Japan’s relations with South Korea are unlikely to see a significant improvement in 2019, as tensions over wartime issues have reared up in recent months and inflamed passions on both sides of the Sea of Japan.
In a fresh sign of friction, the Japanese government accused a South Korean warship of locking its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane on Dec. 20 and released video footage taken from the aircraft. Seoul has denied Japan’s claim.
“Mistrust of South Korea has risen more than ever” within the Japanese government, a source at the Prime Minister’s Office said in the wake of the radar incident.
Japan and South Korea have otherwise forged close economic ties and expanded person-to-person exchanges. In the first half of 2018, diplomatic ties showed improvement as the countries cooperated closely in efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in traveled to Tokyo in May for a trilateral summit that also involved Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
But in late October, the situation took a turn for the worse when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay compensation to four South Koreans who were forced into labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.
Another similar ruling the following month ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate two groups of South Koreans for similar reasons.
But Japan maintains that compensation for South Koreans conscripted as wartime laborers was settled under an agreement attached to a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The accord stipulates that issues concerning property and claims between the two countries and their peoples have been settled “completely and finally.”
In November, Seoul drew anger from Tokyo by disbanding a Japan-funded foundation established under a 2015 bilateral accord to settle the issue of “comfort women,” who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers — an emotional, long-time sticking point between the two countries.
Susumu Kohari, a professor well-versed in Korean affairs at the University of Shizuoka, said anti-Japan sentiment could gain steam in 2019, as the year marks the 100th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement — major resistance demonstrations held in 1919 to protest Japanese colonial rule.
The South Korean government has launched an organizing committee for a series of ceremonies for the anniversary, with Moon expressing hope that joint events will be held with North Korea.
But when it comes to the court rulings, the South Korean government has remained vague on its stance and it seems Seoul is not planning to come to a conclusion too hastily.
Moon explained in mid-December to a group of Japanese lawmakers visiting Seoul that his government “will take sufficient time to explore a solution.”
The South Korean government is apparently considering setting up a foundation involving itself and companies from both countries and using money from that institution to compensate the plaintiffs, a plan Japan is unlikely to accept.
Yuki Asaba, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture, said the South Korean government should have prepared its response to the rulings well in advance, as results of this kind were easily predictable.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the right of former workers and their families to seek compensation was not invalidated by the 1965 pact and ordered a retrial.
“South Korea has put its relations with Japan on the back burner, as it has been obsessed with improving ties between the United States and North Korea,” said Asaba, who is also an expert in Korean affairs.
Kohari thinks Japan’s priority in South Korea’s diplomatic pecking order has fallen, noting the governments of both countries “lack a vision” of how to develop bilateral ties.
As Moon’s five-year tenure will hit the halfway point at the end of 2019, the president may take a tougher stance toward Japan in an attempt to woo the public and avoid being regarded as a lame duck, Kohari said.
South Korean presidents, who are banned from seeking re-election, tend to become progressively impotent as the second half of their term progresses.
Japan hopes to find a mutually acceptable solution to the wartime labor rulings. “We have to avoid having a directly hostile relationship with South Korea,” a Foreign Ministry source said, citing the need for trilateral cooperation with the United States as the issue of North Korea continues to loom.
Japan also needs Seoul’s cooperation to solve the issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s — one of Abe’s main political goals.
Still, tensions run deep and Tokyo has indicated it will not rule out the possibility of seeking the establishment of an arbitration panel to address the wartime labor issues, which either side can do as stated in the 1965 accord, or taking them to the International Court of Justice.
Asaba believes South Korea could welcome such proposals as it has become difficult to find mutually acceptable solutions under the current circumstances.