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Is America, like Japan, getting 'Korea fatigue'?

Is America, like Japan, getting 'Korea fatigue'?
Published 19 May 2015   Follow @Robert_E_Kelly

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently completed a successful trip to the US. As Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder of CSIS argue, the trip came off about as well as anyone might have expected. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to address Congress and seems to have built a good rapport with President Obama.

The expected, almost ritualised South Korean and Chinese criticisms of Abe's policy pronouncements seem to have left the Obama Administration unmoved. Earlier in the year, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said publicly that Korea's fixation on historical issues was 'frustrating' and produced 'paralysis, not progress.' The Korean response was predictably sharp, but as Karl Friedhoff and Alastair Gale both recently argued, the Koreans are slowly losing this global perceptual struggle with Japan.

What the Japanese call 'Korea fatigue' – exhaustion with South Korea's relentless hammering of war-time issues, particularly its demand for another apology from Japan – is hitting the US, which deeply wants future-oriented cooperation between South Korea and Japan . 

As Sherman and countless Western analysts have noted, the real issue for the US in Asia is, of course, China. While the US is not openly balancing China, the days of US belief in China's 'peaceful rise' seem to be fading. Increasingly, the relationship is becoming competitive, particularly as Beijing's South China Sea expansion continues.

In this climate, a strong US-Japan relationship is critical. Japan is the only Asian state that can really go head-to-head with China (barring India, perhaps). Japan is a unique bulwark against the expansion of Chinese power. It has the world's third-largest GDP and is the lynchpin of America's security structure in Asia. The 'pivot,' America's defence of South Korea, any intervention to assist Taiwan and all other US Asian engagements are premised on the Japanese 'way-station.' Abe emphasised Japan's centrality before Congress, and both the joint Obama-Abe statement from their trip and the new US-Japan Defense Guidelines repeat this. As Friedhoff sharply noted: [fold]

Mr. Abe saved the biggest dig at South Korea for near the end of his speech. In one of his only explicit references to South Korea, he mentioned it as an additional partner to the 'central pillar' of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In doing so, he made it clear that he views South Korea not as an equal—which is how Seoul views the trilateral alliance—but as a junior.

Unsurprisingly, all this causes great heartburn in Korea. As a middle power, it deeply irks Korean elites when the US, Japan and China engage one another over Korea's head. The hyperbole of Korea's response to Sherman illustrates this hankering for status in a region where Seoul is dwarfed by its neighbours. Korea's ruling Saenuri party retorted: 'If the U.S. continues its stance of ignoring victims, its status as the world's policeman won't last long.' No less than American hegemony might be the cost of US uninterest in Korean historical issues! Obviously this is not so; rather the comment illustrates Seoul's fear that the US is simply burned out with this issue.

An important, post-Abe trip editorial in Korea's major center-left paper, The Hankyoreh, admitted this and suggested the previously unthinkable: that South Korea should give up defining its relationship with Japan through the lens of the war. Even the Park Administration seems to realise this. It was always a somewhat implausible hope that Japan would issue a monolithic, thorough-going apology that everyone in Japan would permanently cleave to. Open societies just do not operate like that. To my mind, Korea's concerns with Japan's historical representation, particularly at the Yasukuni Shrine museum and Abe's (somewhat creepy) coalition, are quite justified. But badgering Japan is not the way to encourage contrition. The needed internal reckoning is ultimately something Japan must do for itself and on its own. Outside pressure will only breed a nationalist backlash, as it does in Japan over the war or in China over human rights. 

But South Korea has built its national identity so much around Japan as a competitor, if not enemy, that it is difficult to move on. Victor Cha acutely observed that South Korea teaches a 'negative nationalism' of 'anti-Japanism,' and that most countries would have accepted Japan's two big apologies in the 1990s (the Murayama and Kono Statements) and moved on.

But 'anti-Japanism' is now a form of political correctness in South Korea; public officials dare not bend (particularly on the right, where many are the children and grandchildren of collaborators). Maximalism on Japan, such as the needlessly provocative campaign to re-name the 'Sea of Japan' the 'East Sea', is so common and strident that Japanese elites are all but certain to regard concessions as humiliations before a state and people who loathe them. In the language of international relations theory, anti-Japanism is a part of South Korea's 'ontological security.' The contention is so formative that it is hard to let go.

For this reason, the Hankyoreh editorial flagged above is rare. But even there, one can see the 'enemy image' at work: Abe's trip to the US, which is fairly traditional diplomatic activity that had little to do with Korea, is described as an 'icy blast from Japan.' The US-Japan summit, by two democracies whose assistance in managing the North Korea threat is crucial, is described as a 'shock,' that sent Korea 'reeling.' That South Korean diplomats could somehow not stop the Abe-Obama bonhomie means they are 'inept,' 'silent,' 'cowardly,' and so on. There have even been calls for the foreign minister to resign over the successful Abe summit with Obama.

This zero-sum, if-Japan-is-up-we-must-be-down mentality is deeply ingrained.

I have argued elsewhere why this is so. In short, I believe Korea's national division explains this intense, almost dogmatic 'anti-Japanism.' North and South Korea are in a direct, permanent, enervating legitimacy contest. North Korea has long since been a racist, nationalist, almost fascistic (rather than Marxist) state. Defending the Korean race (the minjok) against foreign predators is its raison d'etre, and in doing so, it routinely damns South Korea as the 'Yankee colony,' selling out the national patrimony and race purity to foreigners. South Korea cannot contest such reactionary nationalist credentials; it is too internationalised and Americanised, complete with a foreign military presence. Nor does South Korea's corrupted, elitist, chaebol-dominated democracy generate enough internal legitimacy to counter Northern minjok fetishism.

So Japan fills in nicely. It is the nationalist whipping boy, generating ontological security for a South Korean state unable to 'out-minjok' its competitor.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

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