The strategic cost of South Korea’s Japan bashing

South Korea's open hatred of Japan could come back to bite as the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea grows.

Over the weekend, North Korea launched a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles. Even though the North Koreans have yet to actually mount missiles onto the refurbished Soviet era vessel, the Korean People’s Army has carried out dozens of missile tube tests both on land and sea. This is in addition to a number of nuclear tests by Pyongyang over the past few years, and research and development conducted to developing nuclear warheads small enough to fit into submarine-fired ballistic missiles. If North Korea actually develops submarines capable of firing nuclear armed missiles, then this will significantly worsen the already worrying threat to South Korea and Japan, in addition to American military forces in the region.

South Korean strategic thinkers are overwhelmingly preoccupied with their nuclear-armed neighbour, which poses an existential threat to that country. Both countries on the Korean peninsula are still formally at war with troops amassed on both sides of the border. Yet, in the complex and often absurd politics of Northeast Asia, a comment by a senior South Korean official during a workshop I attended in Singapore several weeks ago sums up how incomprehensible nationalist sentiment can be. The official said, “South Korea wouldn’t care how many nuclear weapons China acquires, or even if the North Koreans develop several more (nukes)… as long as Japan does not become nuclear!”

The problem for Seoul is that strategic and political irrationality, even if it is based on deep and genuine historical hurt over Imperial Japanese behaviour, may not be cost free. The big winner of such a dynamic is obviously North Korea, but also China, which takes delight in seeing the constant embarrassment and humiliation of Japan over its Imperial history. The big loser is of course is Japan, and also, to some extent, the US, which has to manage the animosity between its two allies in Northeast Asia.

But Seoul could also suffer by its own hand. It needs a stable relationship with Beijing, but it might also need Japan more than it is prepared to admit. If North Korea does do something truly reckless, prioritising the popular politics of bashing Japan over its strategic interests is not a smart move.

Why does South Korea hate Japan yet appear indifferent towards China even though the latter periodically forced Korea to become a vassal state for hundreds of years? One major reason is that modern Korean nationalism was forged during the era of Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula in the previous century. Another, is that South Koreans accuse the Japanese government and people of being insufficiently sorry for wartime actions such as forcing and/or trapping Korean citizens into becoming ‘comfort women’ for Japanese troops. For these and other reasons, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has conferred with Chinese President Xi Jinping five times since 2013, most recently during a June 2014 summit in Beijing. But President Park has refused several invitations to meet one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Whether South Koreans have a legitimate contemporary grievance against Japan, or whether they should move on from events that occurred at least six decades ago, as populations and governments in countries that also suffered greatly as a result of Japanese imperialism have done (such as in Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore), is a debate for another time. But, the depth of popular enmity from South Koreans toward Japan, and the South Korean government’s willingness to exploit this hatred for political gain, should not be underplayed.

Such sentiment is demonstrated by a farcical event in December 2013, when South Korean peacekeeping forces in Sudan faced an imminent threat and issued a desperate call for more ammunition. Given that Japan’s military was the only other entity on the ground with the same caliber ammunition, Tokyo promptly authorised its Self-Defense Forces to hand over ten thousand bullets to the Koreans. But the ensuing public uproar in South Korea forced the return of the bullets, suggesting that the popular antipathy toward Japan is more powerful than the desire to ensure that one’s own troops are adequately armed.

There is no doubt that the emergence of Japan’s Shinzo Abe as a leader seeking to expand Japan’s strategic ambition and reach has stirred South Korean emotions. Surveys and polls indicate that the population in South Korea is more concerned about imagined Japanese re-militarisation than they are with the military threat presented by a nuclear-armed North Korea. Likewise, Japan under Prime Minister Abe is seen as more worrying than China under President Xi Jinping, despite Beijing’s rapid militarisation or the fact that China protects, supplies, and sustains North Korea’s regime and its military. Regarding China, one must remember that while Japan’s defence budget has been stagnant for all but two of the last ten years, and even then only rose 0.8 percent in 2013, with a projected rise of 2.4 percent in 2014, China’s has been increasing at double-digit rates for two decades, and its 2014 military budget is now three times the size of Japan’s.

Bashing Japan might temporarily appease historical hurt and make for good politics but it leaves Seoul open for exploitation by Beijing. China has consistently attempted to drive a wedge between the two American allies, not least because the more animosity there is between Seoul and Tokyo, the more difficult it becomes for Washington to come up with an eloquent and seamless collective strategy with its allies in Asia.

One incident demonstrates Beijing’s cunning on this issue. In January 2014, China made a play to stroke South Korean nationalism in this context by opening a museum in Harbin, a provincial capital in Northeast China, to honour Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun. In 1909, Ahn assassinated visiting Japanese statesman Ito Hirobumi in Harbin and was subsequently captured and executed by the Imperial Japanese government. The idea for the museum was an embellishment of a more modest suggestion, made by President Park during a summit with President Xi in mid-2013, that China build a plaque to commemorate Ahn. While Japan considers Ahn a criminal, South Korea sees him as a national hero from history. Taking the unusual step of honouring a foreign hero in its territory, China now also gleefully considers Ahn a hero, even if it was not President Park’s intention to visually formalise and entrench the South Korea-Japan rift on Chinese soil.

Such populist politics do not serve South Korea’s strategic interests. Take the example of Seoul eagerly joining with Beijing to condemn Tokyo’s reinterpretation of its Constitution to allow “collective self-defense” -- a fancy term for coming to the aid of Japan’s allies if the country’s interests are at stake. If large numbers of the North Korean army -- numbering some 1.2 million in total -- were to invade South Korea, American forces would need a very large number of military personnel and assets to repel Pyongyang’s troops. For this to occur, America would almost certainly need to use Japanese military bases. Without Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation, this would be illegal.

Moreover, Japanese Prime Minister Abe is insistent that Washington still needs Tokyo’s explicit acquiescence if the American military is to use troops stationed at Japanese bases for defending another country under the terms of the US-Japan security agreement. This means that Seoul can’t afford for its political spat with Tokyo to deteriorate further when it needs the agreement of Japan in countering what is persistently the greatest strategic and military threat to its country.

More broadly, and despite South Korea’s relatively benign view of China, the reality is that both North Korea and China seek to dilute the effectiveness of the America-led alliance system in the region, figuring correctly that such a system is designed to keep them in check.

Due to what both countries bring to the table as a combined and stand-alone force, the centrepiece of that security system is the US-Japan alliance. Despite its so-called “pacifist” Constitution, the Japanese navy and air force are still more than a match for China’s. This means that Japan is the only Asian power that can make a contribution to the American-led security system powerful enough to shape the regional balance in such a system.

If the alliance system is to endure and adapt vis-à-vis China’s relative erosion of American strategic and military pre-eminence, key regional allies will have to take up more of the security burden from America than they have in the past. The bottom line is that a permanently impotent and penitent Japan is ill-suited to South Korea’s strategic interests, even if such a Japan is popular among South Koreans.

Finally, Northeast Asia is the epicentre of the so-called Asian Century -- a term this and other authors have decried has having little analytical or even descriptive value. Whatever we want to call this century, the turmoil and hatreds we are seeing in Northeast Asia are, if anything, getting worse.

For those who wish that Australia and the region should transcend American power and accept the inevitability, if not desirability, of Chinese pre-eminence, the next sentence will certainly annoy. But it seems we need American power in our region more than ever. 

Dr. John Lee is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, and a Director of the Kokoda Foundation defence and security think-tank in Canberra.   

Related Articles