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Time to hit the reset button on Tokyo-Seoul relations

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Special To The Japan Times

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The problem with the current deadlock in Japan-South Korea relations is that both sides don’t feel too uncomfortable about it because they prioritize their relationship with the United States and China — the two heavyweight stakeholders in the region. Seoul and Tokyo feel ambivalent about just how important the other side is at a time when the geopolitical fluidity is increasing in East Asia — a factor that is influencing relational dynamics between Japan and South Korea.

Pessimism is rampant. In fact, pessimism is so great that even an argument such as “only time will solve the problem” is suggested as a solution. The danger of this logic is that both sides can settle for a strategy of waiting for the other side to scream “ouch” first.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that time will run its healing course and salvage the relationship, which is at its lowest since the two countries normalized relations in 1965. The relationship will drift further apart without active intervention. But how?

Some say the issue really is a narrative over the wartime sex slaves, also known as “comfort women.” Others point out it is in fact a veiled legal affair that may open up a flood of fresh lawsuits. Some others say it is essentially a moral issue. These are all valid points underscoring the different aspects of the convoluted matter.

But what is missing in the debate is the underlying psychology and attitude that often eludes analysis. Seoul and Tokyo brush aside each other as a secondary stakeholder as they muscle their diplomatic resources and attention around in coping with the seismic geopolitical shift led by Beijing and Washington.

Washington is the most important security ally for both Seoul and Tokyo. Beijing is the most important economic partner for both Seoul and Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Seoul and Tokyo feel ambiguous toward each other’s strategic values. Both countries see each other as a less important security partner compared to Washington. They also see each other as a less important economic partner compared to Beijing.

Prioritizing their relations with Washington for security and Beijing for economy, and mulling over their own hedging strategy between the two superpowers, Seoul and Tokyo are not sure just how important the other side is. So there is less interest and enthusiasm to tackle the matter. Both sides are locked in a wait-and-see mentality of how much the other side can tolerate damage by cold-shouldering each other.

As Seoul and Tokyo feel that they are dealing with the more important issue at hand, they are also willing to relegate their bilateral relationship to the back burner. This explains why it is so hard to find diplomatic zeal in Seoul and Tokyo to seek a solution. This underlying psychology persists and dampens political will to work out a solution. Left unattended, the relationship has already been pummeled by hard-line voices on both sides.

The current stalemate undermines political trust, depresses economic ties and dampens the spirit of civilian exchanges. To mend the situation, the following should be robustly discussed and vigorously brainstormed among scholars and strategists in both Tokyo and Seoul.

First, remember U.S. President Richard Nixon’s diplomacy in 1972. What many people don’t know about his visit to China that year was that during the closed-door negotiations in Beijing between him and Mao Zedong, little concrete agreement emerged. But the symbolism of the trip proved extremely powerful. The lack of photo-ops between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unsettling to many observers. To start off, Park and Abe should have more photo-ops to relieve the anxiety of many concerned members of the public in both countries. Even establishing the image of a cordial and accommodative handshake will warm up the atmosphere. Substance can come later.

Second, remember that Seoul and Tokyo are in the same basket. As the East Asian political landscape is undergoing seismic changes and thus poses new challenges, it’s natural that both Seoul and Tokyo to think about their own strategic positioning. Here often their differences are highlighted while their common elements are ignored.

In fact, both Seoul and Tokyo are facing the same challenge: how to deal with the rise of China and continue to maintain a robust security alliance with Washington. Focus on this common aspect and build on it.

Third, the current relationship hiccup has an interesting feature: It’s primarily driven by the political leadership in the two countries. Politics, by nature, often sees its own virtue in sustaining a posture of non-compromise. And that’s why we should vigorously seek alternative avenues for fostering dialogue among non-politicians, such as non-governmental organizations and academic conferences as well as media panels, cultural events and student exchanges.

We should not despair simply because politics hijacks the two countries’ relationship. In democracies, civilians should not easily give up on their right to check and balance their own government. We shouldn’t give license to the current South Korea-Japan relational paralysis to be sustained. It doesn’t serve either country well in the long run.

Seong-Hyon Lee was a 2013-14 Pantech Fellow at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. in political communication and now works as an assistant professor at the Kyushu University Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies in Japan.

  • Richard Solomon

    Good analysis of the reasons for the stalemate. If citizens and scholars of each country lead the way, perhaps Abe and Park will follow suit? Eg, could academic scholars call for conferences between themselves to discuss various aspects of the Japanese/S Korean relationship? Could groups of Japanese citizens invite surviving ‘comfort women’ to come and talk about their experiences? If Japanese citizens were to acknowledge the horrors of what was done to the comfort women, could/would they press Abe to do more in that regard?

    One other thought: perhaps Obama could call for Abe and Park to meet with him for extended talks about how to resolve these conflicts. Recall what Jimmy Carter accomplished with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David. Carter refused to give up even when it looked as if they were getting nowhere. It took many days but they got to an agreement! Could Obama do likewise if he was willing to invest the time/energy that it would require?