National / Politics | FOCUS

Japan and South Korea still in game of chicken after superficial signs of detente

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

It had the look of a typical public relations photo — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in chatting side-by-side on a sofa during a short meeting in Bangkok.

But the handout photo, taken on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting on Nov. 4, has become yet another source of controversy in the ongoing quarrel between Tokyo and Seoul.

Japanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have claimed the photo was taken by South Korean officials and released to the media without Tokyo’s consent.

Diplomats “usually will never do such a thing,” said a fuming high-ranking Foreign Ministry official.

The 11-minute chat happened by coincidence, and Tokyo didn’t intend to publicize that it had even taken place. But Seoul released the photo immediately after the meeting, saying in a press statement the talks were held in an “amicable and serious atmosphere.”

“Cheong Wa Dae (the Blue House) was quick to spin the meeting as a chance for the two leaders to ‘reaffirm the principle that bilateral issues must be resolved through dialogue,'” read an editorial in the Nov. 5 English version of the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper.

“But Japan had quite a different take on the brief meeting. … Perhaps only Korea is getting excited about what was after all the briefest of chats,” read the editorial, titled “Why Has Anti-Japanese Sentiment Suddenly Evaporated?”

The incident underscored Seoul’s recent effort to stage a thaw — however superficial — between the two leaders as a gesture to the United States, which observers say has been pressuring South Korea to stay in a trilateral intelligence-sharing pact that is set to formally expire Nov. 23. The U.S. regards the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which South Korea announced it would scrap in August, as a key symbolic instrument in the countries’ security alliance against the North Korean military threat.

“South Korea was desperately trying to arrange an Abe-Moon meeting. That tenacity was rather unusual in my view,” said Kan Kimura, a professor of Korean studies at Kobe University.”Seoul was trying to show a gesture of doing something to improve ties with Japan. And it is the U.S. that they are trying to show it to,” he said.

Kimura believes that Moon quickly responded to U.S. pressure fearing Washington could exclude Seoul from its ongoing talks with Pyongyang over its nuclear arms and missile programs.

The ultimate goal for Moon, Kimura says, is for the South Korean people to independently control the political fate of the Korean Peninsula.

But in reality, Seoul has no choice but to rely on the U.S. in any denuclearization talks with the North now, which is why Moon is trying to at least show some semblance of a detente with Japan, he said.

The Chosun Ilbo also concluded that strong U.S. pressure has forced Moon to make a sudden policy shift and warm up to Japan.

“The U.S. protested strongly against the scrapping of the pact, and Cheong Wa Dae was cornered. Now Seoul has to cling to any shred of justification to extend the pact, and a meeting with Japanese officials is crucial to make that happen,” the newspaper said. “That is why our South Korea looks more desperate than Japan.”

But so far, Seoul’s attempts to arrange another Abe-Moon meeting have all failed, and the clock continues to tick on GSOMIA.

Yuki Asaba, a professor of Korean studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, pointed out that Moon’s government has not hammered out any new proposal to resolve the wartime labor issue, only focusing on GSOMIA and Japan’s export curbs introduced in July.

This makes it almost impossible for Abe, from a political standpoint, to make major concessions for South Korea, he said.

And beyond Nagatacho, a Nikkei poll from earlier this year showed a vast majority of the public supports Abe’s tough diplomatic stance against South Korea.

According to the poll, taken on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 67 percent of the respondents said they support the export controls, while 67 percent separately said Tokyo does not need to rush to improve ties with Seoul if it requires concessions.

Tokyo believes any compromise on the wartime labor issue could undermine the 1965 pact that normalized bilateral ties and lead to numerous compensation claims pertaining to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

In October last year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel Corp. to pay compensation to four South Korean wartime forced laborers, reigniting the long-standing issue of compensation. The ruling has been followed by many similar court rulings in South Korea.

Tokyo has strongly requested that the South Korean government take measures to avoid damages to Japanese firms, citing the 1965 pact under which Japan paid $500 million for “economic cooperation.”

The pact obliges the South Korean government to pay any compensation to individual laborers using some of those funds.

But Seoul has not taken action so far on the recent rulings, citing judicial independence.

“There is no change in the position of the Japanese government, which has called for a correction of the situation that violates international law,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters on Friday.

“The ball is now in the court of South Korea, or the South Korean government,” the minister said.

In July, Japan announced it will introduce new export control measures on key materials needed by South Korean makers of semiconductors.

Despite Tokyo’s claims to the contrary, the move has been widely regarded as retaliation over Seoul’s inaction on the wartime labor issue.

Even after its August decision to scrap the pact, Seoul has recently suggested it would renew GSOMIA if Tokyo agrees to withdraw the export restrictions. But Japan has rejected this idea, saying South Korea must first address the issue of compensation over the wartime laborers.

“(GSOMIA) won’t be renewed unless South Korea changes its way of thinking,” said the high-ranking Foreign Ministry official.

On Nov. 5 in Tokyo, South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-san revealed his own proposal that a joint fund be created to provide money to former wartime laborers by collecting voluntary donations from both South Korean and Japanese firms and individuals.

But Tokyo had already rejected a similar proposal from Seoul to set up a joint fund, saying the 1965 pact has already legally settled the compensation issue and it is the South Korean side, not Japanese firms or individuals, that must acknowledge that agreement.

Given strong public opinion in both countries, it would be politically difficult for either Abe or Moon to make major concessions, Asaba of Doshisha University said.

“They are on a collision course, and this is a game of chicken,” said Asaba.

“I don’t think the bilateral relationship has hit bottom yet.”

Staff writer Sakura Murakami contributed to this report.