Shin Kak-soo is Senior Advisor at Shin & Kim LLC and former South Korean ambassador to Japan.
The Japan-South Korea relationship has taken a nose dive, with no sign of recovery in sight. Since 2012, the relentless downward spiral has taken a toll on all aspects of this important bilateral relationship. The arenas of conflict have expanded from history-related issues to territorial disagreements, geopolitics, and the clash of national sentiment, among other issues. Complex forces have driven the vicious cycle of deteriorating Seoul-Tokyo relations: the rise of post-war generations that have taken the helm in both countries, the narrowing of the economic gap, the clash of South Korean left-wing nationalism and Japanese right-wing nationalism, the exploitation of anti-Korean and anti-Japanese activism for domestic political gains, the perception gap in law and justice, the enervation of communication channels, and the risks of two leaders with conflicting world views dominating the decision-making in the governments.
History-related issues are at the forefront of the decline in bilateral relations. Korea’s moral superiority as the victim of Imperial Japan’s colonialism and wartime atrocities has been challenged by Japan’s argument that South Korea is reneging on the terms of both the 1965 agreement that “completely and finally” settled individual claims and the 2015 Japan-South Korea accord on the “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military.
The dwindling reservoir of mutual trust and good will has further exacerbated the confrontation that led to the increase of emotional response in the bilateral relationship. Both countries continue to keep each other at arm’s length, leading to the loosening of the trilateral network between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. There is mounting concern that the decline in Japan-South Korea bilateral relations may become permanent due to the widening gap in mutual perceptions, understanding, expectations, and trust.
Worsening Japan-South Korea relations have unprecedented ramifications for the economic and security fields. In July 2019, Japan introduced Trumpesque regulatory measures on the export to South Korea of materials essential for the manufacturing of semi-conductors, and removed South Korea from its preferred “white list” of trading partners of strategic goods. Presumably, Japan did so to put pressure on South Korea, which has stuck to the position of respecting the ruling by the Supreme Court on the wartime forced labor issue. The shocked and outraged South Korean public responded by boycotting Japanese consumer goods and travel to Japan, and the South Korean government announced its intention to terminate its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. Although Japan ultimately did not fully implement its export restrictions and South Korea backed away from discontinuing GSOMIA, Seoul-Tokyo relations are certainly at their nadir.
The beginning of a new government under Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide offers a window of opportunity to reset embittered Japan-South Korea relations. In a phone call following his inauguration last month, Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to strive to improve bilateral ties in earnest. Secretary-General of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarian’s Union Kawamura Takeo visited Seoul in October to discuss possible ways to move forward with South Korean politicians. While these are undoubtedly positive signs that the stalemate may soon come to an end, it will be no mean feat to restore the bilateral relationship. The domestic political calendar of both countries leaves a narrow window of opportunity for improvements. South Korean local elections, including mayoral races in the country’s two largest cities, Busan and Seoul, will take place in April 2021 and the presidential election will take place in March 2022. Likewise, Suga will seek reelection as president of Japan’s incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and face a snap general election to be held by September 2021. These domestic constraints will make it difficult for either side to make concessions or take initiative to address the thorny wartime military comfort women and forced labor issues.
Nevertheless, the two countries should not miss this rare opening to resuscitate their crucial bilateral relationship. While seeking to resolve pending issues, both sides should refrain from any actions that could further worsen the situation. To this end, Japan and South Korea should take a gradual three-step approach to forging a sound and stable relationship: damage control, restoration, and stabilization.
During the damage control stage, the two governments should work to prevent South Koreans from cashing in liquidated assets from Japanese companies earmarked for seizure by the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime forced labor. Liquidation of these assets would deal another critical blow to the strained bilateral relationship, and would certainly inspire Japan to take tit-for-tat retaliatory counter-measures. The South Korean government should persuade plaintiffs in the forced labor case to postpone the process or accept payment by subrogation from a third party.
The South Korean government should also offer a viable long-term solution to the issue of forced labor compensation that is acceptable to all parties. Personally, I have proposed the creation of a compensation fund for forced labor victims jointly raised by the South Korean government, the Korean companies that received funding from the Japanese government under the 1965 claims agreement, and the Japanese companies that used forced labor. To ensure its success, the Japanese government must be willing to allow Japanese companies to take part in such efforts. An additional agreement to revive the currently neutralized accord on the sex slave issue would further help create favorable conditions for the resolution of the war-time forced labor issue. In addition, both governments should take simultaneous actions to lift Japanese trade measures and ensure South Korea’s continued participation in GSOMIA.
The trilateral China-Japan-South Korea summit meeting scheduled to take place this year in South Korea should have served as a catalyst for facilitating this process at the executive level. However, the reported reluctance of the Japanese side to visit South Korea for fear that Japanese company assets will be monetized after the visit foiled such an outlet. That worry was unwarranted, given that the remaining judicial procedures up until the final sales of assets should take a few more months. The two leaders should have used the trilateral meeting as an opportunity to sit down to talk and build mutual trust while exploring possible avenues for the normalization of bilateral ties.
In the restoration stage, both sides should seek a two-track approach that separates history issues from the myriad of other issues where bilateral cooperation could contribute to an improved relationship. There is no need to wait for a full recovery to take advantage of such areas ripe for cooperation. The moribund shuttle summit diplomacy since 2012 should be revived and regularized, and both governments should cooperate closely in coping with COVID-19 and attendant economic downturn as well as the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics next summer. The resumption of strategic dialogues will also reduce the perception gap on geopolitics in the region. The history issues should be addressed in a long-term perspective of reconciliation, as Germany did with its neighbors like France and Poland.
During the stabilization stage, a mid-term and long-term vision for a sound and stable relationship should be pursued in the spirit of the Japan-South Korea partnership accord agreed upon by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo in 1998. A Track 1.5 joint committee composed of government officials and eminent private citizens of both countries should be set up to build a mid-term vision for 2030 and long-term vision for 2050. Both governments should consider partaking in mega projects on energy, climate change, and the environment to let peoples of both nations experience the benefits of close cooperation, as they did when co-hosting the World Cup Soccer Games in 2002. Given the importance of enhancing mutual understanding, people-to-people exchanges and cultural exchanges should be scaled up and systemized in the form of an agreement like the Franco-German Elysee Treaty of 1963, which helped build mutual trust between France and Germany and paved the way for European integration and German reunification.
Damage control, restoration, and stabilization of Japan-South Korea relations will not be easy to achieve. Yet sincere and genuine mutual efforts with resolute political leadership will gradually improve the overall atmosphere and may help usher in a new chapter in the pursuit of the peace and prosperity in East Asia.