of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump pulled out of.
South Korea’s leanings towards China as a trade partner and North Korea for reunification and to avert an attack is a step in the direction of forging warmer Asian ties but without relinquishing its alliance with the US. America under Trump and future leaders may be rethinking their own strategies as well.