Tensions have again flared between Japan and South Korea over victims of Japanese wartime sex slavery, and they are casting a shadow over trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. against North Korea’s growing aggression, U.S. experts say.
The long-running feud between the two countries was rekindled last month when a new statue symbolizing women pressed into Japanese wartime military brothels during World War II – often referred to as “comfort women” - was erected outside the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city.
The Japanese government, in response, said the placement of yet another statue was a breach of the December 2015 deal struck between the two countries, under which both countries agreed to resolve the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly.” Japan claimed that South Korea had also violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which requires host countries to guard diplomatic missions from having their dignity impaired.
Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea and the consul-general in Busan earlier this month.
Clash over history
The controversy spilled over to the issue of the disputed islands of Dokdo (South Korea) or Takeshima (Japan) this week, as Japan laid claims to the territory. South Korean politicians announced Monday they plan to place another comfort women statue on the islands.
"I think at some levels certainly when it gets to the official level of recalling the ambassador or closing down the consulate or levels like that, then you have to worry about the broader set of relations in between Seoul and Tokyo and even Washington," said Michael Auslin, resident scholar and director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
The problems that are rattling South Korea and Japan could complicate U.S. efforts to boost a trilateral diplomacy with the two allies to rein in nuclear-armed North Korea, the expert added.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, where he specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs, said, “Any even seemingly minor event can snowball into a major and breaching relations or major strain” at this point in time.
North Korea threat
The vulnerable bilateral relations appear to be compounded by the ongoing political turmoil in Seoul involving the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal, according to Klingner.
“If the progressives assume the presidency after the departure of Park, then I think that will lead to greater potential for increased tensions not only between South Korea and Japan but between South Korea and the United States,” Klingner warned.
Some experts, however, believe that the latest dispute would have little impact on the trilateral security cooperation.
Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the likelihood of the latest dispute between Seoul and Tokyo spreading to the area of trilateral cooperation is low, because they are essentially separate issues.
“Regardless of how good or how bad the relationship between Japan and South Korea is over history-related issues, I think that there is a realization in both Tokyo and Seoul as well as Washington that there’s a need for coordination toward North Korea,” Snyder said.
J. Berkshire Miller, international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations based in Tokyo, also expected the two countries to try to “quarantine trilateral security cooperation as a separate track” from the bilateral ties.
Auslin said the issue should be a priority of the incoming U.S. administration, suggesting the Trump administration “push and nudge” Japan and South Korea to put the wartime history issues behind them and establish better relations.
Klingner called on President-elect Trump to actively get involved, but work “quietly and behind the scenes.”
“I think it was most effective when the Obama administration was sending private and sometimes quite stern messages to both Tokyo and Seoul to try to move forward on the issues,” the former intelligence official said.
As the North appears to be advancing its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. is seeking to enhance cooperation with Japan and South Korea. The three countries have not only launched a new trilateral missile defense exercise last year but also stepped up political consultations through numerous meetings between high level diplomats.
At a recent meeting, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the three allies have established “a rock-solid foundation for long-term trilateral cooperation that remains central to the defense of our shared interests.”
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Korean Service.