Most of all they are close neighbors in the tough neighbor of Northeast Asia that includes North Korea, China, and Russia. The threat of North Korea someday launching a nuclear-tipped missile toward either country should have had the effect of drawing Japan and South Korea closer.
But as much as the United States wants the two countries to cozy up, history has long kept them apart.
Imperial Japan’s colonization of a then-unified Korea in the early 20th century remains a strong memory among Koreans. The two also claim two small islands in the sea between them (the “East Sea” to Korea, the “Sea of Japan” to Japan).
As a small country surrounded by big ones (or a “shrimp among whales,” as Koreans say), South Korea believes it is best to be remain close to the benign giant across the Pacific, America.
Still, Japan and South Korea are increasing their cultural exchanges and commercial ties. Their scholars have even tried to write a joint history of their painful past. Japan has more or less apologized for the past suffering it inflicted on Koreans. And for the first time, South Korea sent military observers to the Japan-US military exercises in December.
With North Korea becoming more aggressive – killing South Korean civilians for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War – the time seems ripe for a three-way military drill with the US, Japan, and South Korea. This month, however, Japan – perhaps wary of showing its military strength in Asia – declined a US invitation to join a South Korean-American naval drill.
For the US, Northeast Asia is laden with as much strategic complexity as South Asia’s messy triangle of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Convincing groups of nations that, for many good reasons, they should get along, is not an easy task, even in the face of a common enemy like North Korea or violent jihadists. The usual suspects – nationalism, racism, economic competition, past aggression – get in the way of better relations.
But how long can the US afford to be a benefactor, protector, and often a mediator in many parts of Asia?
If any nations should start preparing for the day that the US reduces its global role, they should be Japan and South Korea. They best start now.