Commentary / Japan

Decluttering the Japan-South Korea debate

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

There has been no shortage of commentary on the recent tensions between Japan and South Korea. The focus is justified, considering the importance of this relationship to the economy and security of Northeast Asia and abroad, but the rush to define exactly what is driving the conflict has led to a mischaracterization of the factors underwriting it. These tensions are layered and complex, so to declutter the current discourse for policymakers, negotiators and observers, I challenge two prevailing arguments.

The first is the claim that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking actions against South Korea to secure domestic political capital; the second is that his administration has an inherently anti-Korean platform. On the contrary, there is simply no substantial political gain for Japan from escalatory measures against South Korea, and up until this year, the administration’s yearslong policy has been to foster engagement with South Korea, not erode it. Those things both suggest that Japan’s policy actions of late are not driven by anti-Korean sentiment as many have argued, but as practical responses — whether right or wrong — to recently developing situations between the two countries.

Starting first with the claim that there is a domestic political gain for Abe from escalating tensions against South Korea, there is none to be had. Case in point: The Upper House elections just took place in July and tensions with South Korea did not register as a voting issue. Turnout was a near-record low, and valence issues like the economy continued to monopolize voter priorities. Even if Abe was seeking to gain votes via a hard-line stance against South Korea — which again, he is not — there is not another major election in Japan scheduled until October 2021. In short, this is not about politicking for votes.

What about satisfying domestic right-wingers? Many observers have rushed to assert that Abe is “playing to his base” without clarification of what that means. Those individuals will throw out terms like the Nippon Kaigi (the name of a special interest group) and kenkan (anti-South Korean sentiment) without adequately explaining why Abe would challenge existing government policies to prioritize those things over national interest. Whatever those critics claim, since taking office in 2012, Abe has continually demonstrated pragmatism over ideology.

As for Nippon Kaigi, the group has its own interest in claiming outsize influence on Japanese politics, and it will argue that any politician who sends a dairi (a business card-wielding staffer) to one of its conferences is affiliated with the organization. Also, while there is still a real and problematic anti-Korean segment of the population in Japan, they do not wield enough political influence to matter right now because they lack the numbers, the organization or the real policy activism to make a substantial difference in Japanese governance.

Further, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is not a monolithic organization with a single set of views on any issue. Rather, it runs the gamut from center-left to right, even with regard to tensions with South Korea. For example, soon after the patrol plane radar lock incident took place last December, some LDP lawmakers demanded immediate sanctions against South Korea. Others called for a de-escalation of tensions and visited South Korea in bids to produce off-ramps for the conflict. The Abe administration has to balance interests from all sides within the party, and the political benefits of taking a heavier-handed approach do not outweigh the costs.

The second claim that the Abe administration has an anti-South Korean platform ignores six years of evidence. I worked in the Foreign Ministry in 2013 and the Diet in 2014, and as a trilateral security coordinator between the United States, Japan and South Korea for years after that. It was my business to understand the Abe administration’s stance toward South Korea, and up until the radar incident last December, Tokyo’s standing policy was to foster better ties with its regional partner, no matter how difficult that may be given historical issues.

When South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office in 2013, things were already shaky between the two governments. President Lee Myung-bak had recently visited the disputed Takeshima islets and Park made the claim that the relationship between Japan as the aggressor and Korea as the victim would last a thousand years.

That difficult situation did not dissuade the Abe administration from continuing to prioritize engagement with South Korea. Seoul was kept atop the list of important partners in security documents, on par with or just behind Australia. The country maintained its place on Japan’s export whitelists despite tensions that simmered for years. The Abe government worked steadily toward resolution of historical issues while taking steps to avoid regression of ties.

There are historical issues that serve as flash points in the relationship, and while the baseline Japanese policy may not be favorable to many South Koreans, the Abe administration’s approach has been threefold: to resolve what it could; not to exacerbate issues that were unsolvable; and not to reopen matters that were considered previously closed via international agreement.

The Abe administration sought resolution on wartime atrocities in negotiating the 2015 “comfort women” agreement. The Moon administration has refuted the agreement, but it still was a South Korean government of both bureaucrats and elected officials that negotiated and ratified it.

Further, many will claim that Abe has continually refused to acknowledge the comfort women issue and to apologize, but a clear statement at the time of agreement in 2015, which was then forwarded to the United Nations for record, challenges that assertion: “As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

With regard to the Takeshima islets, the Japanese government under Abe has continued its decadeslong claim on them. However, the Abe administration has never sent anyone higher than a sub-Cabinet official to Shimane Prefecture’s annual “Takeshima Day,” and the last request to have the issue settled by the International Court of Justice came under the Democratic Party of Japan-led government in August 2012, not Abe’s LDP.

Then there is the issue of Yasukuni Shrine. In his seven-plus years as prime minister dating back to his first run in 2006, Abe has only visited the shrine once, in December 2013. He has purposely avoided traveling to the shrine to mitigate tensions with regional neighbors, including South Korea.

It is also worth noting that with all of the debate centering on the Abe administration’s treatment of Article 9 — the war renunciation clause of the Constitution — the incident in which his government pushed the envelope of constitutionality the furthest came in support of South Korea.

As the situation deteriorated in South Sudan in December 2013, South Korean peacekeepers came under attack. By Dec. 22, they had expended most of their small arms ammunition, and desperately needing resupply, the South Korean unit commander reached out to the nearest contingent that had compatible ammunition available: the Ground Self-Defense Force in Juba.

Japanese decision-makers on the ground wanted to act, but there was no precedent for provision of ammunition. In fact, if the Japanese commander had provided the ammunition to the South Koreans and they in turn used it in armed conflict, it could have constituted a violation of Article 9 and the “Three Principles on Arms Exports” which were still in effect at the time. Abe’s newly formed National Security Council nevertheless acted swiftly, and by midday on Dec. 23, the government decided to provide 10,000 rounds of ammunition to South Korean peacekeepers.

I was present in the LDP headquarters in January 2014 when LDP Diet members issued an inquiry into the constitutionality of that decision, and the prevailing response was that Japan’s critical partner needed the support, and that they would debate how to shape future legislation to accommodate situations such as these.

Nothing in this commentary is meant to suggest that Japan’s current policies are right or wrong. Damage is being done, and it behooves both parties to re-examine their current trajectory to find a better way forward. To do that, it is critical to identify what factors are driving tensions, and in cases as complex as these, it is best to start by decluttering the debate.

Here, the Abe administration’s actions are not being driven by a desire to curry political favor or to placate a base, nor are they born from anti-South Korean policy preferences. It is time to put those arguments aside and gain a more clear-eyed perspective of the current problem so that all interested parties can cease a lose-lose conflict.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.

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