The territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea and its impacts on U.S. foreign policy in East Asia


Long-standing disputes over the territoriality of two small islands in the Sea of Japan, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, are back on the agenda. The dispute particularly affected security cooperation and trilateral coordination with the United States.

Thus, a long-standing dispute derailed a planned joint conference between US, South Korean and Japanese officials in Washington. The trilateral meeting between the three countries in the US capital was supposed to end on Wednesday, 17th November, with a joint press conference with US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun and their Japanese counterpart Takeo Mori.

However, Sherman instead faced the press alone, telling reporters: “As has been the case for some time, there are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that are continuing to be resolved.”

At the same time, on October 15 of this year, officials of Japan and South Korea announced that they would strive to deepen diplomatic relations in the face of threats to regional security, despite strained bilateral relations.

What is the dispute about?

Japan and South Korea are not only closest neighbors, but also important partners both in the economic sphere and in the military-political field. In this context, the development of their relations has regional implications for Northeast and East Asia.

Today, one of the most important factors hindering the partnership of these two countries is the dramatic problems of the historical past and the territorial dispute, which at times becomes the cause of tension in bilateral relations.

The sovereign territorial dispute between Seoul and Tokyo includes a separate series of rocky outcrops known in Korean as Dokdo and Japanese as Takeshima. Today, the islands are controlled by South Korea, but Tokyo claims that Seoul illegally comprised these islands, which were incorporated into the Japanese Empire in 1905. South Korea, in turn, claims that this archipelago has been part of the Korean state from time immemorial, and presents, in addition to its words, historical sources.

The severity of the dispute is evidenced by the curious situation related to security tensions in 2018 when a South Korean destroyer blocked the fire control radar of a Japanese patrol aircraft. The friction spread to economic relations when Japan introduced export controls to South Korea. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) on the sharing of military intelligence nearly collapsed, saved then by US intervention.

U.S.-Japanese-South Korean triangle

The Biden administration prioritizes U.S.-Japanese-South Korean cooperation against the backdrop of its East Asian strategy. In turn, the national security of Japan and South Korea is inextricably linked with the common threats and alliances of both countries with the United States. Thus, the main motivation for the existence of the Japan-US-South Korea military-political triangle is based on countering the threat from growing China and the North Korean nuclear and missile tests.

However, recent events show that this cooperation did not prevent the growth of centrifugal forces inside the specified triangle and the Tokyo-Seoul line turned out to be its weakest side. The Biden administration is trying to remedy the damage through trilateral consultations on North Korea and other issues in the hope that the historic problems can be resolved. However, the very fact of the possible termination of the only military commitment between Tokyo and Seoul shows the precariousness of the Japan-USA-South Korea triangle.


The Biden administration understands that the conflict between the two US allies in East Asia will only benefit its rivals, such as China and North Korea. In this connection, it can be assumed that in the foreseeable future, President Biden’s efforts will be aimed at bringing the two allies closer together.

Promoting U.S. cooperation will pressure both South Korea and Japan to continue the dialogue in areas of common trilateral interest, such as the growing threat from China and North Korea, thereby diverting attention from territorial disputes between the two countries. However, it is worth emphasizing that this tactic will not resolve the long-standing dispute between Japan and South Korea.


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