A conflict between Japan and South Korea has gotten so intense, with no resolution in sight, that it may be time for the US to step in to insist that its two allies put the past behind them and tend to the more urgent issues of today.
The immediate question is a dispute about sovereignty over rocks in the sea between the two nations called Dokdo by Koreans, Takeshima by Japanese and the Liancourt Rocks by the US and most of the rest of the world.
However, that squabble is only the latest in a complicated history that goes back to Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1905 to 1945. Before that was a political, cultural, economic and military rivalry that began in the sixth century.
Today, this antipathy seems so deep-rooted that no resolution is possible.
Victor Cha, a Korean-American academic who is a leading authority on this issue, wrote recently: “Historical animosity between Korea and Japan will never die. Historical issues are inherently irresolvable.”
Cha, of Georgetown University in Washington, pointed to the “deep reservoir of distrust” on both sides. Temporary solutions have been sought, he said, “but the anger and resentment never go away.”
Cha, who served on the national security staff in the White House in 2004 to 2007, thus concluded: “We have to accept the reality that historical enmity constitutes the baseline of Seoul-Tokyo relations.”
This baseline, in turn, is the weakest link in the US security posture in Asia, a flaw that one day could be fatal if confrontations with North Korea or China erupt into hostilities.
In pursuit of its national interests, the US would appear to have four choices: One, to keep its hands off because a settlement is impossible; two, to muddle through, urging Korean and Japanese leaders to get along; three, to mediate a settlement; or four, to require Japanese and Korean leaders to find a solution as the price of a continued alliance with the US.
Options One and Two are unacceptable because too much is at stake. Option Three would be dangerous because the US would almost certainly be seen as favoring one side or the other and the mediation would most likely fail.
To pursue Option Four, the US should be unquestionably even-handed and be seen by all as even-handed. To compel Korean and Japanese leaders, the US could:
‧ Caution them that the US Congress and public have limited patience with those who bicker over rocks in the water and thus could seriously damage Japanese and Korean interests in the US;
‧ Take the issue to the UN Security Council. The council could do little to force a resolution, but Japan and Korea would be embarrassed internationally. The US would also veto Japan or Korea from taking a rotating seat on the council.
‧ Quietly inform Korean and Japanese leaders that any hint of a military show of force or other confrontation would cause their security treaties with the US to lapse. (The treaties are written to give the US an easy out.)
‧ Disclose that US forces in both nations would no longer conduct joint training with their forces and the question of whether US forces would be available for the defense of South Korea or Japan would be left open.
Complicating any US effort to lean on the Japanese and Koreans would be Americans who have become “Japan hands” or “Korea hands” through long contacts with Koreans or Japanese. Some tend to favor one side or another.