OSAKA – Since the beginning of the year, Japan’s official relations with the Korean Peninsula have gone from bad to worse. Not a day goes by without a report about North Korea’s latest provocation. Journalists, politicians, and pundits deliberate — one might say “geek out” — over whether the missile just fired by North Korea is of this or that type, what the military response by the United States might be if a nuclear device is tested, and, of course, what China might do.
With South Korea, the past continues to plague the bilateral relationship. At the forefront is Japan’s anger at the establishment of “comfort women” statues by Korean groups to commemorate the Korean women forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Only last month did Tokyo return the Japanese ambassador to Seoul after he was withdrawn in January to protest a comfort women statue in Busan.
In the midst of such tensions, deft diplomacy is more crucial than ever but not something that seems to be getting a lot of political or media discussion. Yet one option to repair relations with South Korea, and perhaps even make some headway with North Korea, seems obvious if you are in Kansai: Use Japan’s Korean community as an unofficial diplomatic back-door channel of communication. And for that, there is no better place to open that channel than Osaka.
Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in was labeled “anti-Japanese” by right-wing and conservative Tokyo-based media organizations that promote historical revisionism and are particularly close to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But Kansai’s Korean residents see an opportunity. As Kwak Jin Woong of the Osaka-based Korean NGO Center noted, Moon has a broad range of contacts and support across a diverse range of groups, including citizens’ groups, of Korean residents in Osaka — and the nation in general. Given Japan’s relative lack of connections to Moon via official links, Osaka’s Korean community could prove to be helpful source of citizen diplomats.
In Kansai, diplomacy with South and North Korea is not merely an abstract principle to be discussed among diplomats, journalists, and academics. As of 2015, Justice Ministry figures showed there were about 498,000 resident Koreans in the nation’s 47 prefectures. But over 187,000 lived in Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures, with 113,000 in Osaka Prefecture alone.
And more importantly, Korean residents in Kansai have friends and family in North and South Korea with whom they remain in touch. For them, the relationship between Japan and Korea is not a diplomatic game; it’s personal, and something which, historically, they’ve been more involved with than is often understood.
During the latter half of the 20th century, Liberal Democratic Party politicians relied on Kansai’s Korean community to make introductions, facilitate meetings, and conduct quiet diplomacy with North and South Korean leaders. Whatever the controversies over history and political ideology, generations of LDP leaders understood the value of keeping a back door open to the Korean Peninsula. They cultivated relationships with Kansai Korean community leaders who had deep family and business ties to North and South Korea.
Such connections had weakened by the time Abe returned to power in 2012. But with many in his Cabinet supporting right-wing, revisionist and nationalist groups, unofficial diplomatic efforts between the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition and South Korea via Japan’s Korean community have become more difficult.
If the pessimists are right and the world is just one mistake from a conflict in East Asia, and if Moon really does have good contacts in Kansai’s Korean community, then Abe and the LDP have a moral obligation to try and utilize those contacts — and quickly. Citizen diplomacy is no substitute for professional diplomacy. But in the case of Japan’s relations with the Korean Peninsula, it is one that has played an important supporting role in the past and could do so again.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.