South Korea sits in an interesting position in the centre of a large concentration of both power and change. Given its location, it is surprisingly stable. Built upon an unlikely and quite perfectly timed assassination of a dictator, it seems to have escaped the brutal transition from local dictator to normative democratic state that has engulfed many a would-be contender for a member of the democratic peace. It seems to be almost a reward for its past of terrible domination by Japan, its brutal halving by the Cold War and the uncertain world to come.
South Korea’s alliance with the United States, combined with its place within the nexus of China’s growing power, allows Seoul to remain largely untouched by the geopolitics that impacts its northern neighbor. This, however, does not mean that the present status quo will continue forever – South Korea faces significant internal issues such as a fundamentally shocking suicide rate and a history with Japan that remains unreconciled to its present geopolitical needs.
China has been interested in giving South Korea a large amount of space in which to operate but the enabling relationship that it has with North Korea undermines the potential future security relationship that both China and South Korea might achieve. Certainly a united Korean peninsula, under either the North or South, could potentially reach an ongoing accommodation with Beijing but as long as one or the other persists, long term stability beyond that of mutual economic gains remain unlikely.
What remains interesting to consider is what would happen if South Korea were to reach an agreement with Beijing. It could potentially accept a non-aligned position like Finland did during the Cold War, removing both China and the United States. However, this seems unlikely given the huge security question involving a post-Kim North Korea that is almost unimaginable without the United States being drawn into that vacuum. It is also a long-term solution that is highly vulnerable to geopolitical shifts, thus it magnifies the risk of incurring losses and makes it a less likely scenario. The Finland option might be a desirable end-state, but there are very few paths through the landscape of geopolitics that would seem to point to that as a likely scenario.
Thus Seoul faces a significant geopolitical question going forward – how should it manage its relationship with the region, if it cannot count on long-term stability through a new equilibrium, which, while potentially desirable to some, remains highly unlikely? The forces that underpin South (?) Korean security are presently subject to significant change. China and North Korea, while nominal allies, are not exactly as close as they once were and Pyongyang is now actively seeking the patronage of Russia. Along with this, China is undoubtedly growing in influence and capability and the same forces that caused the Kim dynasty to seek a diversity of friends is also at play in the South.
For the South Korean government, there is much less imminence to the situation, as unlike their neighbor to the north, they have many more friends. Pyongyang, isolated and alone, much like its new partner Moscow, finds friends where it can. Seoul, on the other hand, has the friendship of the United States who has an unequivocal commitment to its security. While such a relationship is hard to find and ought not to be underestimated, the relationship with Washington does give the South ample excuse to forgo mending relations with Japan.
The idea that Japan and South Korea should be friends makes perfect geopolitical sense as a hedge against future instability but this is hard to square with the past. Whereas the difficulty in the end-state of a Finland solution remains hard to envisage, the lower bar of cooperation with Japan, while distant, is perhaps more achievable. The South and Japan have been the worst of enemies and the former has far too often been the victim of the latter. In truth, there is little in Asia that unites countries more than a collective distrust of Japan and an outright, albeit totally justified, hatred of their former empire.
Japan, for its part, has frustrated the process of developing a new relationship of equals between itself and South Korea through domestic politics. Its failure to place itself in opposition to its own history is an all too dependable source of outrage from their former conquests, making it an unwelcome outsider within its own region. Certainly, it must sting to Japanese nationalists to take criticism from the Chinese Communist party who is aligned with the Kim regime and a much more brutal body count to their name, but there is no legitimate hiding place in equivocation.
The United States in its security guarantee to both Japan and South Korea gives each a particularly good reason never to come to a new understanding. The backing of the United States is both rational and quite prudent but it does remove the impetus for change. If Washington were to retrench and North Korea still existed, it is hard to imagine both states resisting the urgency of coming to an agreement. This article is not a case for the United States to retrench but it outlines the way that the influence of superpowers in regional affairs impacts on the level of cooperation between middle powers.
South Korea and Japan should do more for their own security and it makes sense for them to carry it collectively. The present arrangement, however, encourages both to free ride, with the South Koreans paying less than they probably need to for their own defense and leaving Japan free to separate itself from its region and indulge in revisionism.
Thus, it makes sense for the United States to encourage both towards a greater level of cooperation. Conversely, it also makes sense for China to remain ambiguous. As a result, the present superpower relationship creates a perfect storm for a divergence between South Korea and Japan, even though it is probably a better outcome for both of their own level of agency within the international system for them to reach a mutual agreement.
The main issue with this present situation is that if the geopolitical situation shifts, which it could very easily if something occurs in Russia, the islands or North Korea, then the relationship between these South Korea and Japan will need to be developed in an acute situation, rather than in the present relatively stable environment. This risks significant potential negative consequences for both Tokyo and Seoul, and their leaders should consider very carefully just what would happen if either faced a crisis and the relationship remains undeveloped. That being said, this outcome would require significant efforts by both states to look to the long-term and overcome the present incentives to continue going over the same comfortable arguments.