By Rahul Gupta
North Korea tested a missile on Sunday, February 12th. The missile thought to be a modified Musudan-class missile was launched from northeast North Korea, and travelled 500 kilometers into the Sea of Japan. North Korea on the 1st of January claimed it was on the last stage of creating an ICBM that could theoretically reach the USA. However, experts believe that the current missile test did not involve an ICBM. The US office of the Joint Chief of Staff claimed that the test was undertaken as a show of force. It is possible that Pyongyang is just testing the waters with the new administration in the white house.
The test coincides with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the USA. Prime Minister Abe condemned the missile testing, citing it as a breach of UNSC resolutions and as being “absolutely intolerable,” President Trump in an uncharacteristically restrained speech reiterated support for Japan.
Asia under Trump: Japanese challenges
Under the Obama doctrine, the USA’s pivot towards Asia was meant to contain threats from China and North Korea. The bedrock of this equation was trilateral coordination between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. President Trump undermined this consensus throughout his campaign. On the campaign trail President Trump called for South Korea to pay more for US protection and criticized Japan for its trade policy. However, if PM Abe and President Trump’s meeting is any indication, Trump has embraced Japan. The two leaders have the opportunity to negotiate a new trade deal ever since President Trump effectively ended the Trans Pacific Partnership.
This bright spot will appeal to President Trump’s business likability, allowing him to step away from his campaign rhetoric and maintain Japan-US relations. However, a key challenge to US-Japan ties persists, namely, Japan’s proximity to North Korea, which poses a major security threat. The missile tested Sunday had the capability to strike Japan. Tokyo is likely to expect increased defense cooperation from the US. This is seemingly in conflict with President Trump’s rhetoric of decreased US military presence worldwide.
US-South Korea relations
Relations between US and Seoul will only be clear once the status of the South Korean president is clear. The current President has been impeached by the parliament. The constitutional court of the country is currently reviewing the motion to impeach. Only once the decision is made and a new President comes to power, will the exact nature of US-Korea relations under the Trump administration be clear. However, it currently seems that pleasant relations will maintain. Based on prior instances, POTUS will likely step away from his previous positions and maintain military support to South Korea. The threat emanating from North Korea will remain crucial to deal with for the new leader.
Seoul-Tokyo relations are also going through turbulent times. Civic groups put up a sculpture representing “comfort women” in front of the Japanese consulate in Bussan, South Korea. During World War II, the Japanese army forced Korean women to serve in wartime brothels, these women were euphemistically called “comfort women.” The Japanese government was so affronted, that they recalled their ambassador, stating that the government’s failure to stop the erecting of sculpture runs counter to a 2015 resolution that had ended the protracted dispute. Furthermore, there been criticism of the intelligence-sharing agreement between the countries in South Korea.
The currently impeached South Korean president backed both the 2015 resolution to the “comfort women” issue and the intelligence-sharing agreement. Her successor may be able to depart from these agreements making Tokyo- Seoul cooperation more difficult.
These three countries face challenges in Asia. All are at risk of a nuclear strike from North Korea and an interest in restricting the Chinese sphere of influence. These goals should remain at the forefront of the their foreign policy. If the three are able to maintain relations they may be able to promote peace in the region. Coordinated, the three countries will be able to better defend a threat from North Korea.
Together, the three nations can also act as a buffer against Chinese power in the region.
Finally, China only operates because of the diplomatic or other cost of clashing with the three would be great. If relations breakdown or deteriorate it may trigger an arms race in the region, increasing the threat of escalation. 2017 shall be a crucial year for US foreign policy in Asia. If charted correctly, the leaders have a opportunity to cement a worthy legacy.