Over the past few weeks South Korea has dispatched high-ranking government officials and lawmakers to Japan, seeking a breakthrough in a bilateral relationship characterized by some to be in its worst state since 1965 when diplomatic relations were normalized.
South Korea and especially President Moon Jae-in seem eager to patch up the fractured relations, seizing changes in leadership in Japan and the United States and a summit scheduled to be hosted by Seoul as a golden opportunity to score diplomatic points and boost popularity.
But Japan has remained unmoved by South Korea’s passionate overtures, with the issue of compensation over wartime labor being a sticking point between them.
The two sides have been at a stalemate for years over court proceedings to seize and liquidate Japanese firms’ assets as reparations for South Koreans forced to work against their will during the Japanese occupation, which took place between 1910 and 1945.
While Japan holds its ground and prods South Korea to adjust course, pressure is mounting on Moon as he endeavors to hammer out solutions with the clock ticking on both the liquidation process and his tenure as president.
“The government’s view, that Japan-South Korea ties are in a very severe state, hasn’t changed at all,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato in a briefing on Nov. 13. “Japan will continue to urge South Korea to do its part to restore healthy bilateral relations.”
The remark came the same day Kim Jin-pyo, a lawmaker who leads the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Association in South Korea, met with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Kim and several lawmakers traveling with him also met with Japanese politicians that are members of Japan’s Japan-South Korea Parliamentarians’ Association. The delegation’s visit to Japan was the first since South Korea’s legislative election in April.
South Korean lawmakers demonstrated their willingness to support government talks between the two countries, said Shinkun Haku, a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker and a member of the association, who attended the meeting.
“Both sides essentially agreed that Japan can’t do much unless South Korea thrashes out and presents some sort of measures on wartime labor,” Haku said. “So we didn’t really make suggestions to them on what to do.”
Kim was not the only visitor from South Korea last week. A few days earlier, Park Jie-won, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency, also met with Suga as well as Shigeru Kitamura, secretary-general of Japan’s National Security Council, and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai in Tokyo.
Park and Nikai have long been friends, and the secretary-general is considered within the conservative LDP to be a dove keen on cooperation with both South Korea and China.
Japan, too, has explored opportunities to reach out to South Korea. Takeo Kawamura, leader of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union and a prominent member of Nikai’s LDP faction, visited South Korea last month to meet with Kim and several other South Korean lawmakers.
Shigeki Takizaki, who is in charge of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, met his counterpart in person shortly after Kawamura’s visit, and Takeo Akiba, vice minister at the Foreign Ministry, held a telephone conference with his equivalent this month.
All of the meetings, according to the Japanese officials who attended them, underscored a broader desire for improved ties.
How to get there, though, is a different challenge. Those in Japan remain firm in their belief that it is up to South Korea to do its part, particularly on wartime labor.
There are elements that can’t be compromised in diplomatic relations, “unlike human relationships,” said one senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide candid assessments on sensitive diplomatic matters.
“The number of people in South Korea who want to fix the relationship with Japan is growing,” said the senior Foreign Ministry official. “It’s difficult for South Korea, too, to have a tough relationship with Japan.”
The relationship, which had previously been turbulent at times, rapidly deteriorated in 2018 when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for wartime forced labor.
The judicial decision, in the Japanese government’s view, contradicted a key 1965 pact that was concluded to settle all post-colonial compensation issues, including those for wartime labor.
The ruling unleashed a subsequent tit-for-tat fracas, with Tokyo tightening controls on exports of certain chemicals to South Korea and Seoul threatening to terminate a military-intelligence sharing pact.
The series of developments deepened mistrust on both sides, and Tokyo was enraged in August when South Korea inched toward liquidating Nippon Steel Corp.’s assets by seizing them. The Japanese steelmaker immediately filed an appeal against the seizure, stalling the liquidation process and buying time for the two countries to reach an agreement.
This month, a South Korean court completed the task of delivering legal documents notifying Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to sell its assets, a prerequisite for their ultimate liquidation.
Suga made clear in his first telephone call as prime minister with Moon in September that Japan wouldn’t budge over the wartime labor issue.
“I told President Moon that current bilateral relations, which are in a very severe state at this moment due to issues such as wartime labor, should not be left as is,” Suga told reporters after the teleconference. “I continue to press South Korea strongly to take appropriate action based on our coherent position on various issues.”
Moon appears motivated to make progress in ties with Japan. One factor is the appointment of Suga, who is seen as a pragmatic realist, as prime minister, said the Foreign Ministry official. Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, was widely seen in South Korea as a nationalist ideologue, and his departure could have prompted Moon to seek a fresh start.
Another factor is the U.S. presidential election, said Yuki Asaba, a professor of Korean studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto. With Democrat President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Moon has been forced to re-evaluate his diplomatic policy.
“With Biden — who has very different diplomatic approaches compared to President Donald Trump, emphasizing alliances and multinationalism — the environment for U.S. allies in East Asia will be different,” Asaba said. “For Moon, he has no choice but to start making adjustments to a certain degree.”
The Trump administration has been largely indifferent toward scuffles between Japan and South Korea.
Based on experiences during President Barack Obama’s tenure, when Biden was vice president, Japanese and South Korean government officials are bracing for potential pressure from the incoming administration to be on amicable terms.
The Obama administration prioritized unity to counter North Korea and China, demanding Japan and South Korea overlook their differences. Obama even brokered a meeting between Abe and then-President Park Geun-hye in 2014 to break simmering tensions.
An official in Japan’s administration, however, didn’t anticipate intense pressure from the U.S. on Tokyo, noting that a 2015 agreement on so-called comfort women that the U.S. had pushed behind the scenes unraveled when Moon took office. The deal was termed as “the final and irreversible resolution” of the issue involving the women, who were forced or coerced into Japan’s wartime brothel system under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.
Foreseeing that a U.S. effort to bring them together through the deal would be in vain, the official speculated that the incoming administration was likely to have been dissuaded from trying to mediate.
An additional factor is the planned trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan and China, slated for December. This year would be the first time Moon would preside over the annual meeting.
Moon is struggling on domestic policies — in particular over failing to bring down soaring housing prices, which are partly blamed on his government officials and their family members buying up units and causing inflation that has put homes out of reach for the general public.
His approval rating stood at 47% in October, a 24-point drop from May when he was praised for his handling of COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Gallup poll. The figure isn’t the worst among past approval ratings — it sank to 39% in an October 2019 Gallup poll — but it is enough to rattle the president, which could motivate him to score points in foreign affairs.
Moon has even appeared desperate to tempt Suga into a meeting, extending a special greeting to the prime minister during an ASEAN Plus Three videoconference last Saturday.
South Korea also proposed a phone call with Suga when he assumed the role of prime minister, in a glimmer of hope that ties between two nations might finally improve.
The Japanese government insists nothing has been planned. Another senior Foreign Ministry official stressed that Suga would skip the summit unless there was an assurance that the asset liquidation process would be scrapped.
“It’d be a huge mistake if the liquidation process proceeds during or after attending the meeting,” the official said.
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