WASHINGTON – The bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea has been one of the most difficult to manage. The complications began in 1910 when Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula, which was then under the rule of the Yi dynasty. Japan’s defeat in World War II brought an end to its colonial rule on the peninsula, but the mistreatment of Koreans during Japan’s colonial rule continues to overshadow the bilateral relationship to this day. Three history issues have haunted bilateral relations: “comfort women”; wartime labor; and how some Japanese history textbooks describe Japan’s prewar behavior. In addition there is the dispute over the sovereignty of Takeshima.
Today, the Japan-South Korea relationship seems to have sunk to its lowest point since the two countries normalized relations in 1965. The diplomatic tension between the two countries came out in the open when the South Korean Supreme Court issued a ruling in October ordering Japanese companies to financially compensate those who claimed they were mobilized as forced labor during World War II.
Bilateral tension reached new heights when the Defense Ministry announced that a South Korean Navy destroyer’s targeting radar had locked onto a Maritime Self-Defense Force surveillance aircraft. As the deadlock over this incident continued, South Korea came out with a new allegation that the MSDF surveillance aircraft had flown at a dangerously low altitude, calling the maneuver “provocative.” Both sides completely dismiss each other’s allegations, with no end of tensions in sight.
While friction over history issues between Tokyo and Seoul is not new, the current chain of events has been taking place at a time when several critical trends are converging. First is a pervasive “Korea fatigue” in Japan. While it is easy to only focus on the most recent events, the deterioration of the bilateral relationship predates the current leadership in both countries.
In fact, at least from the perspective of Tokyo, the most recent cycle of deterioration of the bilateral relationship began when South Korean President Lee Myun-bak visited Takeshima in 2012. Lee followed this visit — the first for a South Korea president — with a demand that the Japanese emperor apologize to the Korean pro-independence activists from the era of Japan’s colonial rule. This reaffirmed concerns held by many Japanese political leaders and policy elites that the South Korean political leadership politicizes historical legacy issues with Japan for political gain.
The recovery that the bilateral relationship made toward the end of Park Geun-hye’s presidency with the signing of the long-overdue General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the December 2015 agreement on the “irreversible resolution” of the comfort women issue was quickly lost when the Moon administration began to take measures that Tokyo thought were aimed at undermining the diplomatic agreement.
In other words, Japan for the most part sees any South Korean government action that is critical of Japan as politically motivated and therefore is not willing to make any compromise vis-a-vis Seoul.
Second, the current government in Seoul is more focused on North-South reconciliation than maintaining close policy coordination with Washington and Tokyo when it comes to the nuclear and other challenges posed by North Korea. Worse, with the negotiation to renew the bilateral Special Measures Agreement deadlocked over how much more Seoul can and should pay in host-nation support for U.S. forces in South Korea, Seoul seems less interested in maintaining a robust U.S.-South Korea alliance.
And the South Korean public seems to back the government on this, too: A recent poll suggests that the majority of South Koreans would tolerate a reduction or a withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Korea rather than caving into pressure by the Trump administration to increase host-nation support. At a time when North Korea is no longer considered an enemy of South Korea and Moon is giving North-South reconciliation the highest priority on his agenda, management of the bilateral alliance with the U.S. seems to have taken a backseat in Seoul, let alone the relationship with Japan — another U.S. ally in the region.
Finally, the Trump administration’s transactional bilateral approach to foreign policy has made the U.S. less engaged in the effort to ensure that the relationship between its two important allies in East Asia is at least functional. After all, when Japanese and South Korean leaders were not on speaking terms under the Park administration, it was President Barack Obama who forced Japanese and South Korean leaders to talk by organizing a U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit meeting. Because no such leadership can be expected from the U.S. under the current administration, there is no function that can compel Tokyo and Seoul to even begin to look for an opening for dialogue.
What is particularly worrisome about the recent turn of events is that they involve two sectors — business and national defense — that have in the past worked to stabilize the relationship even when tensions ran high on the political level. The South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling against Japanese companies on forced labor, which includes an order to confiscate these companies’ assets in South Korea, had a chilling effect on Japanese businesses. Likewise, exchanges of blame between two countries’ defense ministries have significantly undermined the stability that defense ties have provided for the bilateral relationship.
This is truly unfortunate. In today’s world, Japan and South Korea share much in common in addition to facing security challenges from North Korea. Both countries benefited greatly from the post-World War II liberal international order. They share an appreciation for fundamental international norms and values that underline the system — democracy, open economies, respect for human rights, and respect for internationally recognized rules and norms, to name a few.
Most importantly, their respective bilateral alliances with the United States have long contributed to stability and prosperity in Northeast Asia. The damage to Japan-South Korea relations will not be contained to the two countries. Rather, if left unattended, the strained bilateral relationship has the potential to fundamentally undermine the U.S. alliance system on which Tokyo and Seoul depend for their security and prosperity.
It is up to the leadership in Tokyo and Seoul to realize the implications of the downfall of their bilateral relations and begin efforts to find an opening for dialogue.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.