As he campaigned to be South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in was often portrayed in Japan as a radical leftist, perhaps even propped up by North Korea (though evidence never went further than paranoia-inflected hearsay). It was assumed that the 2015 “comfort women” agreement would surely be scrapped and his overtures to North Korea would empower the North, if not signify outright capitulation.
But far from being a waffling dilettante or leftist firebrand, he’s shown himself to be a canny leader who’s focused on the long game. Notably, his initial statements upon taking office regarding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the comfort women agreement were measured and rarely went further than promising to review the prior commitments made by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Given the scale and depth of Park’s corruption scandal, possibly touching every policy initiative of her administration, it’s fair to undertake a thorough review of its major decisions, if only to legitimize future initiatives.
For Japan, Moon’s success in office will largely depend on how he manages historical issues almost as much as his management of the North Korean threat. That’s not to say that history issues are irrelevant to South Koreans — a poll conducted one year after the 2015 agreement showed that 59 percent of South Koreans thought the agreement should be scrapped, with only 25.5 percent in favor of keeping it — but Japan’s response to the placement of a comfort woman statue outside of its consulate in Busan showed how much weight the Japanese government places on history issues in its bilateral relations with South Korea.
South Korea underestimates Japanese frustration that its efforts to address the comfort women issue have been deemed insufficient just as Japan underestimates the sincerity of South Korean anger about the issue. Whether Japanese efforts have been sufficient is a separate issue, but from a Japanese perspective, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indeed gone farther than any of his predecessors. Japan may almost see its position as an implicit quid pro quo: Because Japan is making efforts through the 2015 agreement, the statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and withholding from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, it’s fair to expect that South Korea should reciprocate by diminishing or at least circumscribing history issues’ domestic salience in South Korea’s relations with Japan, starting with the statues.
But that’s exactly what Moon has done — his comments on June 13 to Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, asked for Japan’s understanding that more time is needed to resolve the issue since most South Koreans could not accept the terms of the 2015 agreement. He followed these comments in an interview later that month, saying that the “core to resolving the issue is for Japan to take legal responsibility for its actions and to make an official apology.” And at the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum last week in Vladivostok, Russia, Prime Minister Abe and Moon met for 50 minutes and agreed that the two countries would not be held back by disputes over historical issues.
More important is what isn’t being said. Moon did not demand that the 2015 agreement be scrapped or lecture Japan on adopting a “correct view of history,” either of which would have hardly been objectionable given South Koreans’ opinion of the 2015 agreement. Efforts to shame Japan for its failure to atone for its colonial atrocities have only reinforced Japan’s defensiveness, making it more difficult, not easier, for Abe and successive Japanese leaders to build on past steps. Moon has been wise to avoid this approach so far. Instead, he has taken a measured approach that registers South Koreans’ unhappiness with the 2015 agreement while also giving Japan its own political space to address the issue.
What Japan does with that space is a different question. Japan is certainly not lacking in options for building goodwill, but likely won’t take the first step in building on the agreement, probably because of the outstanding issue of the statues. At this point, it’s worth noting the role of the statues in the 2015 agreement. According to the announcement that accompanied the agreement, South Korea would strive to “solve (the issue with the statues) in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organizations about possible ways of addressing this issue.” While those familiar with the negotiations say the statement was made sincerely and in good faith, the agreement does not obligate South Korea to remove the statues. Yet the placement of the statue in Busan was sufficient for Japan to temporarily recall its ambassador from Seoul and its consul general from Busan and suspend discussions on currency swaps.
Moon has been smart not to give Japan further ammunition. Instead, by effectively “domesticating” the issue, he’s allowed Japan to take its own initiative on whether the agreement will hold. But by writing Moon off as an anti-Japan radical, Japan risks finding an enemy where none exists. If Japan wants Moon to address the statues, it would be more productive to give him his own political space to do so rather than giving him reasons to let them stay.
Paul Nadeau is a private secretary for a member of the Diet’s Lower House.