Gang of Three?

Why Obama Must Bring Seoul and Tokyo Together

Barack Obama meets with Park Geun-hye and Shinzo Abe in The Hague, March 2014. (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

When U.S. President Barack Obama touches down in Asia later this month for a long-overdue trip, he will have a daunting challenge ahead of him. At the granular level, he will try to speed progress on various trade negotiations and security pacts. At the strategic level, he will aim to reassure U.S. allies and partners that Washington remains committed to its pivot east. The trip, however, is about much more than treaties and reassurance. It is primarily meant to signal U.S. resolve in the face of those who would forcibly alter the current regional order, namely, China and North Korea.

The first leg of the trip will include stops in Japan and South Korea, and one of Obama’s biggest challenges will be to bring Washington’s two major regional allies closer together. Washington has already made some laudable progress on this front, organizing a trilateral summit in The Hague last month that brought together Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Photographs of Abe and Park, smiling and shaking hands, represented a major departure from their usually frigid exchanges. Although some observers heralded the meeting as a breakthrough, others took a more critical view, arguing that Abe and Park were simply responding to intense U.S. pressure.

The reality probably lies closer to the latter interpretation, but the meeting did bring about some tangible progress. For one, it presented a united front toward an increasingly volatile Kim Jong Un regime and triggered a new round of high-level consultations aimed at deterring Pyongyang. The meeting also provided an important public relations victory for all three countries, generating political capital that can be spent on future diplomatic initiatives. Abe even introduced himself to Park in Korean -- a positive sign of Japan’s sincerity in repairing ties.

But this progress remains tenuous. The past year has seen little respite from the constant sniping and bitterness that has long characterized Japan-Korea relations. South Korea protests Japan’s resurgent nationalism and its lack of contrition for the crimes Japan committed during its colonization of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. Tokyo, meanwhile, complains of “Korea fatigue,” noting that its repeated apologies and efforts to repair relations have met with sharp elbows and harsh rhetoric from Seoul.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis