The accounts of the deepening disconnect between Japan and South Korea that are now making their way into the pages of major media actually underplay the destructive character of this current crisis. And they fail to explore the strategic choices being made, almost unconsciously, by the leadership in both countries.

The atmosphere in South Korea is particularly poisonous, egged on by the Moon Jae-in administration. The Korean media are filled with accounts of Japanese perfidy, fed by continuous commentary to the same effect from the government. Earlier this week, for example, the lead evening news broadcast on the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the flagship TV network, spent the first 20 minutes focused entirely on Japan.

There is a widening movement to boycott Japanese goods that is already hurting sales of everything from beer to cars. Even conservative media that are somewhat critical of Moon’s handling of relations join in the broad narrative that paints all the current woes as the product of a dangerous nationalist Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is unrepentant about Japan’s colonial and wartime past.

Japanese media are far less breathless but the anti-Korean mood in Japan is undeniable. Opinion polls show about two thirds of Japanese back the tough response to Korea in the form of imposition of tighter controls on exports. While the liberal media call for restraint by Abe and tend to blame both sides for the crisis, conservative media and politicians are now happy to point fingers at the unreliable and provocative Koreans, urging the government to hold to an uncompromising position.

There are small signs that both sides may want to limit the damage being done, particularly in the economic realm. Japan’s trade minister ,Hiroshige Seko, told reporters on Thursday that the government has granted permission for semiconductor materials to be exported for the first time since tightened controls were imposed last month.

In Seoul, Moon seemed to back off from his provocative suggestion that South Korea could compensate for the damage to the economy from the trade war with Japan by improving ties with the North. “In the end, it’s a game without any winner, in which everyone, including Japan, becomes a victim,” he told a meeting of economic advisers. The foreign ministers of both countries are now scheduled to meet again soon.

‘Far enough’

“I get the sense that both sides are trying to signal each other that things have gone far enough and that it’s time to try to stop making things worse,” says Evans Revere, former US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.

“Moon’s acknowledgement that both sides are being hurt, the fact that the ROK has not implemented their threat to take Japan off Korea’s white list, Japan’s decision to allow the export of sensitive materials to Korea under the new export review process and Abe’s call for Seoul to adhere to the 1965 normalization agreement seem to suggest that, at a minimum, the two sides are not threatening each other with new actions,” Revere says.

Other American analysts hope that the Japanese moves on export controls have a narrow intent. “The Japanese government doesn’t necessarily want to prevent trade with South Korea or prevent its companies from doing business with ROK firms, but Tokyo did want some additional control over the process,” says James Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment.

“The Abe administration wanted to downgrade South Korea’s ‘status’ as a partner in some way, to express its displeasure with a variety of moves the Moon government has made in the past year or two,” Schoff adds. “At a basic level I think Abe & Co simply don’t believe that South Korea belongs on a special list of its most trusted partners, and this is a way to make that point.”

This could be, as even both Schoff and Revere acknowledge, an overly optimistic reading. There are ample opportunities to escalate tensions. The Koreans are contemplating whether or not to renew the GSOMIA defense intelligence sharing agreement. Talking to reporters yesterday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga pointedly did not rule out a decision by Abe to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to Japan’s war dead on August 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II.

If both sides refrain from taking further steps, that could at least limit the descent into full-scale conflict for now. “Both sides do not want to make things worse but neither side intends to take any action to improve the situation,” a well-informed Japanese analyst told me. “My guess is that the situation will be frozen at this current level of hostility for the time being.”

Strategic choices

The frozen nature of this conflict reflects underlying strategic choices that both Moon and Abe have made and which will continue to drive them apart. And more deeply, it is a consequence of the dramatic shift of American foreign policy under the nationalist Trump regime.

President Moon and his progressive government are clearly focused on inter-Korean integration over all other relations, and in that context playing the card of anti-Japanese nationalism serves to bind the two Koreas together. The opening created by President Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea is a historic opportunity that has “emboldened and tempted South Korean President Moon Jae-in to prioritize his inter-Korean agenda over ties with the US and Japan,” former Japanese senior diplomat Kuni Miyake wrote this week.

For the Japanese government, the rising threat from China has prompted two seemingly conflicting strategic decisions – to rely even more on the security alliance with the US, despite Trump’s disdain for alliances, and to calm, if not improve, relations with China. In that context, advisors to the prime minister see South Korea, particularly under the Moon administration, as almost irrelevant to Japanese foreign policy.

“About five years ago, when Abe was still fresh in his new administration, he told one of my colleagues that he intended to do something to improve the relationship with Beijing and also that, regarding Seoul, he will simply ignore it,” a senior Japanese editor at a major daily newspaper told me. “In Abe’s mind, China is important enough to invest political capital but Seoul is nothing but a pain in the ass that could harm his image as right-wing leader.”

The attitude of benign neglect toward Seoul prevailed even while Moon moved to dump the 2015 agreement to settle the comfort women issue, reached with the previous conservative Korean government of Park Geun-hye. But the escalations over the forced labor issue forced a harsher response.

“Abe has stepped into a new territory where the South Korea issue has become a high stakes game of either big loss or big win to keep his approval rate high,” the Japanese editor said. “All polls indicate that surprisingly a majority of Japanese people support this bullying action to Seoul and, if Abe puts down his fist without clear sign of win, he will lose too much.”

This is comparable to the period when former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine, sending relations with China and South Korea into the deep freeze. As happened in that case, it may take the end of both Japanese and Korean governments to reverse the situation.

Political calculation

“Abe has made the political calculation to address the new reality by maintaining a relationship with both Washington and Beijing, and at the same time managing his political base by playing tough against Seoul, but it is far from a reasoned strategy,” observes the veteran Japanese journalist.  “Abe’s ultimate goal is to stay in power as long as possible, not to maximize the future interest of Japan by sensible diplomacy.  Politicians are all prisoners of domestic populism lately and they are fanning populism to appeal to the fragmented sentiments of voters.  Abe and Moon are sadly among them.”

This is clearly shaped by the America First stance of the Trump regime. Hopes that the US might intervene effectively to try to bring a halt to the spiraling dispute between its two main security allies in East Asia have proven exaggerated. While senior officials seemed prepared to push both sides toward a ceasefire, instead the messaging from those above them – from national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper (now in the region) and the president himself – has communicated very different priorities.

Trump wants to pick a fight about how much money South Korea and Japan will contribute to cost-sharing arrangements for US forces based in both countries. Bolton, Pompeo and Esper are eager to drag both countries into the so-called coalition of the willing in the Persian Gulf against Iran. Both countries, especially Japan, are resistant to that siren song. And now there is even a push to deploy ground-based cruise missiles aimed at China – to which there is even greater opposition.

On top of this, there is Trump’s almost casual acceptance of the legitimacy of a string of tests by North Korea of shorter-range ballistic missiles that pose a clear threat to both South Korea and Japan. “His virtual blessing for short-range ballistic missile tests is telling his allies, South Korea and Japan, and American soldiers and expatriates that they are dispensable,” wrote Duyeon Kim in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “This message reinforces existing security concerns in South Korea and Japan that Washington may not defend its Asian allies at critical moments, especially if US territory becomes vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear attack.”

That effectively renders useless the calls from US officials for Japan, South Korea and the United States to focus on shared security interests such as North Korea and China. Still Abe is compelled to claim success in managing the alliance with the US.

“For Mr Abe, the cordial relationship with Mr Trump is very comforting and has become an objective in itself,” a former senior Japanese foreign ministry official and advisor to prime ministers told me. “But the relationship has not been translated into deeds that benefit Japan. In fact, Abe faces horrendous demands from an unbridled Trump, who has lost sensible advisors like [former defense secretary James] Mattis, such as transforming the US troops into mercenaries of Japan.” The former official added that “Japan’s host nation support is already covering 75% of the necessary cost, but Trump wants Japan to pay five times as much.”

Abe is protected from the political consequences for now by the weakness of the opposition within Japan and the lack of any serious challengers from inside the ruling conservative party. Increasingly, though, he is relying on his form of nationalism, a path already taken by Moon. “The ‘Me First’ movement is contagious,” the former senior official concluded with some sadness, “grappling hold of even a docile and inactive nation like Japan.”

Stanford lecturer and former foreign correspondent Daniel Sneider is associate editor of the Washington-based Nelson Report, which published this article in its August 8 issue.