Relations between Japan and South Korea have long been marred by the memory of colonisation. The relationship was initially difficult, diplomatic ties were established only in 1965 — 20 years after Japan’s capitulation. South Korea insisted that the annexation of Korea in 1910 was unlawful and unjust. Japan asserted that, however hard it may have been for Korea, colonial rule was then ‘lawful and valid’. The 1965 agreements were the result of a hard-fought compromise to agree that ‘the 1910 treaty is not valid anymore’.
Since then, Japan and South Korea have come a long way in improving their relationship. Particularly in the fifteen years following the end of the Cold War, the two sides made substantial progress towards reconciliation. Mutual efforts continued under the Japanese Abe administration, and in December 2015 the two countries reached the comfort women agreement, a landmark decision that seemed to have finally resolved this issue.
But since 2017 under South Korean President Moon Jae-in, tensions have escalated once again to unprecedented levels. The first blow came from the Moon administration in 2018, when it unilaterally terminated the Reconciliation Fund. This was established by the two governments in December 2015 to provide financial compensation and apologies to the former comfort women. In October and November 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that the 1965 agreement cannot be the basis of future resolutions, because it does not recognise the unlawfulness and injustice of Japanese colonial rule, and upheld lower court rulings ordering a number of Japanese companies to pay compensation to wartime forced labourers.
The Abe government strongly objected and proposed to enter into consultations prescribed by the 1965 Claim and Economic Cooperation Agreement to resolve their differences. But the Moon government virtually ignored the proposal for over half a year. Abe responded in kind, with a policy of ‘no dialogue’ with South Korea at the G20 summit in June 2019.
The second blow to the relationship came when the Abe administration introduced tighter export controls on South Korea in the wake of the G20. The restrictions, which apply first to chemical substances used in South Korean semi-conductor production, quickly deprived South Korea the position of a preferential trading partner.
Japan justified its actions by stating that its requests for proper dialogue on export controls have not been met for three years. But to many South Koreans and non-experts in Japan, the decision appeared sudden. This has given Moon a pretext to unite South Korea under an anti-Japanese banner. Since the announcement, South Korea has taken counter-measures on export controls, raised the issue with the World Trade Organization, and started a campaign to boycott Japanese products and restrict local airline flights to Japan.
The third blow came from South Korea. Last month, the Moon administration announced it would not be renewing the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a bilateral intelligence sharing agreement aimed primarily at countering threats from North Korea. The United States’ high-ranking defence officials gave a strong message of ‘disappointment’, but Moon probably has little incentive to transfer confidential information on North Korea — with which he is trying to cultivate trust — to Japan, which is quickly becoming a de facto adversarial power.
There is no reason for South Korea not to land a fourth blow. This could be the actual confiscation of property, or other measures that would damage Japanese companies, like Shin-Nittetsu and Mitsubishi-Jyuko, which do not obey the South Korean Supreme Court verdicts given since October 2018.
The Abe government will not let this go lightly. If confiscation takes place, Japan may well react with a fifth blow of severe counter-measures. In that sense, Japan–South Korea relations may be in ‘a silence before the arrival of an avalanche’.
How should the two states proceed?
First, the Abe administration should return to a policy based in realism and geopolitics. Abe needs stronger ties with major countries in the region if Japan is to navigate its way through growing tensions between China and the United States. South Korea and Russia are essential to strengthening Abe’s diplomatic leverage. And Abe has all the more reason to keep normal relations with Moon given his declared intention to hold dialogue with the North Korean leader. President Moon might also consider that good relations with Japan are in his interests, but ultimately this is in Moon’s judgement.
Second, Abe should reiterate Japan’s official position regarding its colonial past. The key sentence from the 2015 Abe Statement declares that ‘All Japanese, across generations, must face squarely the past history. With a sense of humbleness, we have the responsibility of inheriting the past and transfer to the future’. This must be said and repeated in Japan — both in government and among the people — to foster South Korean understanding.
Third, officials of the two countries should make all possible efforts to ensure forceful confiscation of Japanese company property does not take place. Creation of a ‘common fund’ by willing companies might facilitate this, but it would work only if it is done on a voluntary basis, and not under judicial or other coercion.
Lastly, it appears that many South Koreans consider that the 1965 agreements are no longer legitimate or relevant to the modern Japan–South Korea relationship. More than a half century has passed since their establishment, and it may well be that this basis has become obsolete. In order to improve mutual understanding and create more trusting relations, the Japanese might consider such possibility as well.
These common approaches might become realistic policy objectives only after current tensions cool down. But they may be interesting food for thought for all.
Kazuhiko Togo is Professor and Director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. This first appeared in East Asia Forum.