Since late last year, a conflict has been steadily building between two of the United States’ closest Asian allies. Last fall, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of a dozen plaintiffs seeking compensation from Japanese firms that used forced Korean labor during World War II. Relations between the two countries have been deteriorating ever since. Japan is now poised to remove South Korea from its “white list” of trusted countries for trade in sensitive materials—a decision that would hurt both countries’ economies and disrupt global supply chains in the high-tech sector. South Korea, meanwhile, is threatening to withdraw from an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan that facilitates security cooperation between these two key U.S. allies.
Seoul and Tokyo have quarreled in the past, but their current feud has serious implications for U.S. interests in Asia. Left unresolved, tension between Japan and South Korea could not only damage the global economy but undermine the Trump administration’s policies toward North Korea and the Indo-Pacific. And yet the White House has shown little interest in mediating the dispute. Continued indifference would be a major mistake. The United States’ strategy in Asia depends on trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea. It should make resolving the conflict between its allies a priority.
Japan and South Korea might seem to be unlikely antagonists. The countries are democratic and developed neighbors with deep economic ties, common external threats, and close alliances with the United States. But although Seoul and Tokyo normalized relations in 1965, a stable partnership has remained elusive on account of their dark history. Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945. During World War II, Japan forced Koreans into labor and sexual slavery. South Korea perceives Japan as showing little contrition for these past abuses. Japan, meanwhile, is frustrated with a demand for apologies and reparations that it sees as insatiable. Although Seoul and Tokyo normalized relations in 1965, a stable partnership has remained elusive.
The current dispute began last fall. The South Korean
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