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Predictions 2024: Is the Tokyo-Seoul-Washington Triangle in Danger?

Whether the Sado Gold Mines' UNESCO listing is approved, predictions are for global and local challenges in a precarious year for Japan-South Korea relations.



Happy New Year to JAPAN Forward readers. We are pleased to bring you "Predictions 2024," a special New Year's series sharing the foresight and expectations of selected contributors for the coming year in their fields of specialty, continuing with Mina Mitsui, the senior foreign news editor of the Sankei Shimbun.

Next in the Series

Sado is an island that lies in the Sea of Japan. There is an oddly-shaped mountain on the island with its peak split in two. It is home to the Sado Island Gold Mines, the center of Japan's gold rush during the Edo period. 

A regional sightseeing destination, Sado has been suffering from a tourism decline. However, the island may become a touchstone for the future of East Asian security in 2024.

Geographically, the Korean Peninsula, Russia, China, and Japan face one another across the Sea of Japan. 2024 is bound to be another stormy year for the region. Indeed, Pyongyang's ballistic missile launch in December may be a prelude to things to come. 

A television program in Seoul reports North Korea's missile launch on December 19, 2023. (©AP via Kyodo)

The Taiwan Election

In the new year, the first wave of this political storm will sweep across Taiwan. The presidential election will be held in January to determine President Tsai Ing-wen's successor.

Opposition parties favoring a conciliatory line toward China failed to present a united front in selecting their candidates. China's hopes have consequently come up empty. Lai Ching-te, vice president of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), leads in the polls. However, he is followed closely by Hou Yu-ih, mayor of New Taipei and leader of the largest opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT). 

China was relatively inactive in the Taiwan Strait as the year ended. It seemed as though Beijing had realized that threats of force would be counterproductive to its agenda. But it is too early for complacency. 


China's State Council, which claims jurisdiction over Taiwan, recently condemned Lai. At a press conference, a Council spokesman slammed Lai as a "warmonger" seeking Taiwanese independence. With a myriad of disinformation circulating in Taiwan, it is difficult to tell how China might intervene in the coming election. 

Plaintiffs in lawsuits against Japan demonstrate in front of the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul on December 21. (© Kyodo)

South Korea's Legislative Elections

South Korea's legislative elections in April are when the waves will really begin to rage. Although South Korea is a presidential system, the outcome of these elections will determine the course of Japan-South Korea relations. In other words, they will directly affect East Asian affairs.

President Yoon Suk-yeol's conservative ruling party, the People Power Party (PPP), has been unable to halt its slump in support. In the October by-elections in Seoul's Gangseo Ward, the PPP suffered a disastrous defeat.  PPP chief Kim Tae-woo lost to his rival from the progressive Democratic Party (DP), the largest opposition party. Kim announced his resignation in December. 

If the DP wins the legislative elections and gains a majority in the National Assembly, it will spell trouble for Yoon. This would restrict his policies for his remaining three years in office. Furthermore, it would also hamper the dramatic improvement in Japan-South Korea relations since his inauguration. The DP will no doubt pressure the Yoon administration to "change its spineless diplomacy" toward Japan.

Sado Kinzan gold mines, nominated for UNESCO registration as a World Cultural Heritage Site. (©Sankei)

Why Sado's Important

Sado's gold mines are important because they will serve as a litmus test for Japan-South Korean historical disputes. In the summer (2024), this will become clear. 

Japan applied to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to have the Sado mines registered as a World Heritage site in 2022. South Korea has demanded the withdrawal of the application. They claimed that Korean workers were kidnapped and forced to work there during World War II. An international UNESCO conference will be held in India this summer to decide whether the site should be registered or not. 

Representatives from the 21 countries on the World Heritage Committee will decide on the issue. No doubt this will be a diplomatic battle of pride between Japan and South Korea. And no doubt the DP will stoke anti-Japanese public opinion to prevent the Sado mines' registration. 

Prime Minister Kishida, US President Biden, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shake hands before the Japan-US-South Korea summit meeting at Camp David. August 18, 2023. (©Kyodo)

Maintaining the Camp David Momentum

Military cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States has finally begun to gain momentum. However, if relations between Japan and South Korea cool, it will cast a shadow over the trilateral operations. 

At Camp David in August 2023, the three nations' leaders met and agreed to security cooperation. Specific areas and methods of collaboration included ballistic missile defense and conducting regular joint drills. Contingencies such as North Korea's use of nuclear weapons and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan are becoming increasingly probable. Therefore, the three countries have taken steps to create a defense system linking the bilateral Japan-US and the US-South Korea alliances. 

This historic step was possible because the Yoon administration prioritized building relations with Japan over historical issues. US President Joe Biden's administration has created a framework for multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. This collaborative framework includes AUKUS (the US, United Kingdom, and Australia) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad (Japan, the US, Australia, and India). 

A three-way partnership between the US, Japan, and South Korea was supposed to be the core of security against China. A revival of the anti-Japanese diplomacy of the previous Moon Jae In administration in South Korea would destroy this vision. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy joined a working session of the G7 leaders' summit in Hiroshima on May 21, 2023. (©Kyodo/via Reuters)

Problems for Kishida

Unfortunately, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's administration is teetering on the brink of collapse. The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has launched a criminal investigation into allegations of slush funds surrounding Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) fundraising parties. Some are now questioning whether the Kishida administration will last until the LDP presidential election in September. 

Priding himself as an "adept diplomat," Kishida presided over the G7 summit in Hiroshima which helped buoy his administration. Kishida's diplomatic feats will count for nothing, though, if Japan-South Korea relations go back to square one. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) was reluctant to file the Sado mines' UNESCO application. MOFA officials worried it would become another political dispute with South Korea. Despite this, Kishida insisted and announced the application to the public himself.

Former US President Donald Trump. (From the Sankei archives)

US Election Risks

Moreover, if former President Donald Trump is reelected in the November US presidential election, everything will be turned upside down.

Trump hates multilateralism. His reelection could paralyze the Biden-built AUKUS, Quad, and Washington-Tokyo-Seoul alliances. North Korean Workers' Party General Secretary Kim Jong Un must be looking forward to meeting his old friend again.

Having won Trump's trust, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan largely avoided the scathing treatment European US allies received. Biden's current hard-line policy on China began with the Trump administration, so it is unlikely to change significantly. 

But the power balance between the US and China has changed dramatically in the four years since Trump left the White House. US influence over the Global South has waned, and China has filled the void. 

Chinese fishing fleets are harassing the Philippines and other island nations in the South Pacific. Will Trump really make a sincere attempt to address this? Multilateral cooperation is absolutely essential to counter Chinese intimidation in the vast Indo-Pacific.

Whether or not Sado becomes a World Heritage site, let us hope this storm does not ravage East Asia.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Mina Mitsui
Mina Mitsui is the senior foreign news editor of the Sankei Shimbun.


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