WASHINGTON – Japan-South Korea relations are spiraling out of control. The bilateral relationship between Tokyo and Seoul, which has undergone numerous ups and downs since the two countries normalized ties in 1965, seems to have entered an unprecedented period of uncertainty with emotional arguments against each other drowning out rational arguments for the necessity of a relationship that is functional at the very least.
To be fair, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not asked for the current tension. When he first became prime minister in the fall of 2006, Abe chose Seoul as one of his first foreign destinations. In the news conference that followed his visit he referred to South Korea as Japan’s “most important neighbor” and expressed a desire to “strengthen a future-oriented partnership of mutual understanding and trust.”
Abe then continued to reiterate that South Korea is Japan’s “most important neighbor” in his annual policy speeches to the Diet, which he delivers when the new Diet session commences in January. His reference to South Korea as “the most important neighbor” continued even when Tokyo and Seoul went more than three years without a summit meeting between Abe and then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Furthermore, Abe upheld the government’s position on the “comfort women” issue and gave a green light for the two governments to sign a December 2015 agreement under which Japan committed to provide a monetary contribution to the fund that would be established by the South Korea government, as the agreement stipulated a “final and irreversible” settlement of the issue.
Abe’s hope to close the door on history in Japan-South Korea relations came to naught when Moon Jae-in became South Korea’s president in 2016. Abe and Moon got off to a rocky start when the latter appointed a presidential commission to evaluate the December 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue.
Even though the Moon administration did not nullify the December 2015 accord, enough damage had already been done to the credibility of the agreement in Seoul when a presidential advisory panel harshly criticizing the agreement, and by the time Moon began to talk about a “two-track” strategy with Japan to prevent the history issue from hijacking the bilateral relationship.
Bilateral ties grew even colder following two incidents that unfolded in the final months of 2018. First, the South Korean government failed to act when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for Korean workers they used for labor during World War II, even though a bilateral agreement signed in 1965 settled the compensation issue. Second, the two countries’ defense establishments could not resolve conflicting claims over a dangerous encounter between a South Korean Navy destroyer and a Maritime Self-Defense Force surveillance aircraft.
Today, the depth to which the bilateral relationship can sink seems to have no limit. The two countries are practically in a trade war — a situation that began with their inability to address the Japanese export control authorities’ concern over the South Korean government’s enforcement of its export control regulation, and resulted in both sides stripping the other of their respective “preferred” status in their export control regulations.
South Korea recently hinted that it is even considering pulling out of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an important military intelligence agreement that allows Japan and South Korea to share intelligence on North Korea’s military developments. This agreement is critical to ensuring robust cooperation among the defense establishments of the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The recent turn of events between Tokyo and Seoul is all the more concerning because the sectors of the government and society that used to help stabilize bilateral relations in times of political tension have ceased to function. South Korea’s court rulings on wartime labor threw cold water on the business relationship between the two nations.
The inability to resolve the conflicting claims on the questionable encounter between the South Korean Navy and the MSDF impacted the functioning of defense ties — a situation that has been further aggravated by Seoul’s hinting about reneging on the GSOMIA. Finally, Moon’s pushing Japan to do more on the wartime issues of comfort women and mobilized laborers has been interpreted by Tokyo as an attempt to undermine the foundation of diplomatic relations that has been built since ties were normalized in 1965.
Recently, a South Korea official suggested that Seoul may need “a cooling-off period” in its interactions with Japan. The feeling is mutual. After all, Abe stopped referring to South Korea as Japan’s “most important neighbor” in this year’s annual policy address to the Diet. Despite Seoul’s hope that Moon could hold a meeting with Abe when he visited Osaka for the Group of 20 summit, the prime minister showed no interest. Today, the media of both countries use critical tones in their reporting, each blaming the other side for the stalemate.
The status quo does not help either side, however. By continuing to freeze the bilateral relationship, the two countries prevent themselves from pursuing policy issues that are critical to their futures, including the endgame for the denuclearization of North Korea.
Furthermore, as hosts to a considerable U.S. military presence at a time when Washington has a president who views alliances more as a transaction than the embodiment of the strategic importance of U.S. relationship with each country, now is not the best time for them to continue the bickering that has allowed the issues of the past — however important they may be — to dominate the bilateral relationship. Doing so has blown the disagreements over today’s issues, such as export controls, out of proportion and created more bilateral problems.
It takes a politically courageous and strategically wise decision for the leadership in both countries to begin to restore bilateral relations. The prospects for either Abe or Moon to be willing to be the first one to make such a gesture, however, seem remote at this point.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.