Deteriorating Japan-S Korea ties unlikely to look up soon

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People hold up yellow colored butterflies dedicated to a former South Korean ‘comfort woman’ Kim Bok-dong during her funeral in Seoul on February 1. The ‘comfort women’ issue is still a thorn in South Korea–Japan ties. Reuters

If Seoul–Tokyo relations deteriorate further, it may provide an excuse for Washington to meddle more in the Korean peninsula issue and give it a reason to step up military presence, argues Wang Sheng.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have been going downhill with a rising number of controversial compensations for South Korean forced labour in World War II, a radar row and disputes over the name of the Sea of Japan.

Previously, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used to devote a paragraph to outline his vision for Japan’s ties with South Korea, but on January 28, he omitted the passage in his annual policy speech. It is the first time bilateral ties did not find mention in the yearly address since Mr Abe returned to power in 2012.

The rows between Tokyo and Seoul are a result of historical issues. National sentiment is another reason.

South Korean people generally believe that in trilateral ties among the US, South Korea and Japan, Seoul occupies a relatively low position. In this round of the South Korea–Japan conflict, Seoul feels that Washington is siding with Tokyo.

The public in South Korea can’t accept that Japan is closer to Washington than Seoul. Moreover, historical bitterness due to Japan’s invasion of South Korea adds to South Koreans’ indignation. Seoul is also unsatisfied with Mr Abe’s attitude on disputed issues like “comfort women” and his intention to amend the pacifist constitution.

During former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s administration, Seoul compromised with political reality to relent on the issue of “comfort women”. However, after South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office, Seoul has taken a tough stance in dealing with Tokyo, especially on political and historical issues. It is related to the Moon administration’s stronger nationalist sentiments.

Moreover, an economic slowdown in both nations is likely to act as a dampener for attempts to improve ties.

However, if the pace of East Asian integration accelerates, increasing cooperation among Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo may help improve South Korea–Japan ties as the benefits of cooperation would relieve bilateral strains to some extent. In addition, South Korea and Japan are close in their national strength, unlike a wide difference in strength between Seoul and Beijing or Seoul and Washington.

If both countries want to improve relations, they have to resolve historical and territorial issues first. In the short-run, without significant events in Northeast Asia or the US’ strategic demand, there would be no apparent progress in bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, South Korea and Japan should keep the larger interest in mind, such as East Asia economic integration, and contribute to peace, development and prosperity of Northeast Asia by tackling conflicts and extending a hand of cooperation. If they cannot deal with their ties well, it will influence how the development of the situation on the Korean peninsula unfolds, the resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue and the progress of East Asian integration.

If Seoul–Tokyo relations deteriorate further, it may provide an excuse for Washington to meddle more in the Korean peninsula issue and give it a reason to step up military presence.

The US has acted as a mediator between Japan and South Korea. For example, former US president Barack Obama intended to upgrade Washington–Seoul and Washington–Tokyo bilateral alliance into a trilateral military grouping in order to create an Asian version of NATO. The US played an important role in Japan–South Korea ties during the Park administration. The US wants to see Tokyo and South Korea do away with their historical bitterness toward each other and share intelligence on military and North Korea’s nuclear ambition.

President Donald Trump’s main goal lies in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. Frictions between Tokyo and Seoul, which stem from historical issues, will hardly ease soon. In the short-run, their bilateral relations would be neither good nor bad. Washington may get more involved depending on how the situation in the region evolves, including progress in East Asian economic integration, the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, development of China-US relations, and China’s influence in the region.

Wang Sheng is a professor of international relations at Jilin University. This comment first appeared in Global Times and can be assessed in full at https://bit.ly/2Gmb5sV

 

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