16.03.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan-South Korea: Mutual Resentment is Hardly on Decline


One would have to point out straightaway that the subject of rising tensions between Japan and South Korea is not among the top events in world politics, which are primarily shaped by the media. In all likelihood, ordinary people are not even remotely interested in developments involving Japan and the Republic of Korea.

On the other hand, enthralling descriptions of various aspects of preparations for, staging of and outcomes of the scheduled historic meeting between the leaders of the United States and DPRK are another matter altogether. And yet a lack of any signs of preliminary work, conducted by experts on bridging the gap between initial bargaining positions of the two sides (incompatible at the onset and now), helped define the entire event as a political show, which both of its participants needed for one reason or another. After all, the issue under negotiation could not, from the onset, be resolved quickly via “a stroke of insight.”

With the media space dominated by simulacra representing real life, created by news makers, the “world community” has suddenly become aware of the existence of a certain geographic region, dubbed Kashmir, which straddles the border between two nuclear powers, and where military conflicts, ranging from low to high in intensity, have been raging ceaselessly. After the most recent terrorist attack in Kashmir, the frightened populace realized that a real nuclear war, even if on a regional level, suddenly became a distinct possibility.

Unexpectedly, it turned out that the nature of the Japan–South Korea relationship, with its two distinct aspects stemming from the division of the Korean peninsula, also conceals a similar threat.

Although Tokyo’s angriest rants, aired in public, are directed first and foremost at DPRK (regarding its “missile and nuclear program” and the “issue of the abducted”), the real danger, posed by the situation in the Sea of Japan, stems from the relations between Japan and South Korea.

Incidentally, Seoul asserts that this body of water is called the East Sea. In order to address this issue, in February 2017, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement, which highlighted that such assertions directly contradicted recommendations included in the resolution, adopted by the Sixth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (UNCSGN) in 1992.

Arguments revolving around toponyms are a sure sign of an unhealthy relationship between countries, which is also evidenced by the results of a public opinion survey. The study found that up to 80% of South Korean residents are wary of Japan, while 40% of Japanese respondents expressed similar feelings towards ROK.

There are grounds for South Koreans’ negative perceptions of their neighbor, Japan, which, currently, has the third largest economy in the world. This nation should be treated (as was the case before the war) as one of the leading global players and contenders vying for permanent membership on the “restructured” United Nations Security Council of the future.

The previously mentioned reasons underlying the feelings of antipathy are historic in nature. For centuries, Korea attempted to maintain the right balance in its relations with Japan and China (with greater affinity for the latter), until its annexation by the former in 1910. The period of Japanese rule over Korea can be subdivided into several stages, and each of them (and all of them combined) can be evaluated in different ways. The choice depends on the assessor’s stance at the onset and his or her preferences.

From the author’s point of view, the fact that bilateral diplomatic ties were re-established between the two nations in 1965 remains a positive development in principle. In Tokyo, this step forward is thought to have marked the end of the chapter on unfortunate events, which afflicted the two nations not long ago, thus opening up the most alluring opportunities for both countries. Seoul, by and large, agrees with this assessment.

South Korea acknowledges the key role Japan has played in the economic development of ROK, which eventually became one of the Four Asian Tigers. Japan helped by making direct investments, by providing financial aid (within the framework of the United Nations Official Development Assistance programme) and by sharing technological know-how.

At present, the two countries are in each other’s lists of top three trading partners. However, in truth, two thirds of the $80 billion trade turnover between the two nations is accounted for Japan’s exports to South Korea. And the latter has long taken issue with the former on this. The essence of this problem is not easy to understand, because the economic development strategy, undertaken by South Korea 50 years ago, entailed close cooperation with Japan in the sphere of technology. And even at present, South Korea’s manufacturers import a large number of parts and materials from Japan. In this situation, ROK resembles a patient who keeps complaining about discomfort caused by a ventilator that helps him breathe, and that he cannot do without.

It is probably not a coincidence that the previously mentioned complaints were first voiced at the beginning of the last decade, i.e. at the time when unresolved issues, stemming from the conflict, began to resurface and disputes over ownership of two uninhabited rocks in the Sea of Japan intensified.

It is very difficult to discern why the state of the Japan-South Korea relationship, which fluctuated somewhere between the statuses of “warm” and “cold” in the three decades after the diplomatic ties were re-established, has gradually become worse in the two most recent decades.

Perhaps this change stems from the fact that Seoul decided to improve its ties with DPRK (dubbed the Sunshine Policy) in the latter half of the 1990s. Hence, the possibility of a unified Korea loomed large for Japan once again.

However, once Lee Myung-bak became President of ROK in February 2008, he put an end to the Sunshine Policy, but still the relations between South Korea and Japan continued to worsen. Nonetheless, the removal of any potential negotiations on uniting the two Koreas from the agenda (as it turned out for nearly 6 years) was accompanied by provocative actions on the disputed islands of Dokdo/Takeshima (the Liancourt Rocks), and a sharp escalation in the conflict on the issue of “comfort women”, which the New Eastern Outlook has to focus on periodically.

The situation became so much worse that in August 2012, Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul for more than half a year. Still, it is worth mentioning that even when the diplomat was in ROK, he rarely dealt with any South Korean officials. In other words, his presence in Seoul was a mere formality.

Park Geun-hye replaced Lee Myung-bak as President in February 2013. And although she did not try to quickly improve the state of ROK’s relations with Japan, Park Geun-hye did make some attempts to reduce tensions stemming from the most painful problems plaguing their relationship. One of these, in fact, still happens to be the issue of comfort women. At the end of 2015, a bilateral agreement was signed by South Korea and Japan, which the latter viewed as a sign that the problem had finally been resolved.

However, this intergovernmental agreement caused vociferous protests in South Korea. After a number of activists installed a copy of the famous sculpture commemorating comfort women in the city of Busan, in January 2017 (the original monument is located in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul), Japan’s ambassador once again returned to Tokyo for “consultations with the government.”

From the author’s point of view, the support Park Geun-hye expressed towards the bilateral agreement (and not the all-too-common issue of corruption) resulted in her premature removal from the post of President (in March 2017), the start of criminal proceedings against her, and her imprisonment.

The next escalation in tensions between South Korea and Japan occurred (for the same reasons) at the end of 2017 / the beginning of 2018 when Moon Jae-in was President. Japan’s ambassador to ROK was once recalled back to Tokyo for “consultations.”

By the end of 2018, the worsening bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan were further exacerbated by two more events (“historic” and “recurrent” in nature). First of all, the problem of using “forced Korean labor” by Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. during World War II was added to the issue of “comfort women”. In line with a court ruling, “the process of liquidating the Japanese steelmaker’s seized assets” in South Korean had already started. The funds generated from this sale are to compensate Korean plaintiffs (still alive today) for the suffering they had endured.

The second event involved an alarming incident that took place on 20 December of last year. A South Korean naval destroyer “had locked a fire-control radar on” a Japanese patrol plane (which flew at a dangerously low altitude above the ship, according to South Koreans).

It is most unfortunate that the state of the Japan–South Korea relationship has begun to change according to some internal logic, which cannot be influenced by external factors. The leadership of both nations have, thus far, only managed to keep the bilateral ties in their current state for the sake of decorum. For the past 20 years Washington has continued to helplessly observe the latest developments concerning its key allies in Asia.

In order to prevent the situation in Northeast Asia from taking a more dangerous turn, a radical solution of the Korean issue is required, which envisions an internationally recognized unified Korea (as a neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear state). The most appropriate platform for formulating this resolution involves six of the most invested countries, such as Japan and South Korean, and also China, the USA, Russia and DPRK.

If the Korean issue remains unresolved, it will be impossible to transform Northeast Asia into a place of shared prosperity, as envisioned by China’s leader Xi Jinping.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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