Despite the resumption of high-level Japan-South Korea ties with the holding of a “cold summit” in Seoul last month between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, prospects for a breakthrough in Japan-South Korea relations remain distant on the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic normalization between Seoul and Tokyo. If anything, the gap between Park and Abe on how to address the issue of comfort women has grown deeper, despite a realization on the part of both governments that the issue must be managed as one part of a broader relationship rather than be allowed to block all forms of cooperation between the two sides.
The United States had a critical role in promoting a normalized relationship between Tokyo and Seoul in 1965 as the conflict in Vietnam was heating up. Likewise, the combination of China’s assertiveness and the U.S. rebalance has enhanced U.S. interest in a stable relationship between South Korea and Japan today.
Two papers commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations on these issues highlight the challenges and stakes involved in effective management of relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Seoul National University professor and prominent Japan specialist Park Cheol-hee traces past downturns in relations between Tokyo and Seoul that have coincided with past anniversaries of diplomatic normalization in his paper, “Still Distant Neighbors: South Korea-Japan Relations Fifty Years After Diplomatic Normalization.” Park sees domestic politics in both countries acting as a spoiler in efforts to improve Japan-South Korea relations. Nevertheless, Park sees stepped up U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation and the need for stepped up mutual public-relations campaign efforts by both governments to promote positive attitudes among both publics toward each other. Finally, he urges accelerated negotiations to resolve the comfort women issue, which has emerged as the main obstacle dividing Prime Minister Abe and President Park.
Asia expert Mark Manyin’s paper, “Managing Japan-South Korea Tensions,” evaluates the U.S. role and interest in promoting a stable relationship between South Korea and Japan, arguing that costs of poor Japan-ROK relations are rising, requiring a response. Manyin considers four distinct roles and approaches that might frame U.S. intervention: the United States as a role model in catalyzing examination of historical issues, the United States as a referee that serves to bound detrimental Japanese and South Korean actions, the United States as a mediator in promoting resolution of outstanding Japan-ROK differences, and the United States as a commissioner through generation of opportunities for trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan interaction.
At a moment of continued stalemate in Japan-South Korea relations despite the normalization of dialogue between the two countries, both papers are worthy of careful consideration by policymakers in all three countries that are concerned with promoting stable relations in East Asia.