As if on cue, Pyongyang yet again emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea when it fired two Nodong missiles into the Sea of Japan. The timing was perfect—President Barack Obama was meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. The focus of their talks? North Korea’s threat to regional security.
Of course, the impetus for the meeting at The Hague was also to begin a political dialogue between the two U.S. allies after their extended diplomatic estrangement in 2013. Both leaders were elected in late 2012, inheriting a tense relationship between Tokyo and Seoul over historical reconciliation. But Abe and Park made little progress in trying to reduce frictions. President Park began her time in office focusing on the United States and China, and Prime Minister Abe, although declaring his interest in better relations, enhanced concerns with his stance on Japan’s past.
Increasing South Korean criticism of Japan, especially its effort to improve bilateral security guidelines with the United States, and the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine only deepened concerns in Washington about how this discord between the two allies would affect regional security.
President Obama’s meeting with both leaders at The Hague, therefore, was an important first step in a longer process for Tokyo and Seoul. Follow up meetings are expected between their cabinet ministers. Obama will visit both capitals in April, and the hope is that the two leaders can find common ground for their bilateral conversation on how to put their relationship back on steadier and more constructive footing.
My thoughts on the road ahead can be found here, as part of an Asan Forum special commentary on President Obama’s April visit to the region. Two ingredients will be critically important: the first is the continued facilitation by President Obama of a trilateral conversation on regional security cooperation, and the second will be the establishment of the parameters of reassurance needed by Prime Minister Abe and President Park if they are to develop a concrete agenda for restoring trust between their two nations.
Undoubtedly, North Korea’s missile launches will make some of this easier, but it would be a mistake to think that provocations from Pyongyang offer a long-term solution for stronger Seoul-Tokyo relations. The hard work for both leaders will be in addressing the causes of continued strain, and in leading both countries in a process of reconciliation that is less about stoking nationalisms and more about compassion and forgiveness.