WASHINGTON – Relations between Japan and South Korea have descended to a new low. To be sure, the downward trend in Japan’s ties with its closest neighbor is not new: Even after the two countries first agreed on a “future-oriented relationship” when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and President Kim Dae-jung met in 1998, Japan and South Korea have gone through cycles of rising diplomatic tensions over history issues and mutual attempts to put the relationship on a more constructive path. The most recent cycle began in August 2012 when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Takeshima islets (called Dokdo by South Korea), whose sovereignty is disputed by the two countries.
The relationship between Tokyo and Seoul saw a slight improvement after both governments signed an agreement on the “final and irreversible” settlement of the “comfort women” issue in December 2015 and signed the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement in November 2016 toward the end of President Park Geun-hye’s administration. However, anxiety grew during the presidential campaign as candidate Moon Jae-in openly questioned the validity of the 2015 comfort women agreement. Indeed, following his inauguration, Moon set up a presidential commission to review the agreement. While he ultimately decided in January 2018 against pursuing a renegotiation of the deal, Japan considered his decision to review the agreement as undermining its legitimacy.