So everyone knows that South Korea and Japan are having another spat – this time over compensation of Korean forced labor during the Imperial period. Korean courts have opened the door for lawsuits, while Japan continues to insist that all such claims were resolved at the time of normalization treaty. Korean officials I’ve talked with tell me that there is nothing the government can do. This is coming from the courts. I find that highly unlikely given the extreme presidentialization of the South Korean constitutional order and regular POTROK flouting of checks-and-balances.
But my concern here is that the South Korean push on Japan on yet another issue will not lead to pushback. Trump doesn’t care about this stuff. He’s racist, dislikes allies, and gets most animated when telling them to pay more. SK conservatives, who have traditionally slowed the march to a precipice with Japan, are out of power. And Abe is burned out on this issue (‘Korea fatigue’).
So if the South Korean left genuinely wants a breach with Japan, and a slide into a cold war over Dokdo/Takeshima, Sea of Japan/East Sea, comfort women, labor reparations, and so on, then they’ll get it this time. This is very worrisome, but also a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time.
This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this month. The TNI editors gave it the very helpful title, “The True Danger of the North Korea Crisis: It Could Cost American Its Allies.” That is exactly right. If the US strikes North Korea without getting the consent of South Korea and Japan, they will exit the alliance. Why stay when your ally jeopardizes potentially millions of your citizens and doesn’t even get your permission? And this would have a huge demonstration effect on other US allies too. Now you know that Trump thinks you’re expendable. Why would you stay?
So to me, that is the big question going forward: Will Trump even bother to call the South Koreans and Japanese before he strikes? He couldn’t be bothered to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, and presidenting is pretty hard. So hey, why bother? Fox and Friends is on…
The text in the picture is Chinese and reads: “Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president.”
That Trump has sympathizers out here makes sense – even though he bashes the region all the time – because he obviously got a lot of his political ideas from East Asia: Mercantilism, race nationalism, hostility to immigration, huge distrust of Islam, oligopolistic mega-corporations dominated by interlocking family and crony networks, soft authoritarianism, manipulating the state to benefit politically-connected insiders, golf – that’s Trumpism. But it’s also the de facto governing ideology of contemporary Sinic-Confucian East Asia.
What just amazes me is that Trump simultaneously has a 35-year history attacking the East Asian (mostly Japanese) nationalist-developmentalist model while pretty much proposing to bring it to the United States now if he gets elected. Trump is basically acting like what he thinks Japanese businessmen acted like in 1985 – just with an extra thick layer of idiocy and know-nothingness on top . Why does no one else see this? So if you are Japanese, maybe you can be proud in a weird way (lol): Trump thinks he’s you, just turning the tables.
This is the English-language original of an op-ed I published in this week’s Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about what if any impact the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea, and China’s full-throated objection to it, will have on Japan. Three things come to mind:
1. Given the size of Japan’s economy, Japan is more absolutely dependent on SCS freedom of navigation than anyone else. Its straight-up dollar interest in FON down there is huge. It is hard to imagine Japan not getting pulled in just by the criterion alone.
2. China need not start a war or do anything very dramatic to cause genuine trouble for Japan in the SCS. It only needs to stop a few transiting ships for a few days for ‘health inspections’ or ‘environmental concerns.’ Or its fishermen or coast guard could ram or block ships. Once the pressure of an incident rose, China would release the ships, saying that they were now in compliance with some bogus regulation. This would send a clear signal that China has its boot on Japan’s windpipe but in a very oblique way that would make responding to China very hard. The Chinese have proven themselves adept at this sort of salami slicing. Future one- or two-day stoppages for specious health or traffic safety reasons would constantly be hanging out there as a potential threat. At the very least, it would drive up the cost of shipping and insurance.
2. The US is probably not going to fight a major conflict with a near-superpower just over shipping lanes. Were Japan directly attacked, sure, the US would intervene. But the Chinese aren’t stupid. They learned from the massive counter-balancing the Soviets incurred when they tried to bully everyone during the Cold War. The Chinese are much more oblique and crafty, and they’ll work hard to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US. This too will likely force Japan to get more involved.
The following is an op-ed I published in last week’s Newsweek Japan, where I write once a month. My editor asked me to write about how the comfort women deal of last year is getting on, and I have to say that I am surprised just how little we even hear about it anymore. For an issue that the Korean media often treated as central to South Korean identity, it seems to have inexplicably dropped out of the newspapers (which, I strongly suspect, displays how much the Korean government ‘directs’ the media here.)
So the main argument I make advances the one I made a few months ago: that if the Korean left does not fight back against the deal, then the deal achieves a level of national consensus it did not have initially when it was clinched in secret by a conservative government. And now that the left has surprisingly taken the majority in the parliament, this is the first and most important acid test for the deal. If the left doesn’t use its newfound power to go after the deal, then they are tacitly approving it.
Of course, no one in Korea will proactively say that they support the deal, but not acting is a way acting too. If the left, which has done so much to create this issue, does not re-politicize it, then that basically mean a broad, however unspoken, left-right consensus has emerged to take the deal and let the issue slowly disappear. The activist groups and leftist intellectuals, many of whom seem to have built their careers around the comfort women, will never give up. But without political representation, they are just one more voice in South Korea’s cacophonous civil society.
I have to say that I am really surprised that events are running this way. Just about every Korean I know gets really indignant and emotional at the mention of this issue. Yet the political class has dropped like a hot potato. So all these years of sturm und drang are over, just like that? Really? Still not sure why this has happened – American pressure? it was all just an act? everyone is truly terrified of NK and wants Japanese solidarity?
I did not engage the issue much of whether Obama should apologize, which also part of the reason why he won’t. It is not really clear that the bomb-drop was a war-crime deserving of an apology. That is different than pointing out that the bomb-drop may not have actually ended the war as American mythology insists it does. It probably did not actually convince the Japanese to quit. It was the Soviet entry into the war that finally pushed the cabinet to give in. But that does not mean that the bombing was unjustified, because US policy-makers obviously did not know that at the time. So be sure to distinguish between 1) did the bomb cause Japan to give up? (probably not; it was Stalin); 2) was the bomb drop immoral? (probably not, as the war was still going on and there was good reason to believe a shock weapon like this this might finally convince the junta to give up).
There are two good movie versions of all this too: Japan’s Longest Day(which is scarcely known in the West), and Hiroshima. My full Lowy essay follows the jump.