Why Are ROK-US Relations Bad and Japan-US Ties Good?

Visiting Scholar, RIETI

Many Koreans think the US does not respect their country. This is due to the unbalanced relationship between the two countries, the belief that the US was responsible for the military regimes and the Kwnagju massacre, and tensions over American servicemen. Japan being a bigger country, its relationship with America is less unequal. Because the US ended Japan's militaristic dictatorship in 1945, Japanese do not equate America with domestic militarism. Tensions with US servicemen are less acute because most US ground forces are far away in Okinawa, whereas in Korea American soldiers are in the heart of the country. Koreans' justifiable anger at the visa situation does not have a parallel in Japan since Japanese visitors do not need US visas.

Moreover, Seoul has a much more benign view of the Pyongyang regime than Americans. As a result, many South Koreans think that America's DPRK policy hinders North-South reconciliation because it is not conciliatory enough. On the contrary, due to the abduction issue and the missile threat, most Japanese have hostile feelings towards the North. Therefore, North Korean policy is not a source of friction between Japan and America (though it could change if normalization occurs and Japan gives a lot of aid to the DPRK).

There are also differences in the perception of Asian security. While many Koreans think that Korea has no enemies because they believe that North Korea, China, and Russia are not a threat anymore, but Japanese think that their country faces threats from North Korea and China. Therefore, they consider that a US alliance is essential for Japanese security. American policy makers, concerned about China, see Japan as an indispensable partner. American policy-makers probably doubt that South Korea would be a reliable ally against China, which is seen as having leverage over South Korea due to the North Korean situation. In addition, the US considers that Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moon-Hyun have been too soft with the DPRK, which raises further doubts about Seoul's reliability. On the South Korean side, there seems to be no willingness to support Taiwan, whereas Japan, even though it keeps a very low profile in this situation, shares American concerns about Taiwan.

Finally, Korean readers should realize that America is focused on the Middle East, not East Asia. The strategic error of invading error Iraq is leading America to defeat. With the need to cope with the debacle in Iraq and the war against Al-Qaeda, Korea is not a priority, as shown by the removal of USFK units from Korea to fight in Iraq. Ironically, Bush the "hardliner" is implementing President Carter's plan to withdraw from Korea. Thus, due to the Iraq War, the US will follow a de facto conciliatory policy to Korea which is what the current ROK government wants, but Korea will suffer in the long run due to the cutbacks in the USFK.

* The article was reprinted from Chosun Ilbo on August 13, 2004. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and the Chosun Ilbo.

August 13, 2004 Chosun Ilbo

September 7, 2004

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