Commentary / Japan

Understanding the peaks and valleys of Japan-South Korea ties

by Michael Macarthur Bosak

Finally, it looks like Japan-South Korean relations are on the mend, though the two governments have certainly given skeptics reason to believe that irreparable damage has been done. As a former trilateral coordinator with those countries, I remain one of the more optimistic of the bunch, owing to my understanding of a few key principles that underwrite the relationship.

There are still miles to go before the two governments can get things back on track, but there remains an actionable foundation for long-term cooperation provided two things happen: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have to take advantage of open doors to cooperation, and the U.S. government must continue opening some of those doors.

For nearly two years, we’ve seen report after report on the degrading ties between the Japanese and South Korean governments. In November 2017, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced that the Moon administration was pulling back from the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, which was supposed to resolve the issue at the intergovernmental level.

Following the October 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling, authorities approved the seizure of assets from Japanese companies to compensate claimants deemed as forced wartime laborers. In December, South Korean and Japanese defense officials went back and forth over an incident in which a South Korean naval vessel allegedly locked its fire control radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft. This culminated a series of blows to the typically sound relationship that exists between the South Korean military and the Self-Defense Forces. Finally, last month, the World Trade Organization upheld South Korean import restrictions on food cultivated in Fukushima.

Certainly, these setbacks are important, but in examining the Japan-South Korea relationship there are five principles to keep in mind before sounding the distress signal.

One, historical and territorial issues will continue to be political impediments. There is no easy resolution to the negative sentiments generated from the memory of colonial rule or to the ongoing rhetorical battle over the sovereignty of Takeshima. Those issues will continue to generate friction between the two countries — how much depends on individual administrations.

Two, despite those political impediments, the two countries have mutual diplomatic, security and economic interests that will continue to drive cooperation. The urgency of that cooperation waxes and wanes depending on circumstances, with the big three being perceptions of U.S. commitment in the region, status of economic relations between the two countries and the level of the North Korean threat.

Three, it is harder for the two governments to create opportunities than it is for them to take advantage of those that present themselves. In other words, for Japan and South Korea, opening doors to cooperation is more difficult than walking through ones that are opened for them.

Four, the politics of South Korean nationalism tends to be a greater obstacle to near-term objectives than Japanese nationalism, with three factors influencing South Korean decision-making on cooperative activities: proximity to the Korean Peninsula, media visibility and perceptions of necessity.

Five, things aren’t really bad for the relationship unless either government starts scrapping institutions or instruments necessary for cooperation. The two governments have several programs and agreements in place that facilitate the relationship, and as long as those remain untouched, political tension is disturbing the surface rather than the roots of Japan-South Korean ties.

Given these principles, it is natural for the relationship to have peaks and valleys, especially when there is a change in administration. Some forget how bad things were when Seoul walked out on the signing ceremony for an information-sharing agreement in 2012, or when President Park Geun-hye waited almost three years before holding her first bilateral engagement with Abe.

The Moon administration, though often quarrelsome toward Japan, has not gone so far as to scrap any institutions or instruments of cooperation. Some members of the South Korean government have threatened to reopen the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between Japan and South Korea, but the Moon administration has not gone to such a drastic measure. It also has not abrogated its 2016 information-sharing agreement with Japan, instead extending it.

With the roots still in place, there has been a string of positive news recently. Moon and members of his government took advantage of the occasion of the imperial abdication to call for warmer ties between South Korea and Japan. Soon after, Kang expressed the South Korean government’s “clear will” for increased engagement between the two administrations. Last week, the two governments sat down with their mutual U.S. ally for the 11th meeting of the Defense Trilateral Talks to discuss security issues and produce a road map for cooperation.

The key principles I detailed earlier explain this course change. Right now, the urgency for repairing the relationship has increased for the Moon administration. Now that the North Koreans have ghosted inter-Korean engagement and returned to provocative behavior, the Blue House must rethink its quarrelsome stance toward Japan. After all, Japan was a driving force behind the “maximum pressure” campaign and is essential to South Korean security should military conflict break out on the Korean Peninsula. The fact that Abe is pursuing his own summit with Kim Jong Un also increases the impetus to maintain close coordination, lest Japan pursue its own deal with North Korea that inadvertently undermines the Moon administration’s interests.

Meanwhile, Japanese companies have begun to rethink investment in South Korea. The ruling on wartime forced labor issues and subsequent move to seize assets from Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. (now Nippon Steel Corp.) and others has imposed a major deterrent for Japanese investors. This is problematic for South Korea, since Japan is a top five partner for both imports and exports and accounts for over $1 billion of foreign direct investment.

The return of the Defense Trilateral Talks is a boon for the Japan-South Korea relationship since it creates opportunities that neither the Japanese nor the Koreans are politically able to create themselves. There are challenges though: The language in last week’s joint statement from the three partners was vaguer than past iterations, and while the three countries met, it does not mean that they did so with enthusiasm.

The U.S. government will have to continue opening doors to cooperation and ushering its allies through them. Given that Japan and South Korea are still on tenuous footing, it will be important to produce windows of opportunity that are away from the Korean Peninsula and that target meaningful areas of security cooperation such as ballistic missile defense, anti-submarine warfare and ship inspection operations.

The more immediate event to observe is the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Osaka. It will be Moon’s first trip to Japan, and Abe and Moon’s decision of whether to dedicate one-on-one time with each other will be telling. The occasion of the G20 makes it an easy option for the two leaders — they simply must choose to employ it.

Will the recent trend of positive signaling and engagement generate enough momentum to allow progress after a long period of regression? Provided that Moon and Abe take advantage of the open doors before them, and the U.S. government continues to push its allies toward cooperation, this former trilateral coordinator believes so.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Previously, he was the deputy chief of government relations at headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan and was a U.S. Air Force officer..

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