Later this year will mark a decade since former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak set foot on the Sea of Japan islets of Dokdo, controlled by South Korea and claimed by Japan, in August 2012, damaging the bilateral relationship.

Although a new government is set to be launched in South Korea in May following a presidential election, Tokyo and Seoul have been so locked in mutual distrust that some experts say there is no way to put their relationship back together.

Halted shuttle diplomacy

After landing on the islands in Shimane Prefecture, which are called Takeshima in Japan, Lee said that then-Emperor Akihito should apologize to those who died in the movement of independence from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula if he wants to visit South Korea. The remark escalated the emotional standoff between the two countries.

The bilateral relations appeared to turn for the better when the two Asian neighbors agreed to resolve the so-called comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly” in December 2015, when Park Geun-hye was South Korea’s president. “Comfort women” is a euphemism for those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. They were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.

As the fence-mending efforts partly reflected pressure exerted by the administration of then U.S. President Barack Obama, however, they eventually did not last long.

Japan and South Korea conducted so-called shuttle diplomacy, with each country’s leader making reciprocal visits to the other nation, until December 2011, but the practice has been halted since then.

Following a South Korean Supreme Court ruling in 2018 ordering a Japanese company to pay compensation to South Korean plaintiffs for wartime labor, Japan introduced stricter controls on exports to South Korea in 2019 and moves to boycott Japanese products spread in South Korea.

In 2020 and onward, Japan and South Korea have not held a summit meeting, not even talks held on the occasion of international meetings.

Sohn Yul, president of South Korea’s East Asia Institute, said that South Korean people came to think that Japan as a whole is leaning to the right and that Japanese people came to believe that they cannot share values with South Korea.

No sense of inferiority

In August 2019, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stressed that his country will never lose to Japan and can overtake Japan’s economy, against the backdrop of South Korea’s growing economy and improving international status.

Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate for South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea, also clarified a sense of rivalry toward Japan in a speech delivered in October last year, saying that he will work on building a country that overtakes Japan and leads the world.

These remarks are the flip side of rebellion against Japan or a sense of inferiority toward Japan, Sohn said.

Noting that older generations in South Korea tend to feel that they have to learn from Japan and catch up with Japan, Sohn said such a mentality is behind the remarks by Moon and Lee.

On the other hand, younger generations do not feel any economic gap between South Korea and Japan and have no sense of inferiority toward Japan, according to Sohn. Many of young South Korean people who began to understand things after their country joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1996 and have only seen Japan stagnating economically apparently have little sense of rivalry toward Japan and do not see much need to cooperate with the neighboring country.

Candidates stressing cooperation

Still, few say the current situation can be left as it is.

Any move in South Korea to cash in assets seized from Japanese companies over the wartime labor issue is expected to lead to a more serious standoff between the two countries.

On Thursday, a South Korean district court branch issued an order for the sale of Nippon Steel Corp. assets in South Korea that have been seized over a wartime labor lawsuit. This is the second court order instructing the sale of a Japanese company’s assets in a damages suit over wartime labor after the one issued in September last year over Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. assets.

On Dec. 27 last year, Lee Jae-myung met with Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koichi Aiboshi and said that it would be desirable for Japan and South Korea to cooperate in a future-oriented manner.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the main conservative opposition People Power Party’s presidential candidate, calls for resuming shuttle diplomacy with Japan.

Sohn said that young South Koreans’ anti-China sentiment is stronger than their anti-Japan sentiment and that how Seoul faces Beijing could become a key factor bringing South Korea closer to Japan.

Even if Yoon wins the presidential election, the foundations of his administration are expected to be weak as the Democratic Party of Korea holds an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats.

A source familiar with Japan-South Korea relations said that it would not be easy to solve pending bilateral issues no matter who becomes South Korea’s president and that the situation does not warrant optimism.

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