Observations of an expat: Enemy of my enemy

The well-worn phrase “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has ancient roots.  It dates back 7,000 years to the Sanskrit literature of India’s Vedas. The Romans and the Koran adapted it to their political needs.

In Modern times it has been repeatedly applied. Possibly the most famous examples are Churchill and Stalin, and Mao and Nixon.

This weekend President Joe Biden will use the well-worn diplomatic axiom to try and persuade the leaders of South Korea and Japan that they should bury deep-rooted historical animosities to unite against the common enemies China, North Korea and Russia.

All three leaders will gather at Camp David on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are expected to issue a communique agreeing to closer economic ties, intelligence sharing, a Tokyo-Seoul-Washington crisis hotline, a first ever joint statement of principles and trilateral military exercises.

What they will NOT do is agree to a formal treaty. Neither will Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida formally apologise for Japanese atrocities committed before and during World War two.

There are lots of good and obvious reasons for Japan and South Korea to be friends. Both of them are threatened by China and North Korea and, to a lesser extent Russia. From the US point of view there are 85,000 American troops costing an estimated $15 billion. Washington desperately wants Seoul and Tokyo to shoulder more of the burden.

The South Koreans and Japanese have the means to assume a bigger role but until recently have lacked the will. Japan is the world’s third largest economy and fourth largest military establishment. Fast-growing South Korea is not far behind, ranking 13th in the world GDP list and sixth on the size of its defense establishment.

Only 120 miles across the Sea of Japan separates the two countries, but only four percent of South Korea’s trade is with Japan. Its biggest trading partner is with North Korea’s protector China.

All the above explains why South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol has taken the initiative to mend broken fences with Tokyo. He recently invited Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to visit Seoul and on the 78th anniversary of Korean independence from Japan he described his country’s former colonial masters as “partners.”

However, Yoon’s pro-Japanese diplomacy has not gone down well with South Korean voters. A recent poll showed that 60 percent still distrust Japan and oppose closer relations.

There are reasons. In 1910 Japan invaded and annexed the Korean Peninsula. By the 1930s half the country’s agricultural land was owned by Japanese landlords and Japanese merchants controlled the country’s markets.

When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, Korea became the main thoroughfare for attacking Japanese troops. But the real problems started after Pearl Harbour. During World War Two an estimated two million Koreans were transported to Japan to work as slave labourers in Japanese factories. An estimated four million remained in Korea to work as slaves in mines and factories.

Perhaps the most emotive atrocity was the Japanese “recruitment” of the euphemistically named “comfort women”. They were, quite simply prostitutes. Up to 500,000 Korean women were forced into prostitution to satisfy the sexual needs of the Japanese army.

The Japanese have never apologised for these atrocities. In fact, many leading members of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party have complained that the South Koreans should be grateful for the roads, railways and factories that Japan built in Korea.

Kishida made a half-hearted attempt at an apology during his recent visit when he expressed “sympathy” for Korea’s “painful past.” His comment was attacked by parliamentary colleagues and dismissed by many South Koreans as a useless sop.

Kishida’s lack of support explains why most of the diplomatic running is being done by Presidents Yoon and Biden. Yoon is seriously worried about North Korea and China and accepts improvement of Japanese-Korean relations is a diplomatic necessity. His views lack public support, but he has another three and a half years until the next election where as Kishida could face a snap poll at any time.

For Biden, a US-brokered rapprochement between America’s two closest allies in Asia would be a diplomatic coup. Donald Trump tried to achieve the same. He failed. This must make Biden’s success all the sweeter.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Japan had tried to take control of the Korean Peninsula (as well as China) in the late 16th century at about the same time as the Elizabethan plantations of Ireland.
    I remember reading some years back that after the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, Japanese officials came on a trip to the British Colonial Office to study the assimilation policies adopted in Ireland as a model for Korea.
    Britain and Japan had entered into a naval alliance in 1902 to protect their interests against Czarist Russia, that lasted until 1922. After Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, Japan cemented its control over Korea annexing the country in 1910.
    When I lived in Japan in the early nineties, there were several apologies made to South Korean leaders by Japanese prime-ministers and the Emperor and that seems to have been a continuing factor in any diplomatic exchanges ever since.
    President Biden is probably well placed to bring about a US-brokered rapprochement.
    Many Koreans speak Japanese and Japanese music and culture remains a strong influence in Korea. If the primary aim of rapprochement is to increase trade and cultural exchanges (and perhaps improve relations with North Korea as Trump tried to do) that is a positive step. If it’s to develop a military alliance against the common enemies China, North Korea and Russia that is a bit more ominous, as it starts to look like the kind of alliances the led Great powers into WW1.

  • Chris Moore 19th Aug '23 - 5:25pm

    K-pop and other Korean trends have also been picked up and emulated by younger Japanese.

    The war issues which were white hot when I lived in Tokyo as a child ARE gradually cooling.

  • Mark Frankel 20th Aug '23 - 3:20pm

    Extraordinary that there’s no mention of the Korean War (1950-53), in which millions of Koreans died thanks to the communists. Are the South Koreans really that hostile to Japan? I live in New Malden (aka K-town) and see no signs of it. But if they are they need to get over it. I don’t know what the answers are except that we don’t want another Korean War. If that involves schmoozing the Chinese and continuing to buy their computers then I’m all for it.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Aug '23 - 4:34pm

    While political history is fascinating, sometimes its relevance is overstated. To combat many of our local and global challenges we need to spend more time considering our present situation and less dwelling on our often regrettable past.

  • Mark Frankel 20th Aug ’23 – 3:20pm:
    Are the South Koreans really that hostile to Japan?

    This article summarises some of the outstanding grievances…

    ‘Japan–South Korea deal on forced labour leaves many questions unresolved’ [April 2023]:

    The 2023 forced labourers plan is highly unpopular among the Korean public, opposition lawmakers and the three surviving plaintiffs of the 2018 court case, who consider the agreement ‘humiliating’ and an ‘absolute win by Japan’.

    Issues beyond the scope of the 2023 proposal — such as the seafood ban, island disputes, Sea of Japan naming disputes and textbook protests — will be potential roadblocks to bilateral cooperation going forward. At best, one of many historical issues is being tackled, but conflict over Japan’s colonial legacy and all the animosity that stems from it is far from settled.

    As Tom mentions, trade between the two countries is remarkably low, even though both are now members of RCEP. These unresolved issues may impede South Korea’s ambition to join CPTPP…

    ‘Which countries are in the CPTPP and RCEP trade agreements and which want in?’ [July 2023]:

    Korean officials remain concerned that longstanding bilateral trade and political frictions would lead Japan to demand sensitive trade reforms as the price of CPTPP entry. Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, launched in December 2022, calls for renewed consideration of CPTPP membership.

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