In early spring Japanese media noted the upcoming transition to the Reiwa era on May 1, the plan for Donald Trump to come in late May for a state visit and the first official meeting of a foreign leader with the new emperor, and hoopla over the G20 summit in Osaka a month later. In the distance loomed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While the expectations for an Abe-Putin meeting in the shadows of the G20 had been lowered and no date had been set for Xi Jinping’s expected return-visit following Abe’s October trip to China, the fact that Trump had held the line at the Hanoi summit in late February led to a sigh of relief. Yet, two lingering challenges cast a dark cloud: the deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations and the uncertainties over trade and security in the triangular context of Japan, the US, and China—particularly in light of the prolonged talks to avert a Sino-US trade war, the alarm about Trump pressuring Abe over trade as bilateral talks loomed, and the concern about Sino-US security tensions, whether over the South China Sea or Taiwan. This country report concentrates exclusively on the challenge of South Korea. It has become such a center of attention in Japan that it warrants its own intensive examination.
Japanese attribute the deterioration of relations with Seoul to at least four causes, each of which has devastating potential. First, there is the reversal of the December 2015 agreement on “comfort women,” signaling that no deal with Seoul is irreversible—a chilling message to all interested in further negotiations. Second, there is the demand for compensation for forced labor during the colonial era, which contradicts the treaty of normalization signed in 1965 and leaves other terms of that treaty—the cornerstone of the relationship—in doubt. Third, unlike in recent years, military cooperation under the rubric of the dual US alliances has been called into question by a South Korean naval vessel locking radar on a Japanese airplane and failure to resolve the ensuing tensions. Finally, Japanese point to the gap between their country’s policy and South Korea’s toward North Korea and China, questioning whether Seoul will remain part of the US-led liberal international order. Articles in 2019 abound on all of these pressing themes. Indeed, the crescendo of coverage started earlier as 2018 ended with lots of depressing news.
Japan-South Korea Relations prior to March
The list of betrayals by South Korea keeps growing: breaking the fundamental promise of 1965 by demanding compensation for forced labor; breaking the promise of 2015 by renouncing the “comfort women” agreement; undermining through recent shocking treatment of Japan’s SDF of the trilateral alliance framework of ever greater importance in the face of the North Korean threat; cozying up to North Korea despite its refusal to advance denuclearization, leaving Japan and the United States (as Yomiuri wishfully proposed on December 29) in the lurch; wooing China in such moves as Park Geun-hye’s “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping and Moon’s refusal to endorse the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”; and, in general, demonizing Japan and showing no interest in seeking a path forward in contrast to earlier periods when relations broke down and in defiance of prior promises to build a relationship looking forward not backward. The compounding effect was to leave no pillar of bilateral relations secure enough to stand as a bulwark for rebuilding ties. The tone of helplessness in this period was unprecedented, as in the editorial in Yomiuri on January 11, starting with forced labor and ending with defense ties. That same day the paper decried the Japanese government’s “hopelessness” in dealing with Moon.
The intensity of coverage of South Korea in Japanese media reached a peak at the end of 2018 and in the first months of 2019. The news went from bad to worse with no hint of optimism for any improvement in relations. One early sign of troubled relations was the skeptical response in Japan to September’s Pyongyang summit: a loss to South Korean national defense; a blow to pressure for denuclearization; and a symbolic present to the North in Moon’s visit to Mt. Paekdu, the sacred revolutionary base, said a Seiron column in Sankei on September 24. Other press coverage was scarcely more positive about what had transpired and Moon’s motivations.
On all counts, hopes for Seoul have been dashed. Moon is seen as naïve, at best, in pursuing Kim Jong-un despite no sign of denuclearization, while complicating the task of keeping needed sanctions pressure on him. All along, Japan’s position has remained no sanctions relief without serious progress on denuclearization, apart from its demands on missiles and abductees. Moon is seen also as weakening the defense against North Korea, whether the alliance readiness and framework, South Korea’s guard, or a premature end-of war declaration. This assessment kept building through 2018 even before the specific anxieties about Japan-ROK relations exploded.
Park Cheol Hee in Tokyo Shimbun on December 9—before the breakdown had deepened further—had suggested that things were not hopeless. Troubled times had been overcome previously. Common ground exists on North Korea, free trade, China, and grassroots exchanges or interest, he insisted. Yet, that was a message easily forgotten in the following months. As the mood was hardening, not only was the view conveyed that Seoul has decided that Tokyo is expendable, but Sankei, as on January 11, questioned whether Tokyo should wash its hands of Seoul. After all, pessimism within Japan’s government about restoring trust and relations had sunk deeply. Yomiuri wrote on January 25 that South Korea sought to contain Japan. The only ray of hope, as Yomiuri had expressed on December 31, was that Moon’s popularity at home was falling due to economic slowing, tensions with Japan, and an impasse with North Korea. Only brief mention was made of the critical factor that was on the minds of many Japanese: Moon’s relationship with Trump. In normal times, this would have been the focus of hopes that an ROK leader might be under pressure to change course. But unpredictability about Trump’s moves with Kim Jong-un and awareness of his disinterest in boosting triangular ties left this theme in the shadows.
Moon’s foreign policy, apart from his low regard for Japan, drew harsh reviews. Whereas Japan was cautious about directly criticizing Trump, there were no reservations about casting blame on Moon for softness toward North Korea. Sankei on January 11 branded him Kim Jong-un’s “lawyer” for his defense of Kim Jong-un and his advocacy of positions favorable to the North.
Sankei on December 23 was bluntest in calling for Seoul to apologize and warning that if anti-Japanese behavior continues it would be difficult to maintain friendly relations with Japan’s neighbor. The radar incident confirmed its verdict that South Korea is an abnormal country. While Japanese had been debating whether North Korea should be treated as a “normal state” in light of its diplomacy after the Singapore summit (Asahi, July 30), Sankei attacked Seoul also. More limited critiques, however, centered on Moon’s indifference to improving ties to Japan, as in Yomiuri on January 13. Sankei on February 17 took umbrage at the insults hurled at Japan’s past two emperors by the National Assembly speaker, calling for retaliatory measures. Now that the legal foundation for a normalized relationship is broken and hostile attacks are being launched, it concludes that Japan must not turn the other cheek but fight back against its foe.
Both sides blamed the other for provocative military moves in language unbecoming of what some have called quasi-allies. A low-flying Japanese military plane over a Korean naval vessel drew Korea’s wrath after the radar-locking behavior that startled Japan. Coupled with harsh language from Korea’s national assembly speaker and the forced labor issue, Japanese saw rudeness and disrespect for their country, editorialized Sankei on February 17. Already on January 13 Yomiuri had concluded that Moon Jae-in does not care at all about improving ties. In his New Year’s address, he had not had a word to say about Japan despite pending issues.
Tokyo Shimbun on December 29 remarked that on the very day of the 3rd anniversary of the “comfort women” agreement Japan’s defense ministry had made available the photos of the locked-in radar incident, and a day later no doubt was left that the deterioration in bilateral ties had spread to relations between officials responsible for defense. A month later, Seoul countered by blaming Japan for a provocative low-flying aircraft over a South Korean ship, sparking another dispute. While Asahi on December 27 had appealed not to get caught in a vicious cycle of a downward spiral in relations, Sankei on December 18 in Seiron had decided that Moon had shaken relations owing to his historical outlook on the establishment of his country. Japan’s annexation of Korea had been illegal, and Park’s agreement with Abe in 2015, as normalization in 1965, had sacrificed nationalism for diplomacy. Similarly, Okusono Hideki
in Nikkei on February 26 had equated Korean discontent with the “unequal treaty” signed with Japan in 1965 to Japanese discontent with unequal treaties in the Meiji era, in both cases leading to a quest to undo the legacy. Linked to this quest is the criticism of “shinilpa,” the pro-Japan beneficiaries of the occupation who as conservatives clung to power in the postwar era, and the belief that reconciliation with Pyongyang can free Seoul of the fetters in the way of finally breaking free of the abnormal postwar framework and setting an autonomous course. In this thinking—still weakly articulated—national identity will, at last, be clarified and serve as the driver of policies by finding common cause with Pyongyang and standing up to Tokyo.
Japanese often interpreted South Korean behavior in the worst possible light, even in regard to the security arena, where cooperation had been commonplace. Suddenly, in the first months of winter, security became the latest, and for some the most serious arena of a breakdown in trust. As Yomiuri editorialized on January 25, following the unsatisfying Davos meeting between the two foreign ministers, Japanese doubt the Moon administration has any intention to improve relations. He would rather arouse public opinion, and he is so focused on North-South relations, he puts little stock in trilateral defense cooperation when regional security is being threatened.
The locked-in radar issue, dating from December 20, had spiraled by January 23, according to Sankei, into a case of Seoul denying the objective evidence before it, talks between the two defense ministries breaking off, and Japan’s ministry appealing for a path forward to keep exchanges forward-looking. After Moon’s New Year’s address, where he did not even deign to mention Japan-ROK relations except in response to one out-of-order question when domestic issues were supposed to be raised, the paper railed against his refusal to take responsibility as he broke the 1965 bilateral promise that stood as the basis of normalization. For Sankei, this handling of the all-important “conscripted labor” issue proved also to be an opportunity to draw the line between it and Yomiuri—both unsparing in their criticism—and Asahi, attacked for expressing sympathy for Moon’s position. Sankei blamed the appointment of known leftists to decide cases such as this, while Asahi was faulted for recalling the unfortunate history of colonial control. (An Asahi editorial on January 11 had called on both sides to act.) Nikkei is cited for pointing to the risk for business from the decision, while the very notion that Seoul would jeopardize bilateral relations when so much is at stake over North Korea is questioned.
Sankei on February 28 continued its attacks on Asahi for (in the early 1990s) lighting the fire of Korean hostility over the “comfort women” issue, leading to the latest anger directed at Japan. It is even argued that if Asahi had not aroused Koreans, such trouble would not have occurred. On no issue is the left-right divide in Japan more pronounced than on covering South Korean handling of historical memory issues, demonstrating the emotions focused by the right on this.
On February 26 Yomiuri called for a long-term policy toward South Korea, expressing anxiety over the end of longstanding, deep cooperation between the SDF and South Korean forces, and it blamed Moon and his overall shift in diplomatic and security policy, including to Japan, which is driven by an adjustment in policy toward North Korea. It asserted that the hard line to Japan is altering public opinion. To avoid the possibility of Seoul locking arms with China and Russia Japan requires a strategy; if not, Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow will be the beneficiaries. The uncompromising vilification of Seoul by Sankei is qualified by Yomiuri’s call for strategic thinking.
The demands for compensation for conscripted labor drove relations into a tunnel from which there is no exit, left far from any thaw, asserted Yomiuri on February 8. Given Japan’s refusal to agree to establish a committee to address the issue, there was talk that the legal basis for friendly cooperation had been undermined amid fear that joint efforts to address the North Korean security challenge mediated by the US would stop. Thus, history and security had been intertwined in the first months of 2018 in a manner unlike the previous decade. Japanese were prone to blame this not just on the fallout from Moon’s warming view of North Korea or even a progressive administration after a decade of conservative control, but on Korean psychology. In mid-February an uproar arose in Japan over comments by the chair of the National Assembly on Japan’s emperors. An apology was demanded, as reported in Sankei on February 14. This offense to Japanese national identity had driven the relationship even deeper into a hole.
The International Hydrographic Organization reached a compromise on using the “East Sea” as well as the Sea of Japan for purpose of navigation safety and operations, but Japan had refused to accept dual names for the waterway. By the time of the next meeting in 2020, the IHO called on Japan, South Korea, and North Korea to cooperate on a path forward, despite the negative response of Japan to that idea, noted Yomiuri on February 6. On February 4 it had warned of confusion and accidents from multiple names of waterways and charged that the South Korean government is stirring up this issue in order to arouse anti-Japanese public opinion. It is pushing to arouse foreigners too, as in the US, along with the “comfort women” issue. Yomiuri called for more intensive Japanese lobbying abroad to counter such South Korean moves internationally.
On February 14 Yomiuri reported on a congressional resolution urging Japan and South Korea to mend their rift, presenting it as a one-sided appeal to Seoul to take action. Two days later the paper contrasted Seoul’s economic need to repair damaged relations with China with the slight damage it could suffer from deteriorating ties to Japan. The impression left is that a downturn is likely to last a long time. Seoul is beholden to Beijing, but it is no longer beholden to Tokyo.
Nikkei on February 26 carried an exchange on Japan-ROK relations stressing the contrast between Moon’s hostile policy toward Japan and the continued boom in Korean opinion of and tourism in Japan. The explanation offered is that civic organizations that are part of Moon’s base drive an emotional response to Japan and the economic and anti-North Korean forces driving a pragmatic line toward Japan under the “pro-Japan faction” in charge earlier have faded. Although Moon insisted that he had a “two-track” approach to Japan, keeping history issues and other emotional themes from interfering, he has failed to deal with Japan strategically. A sense that the 1965 system was unequal is operating. The result is bashing and scorn in media on both sides even at the level of ordinary people, relations are more mature and the need to proceed on the basis of strategic thinking is great, readers are informed.
Japanese-South Korean relations in March
After the Hanoi summit and Trump’s phone call to Moon Jae-in explaining what had transpired, Japanese stressed what a difficult situation Moon was in, even if Trump had asked Moon to be a positive intermediary in getting the North on track. On the eve of Moon’s celebratory talk on the 100th anniversary of the March 1 movement for liberation from Japan, he had to heavily redo his speech, noted Tokyo Shimbun on March 1. That same day, Yomiuri noted that Moon did not repeat direct references to the “comfort women” and Takeshima, perhaps owing to concern about the already poor state of bilateral relations, but he argued that there remains an accounting with the shinilpa, pro-Japan faction nurtured under the occupation that still holds influence in Korean society, and referred to other unresolved questions. On US-DPRK ties after Hanoi, he called for increasing mutual trust through long-term dialogue. Optimism about the bilateral relationship voiced only a year earlier was gone. Mention was made of a group in the LDP who sought to end the visa-free travel of South Korean tourists and to apply tariffs. Yet, in 2018 7.5 million South Koreans had visited—one-quarter of all visitors to Japan—and the South’s status as the third leading, trading partner of Japan; there were limits to Japan’s responses.
Okamoto Yukio on March 11 in Nihon Business wrote that it will take 15 years for Japan-ROK relations to improve, given changes in political and economic conditions in South Korea. Saying that relations have deteriorated to an unseen level, he contrasts this to the time South Korea was Japan’s most important partner, taking the same position at international conferences, forging a free trade network, and exchanging lots of tourists. When Kim Dae-jung in 1998 spoke in the Diet of building future-oriented relations, people were moved. However, the past four leaders to strengthen their political base have stirred anti-Japanese emotions. Annexing Korea, Japan took away its national identity and state, and Japanese should recognize that this is the source of animosity. Postwar economic cooperation and reflection on history. At this time, in the face of a choice between North Korea and China or the United States, Moon Jae-in has distracted attention by vilifying Japan. In contrast to improving attitudes in China toward Japan, Moon is intent on transferring the thinking of the 386 generation to other generations. It is hard to imagine a leader friendly to Japan succeeding him. Yet, all is not lost. 7.5 million South Koreans visit Japan yearly and see something completely different from stories of forced labor and “comfort women.” On security, as long as US forces provide the glue between the two sides, things are okay, but if Trump will reduce forces in South Korea or weaken the security guarantee to Japan, bilateral cooperation will be needed. Japan must build its forces as well as work with the US to defend against North Korea, concludes Okamoto, doubting ties with Seoul.
In the March issue of Voice, Watase Yuya called weakening South Korea’s defense industry the goal for Japan. Reminding readers how badly relations has deteriorated and how Japanese anger has reached its limits, he proposes retaliating for the accelerating anti-Japan campaign of Moon Jae-in, no longer due to historical reasons and national character, but now reflecting a changing response to the international situation. Japan stands against the authoritarian states, long having joined with US and South Korea, but in light of Trump’s policies and Moon’s shifts, including to an extreme anti-Japan posture, Japan must adopt a more independent approach in pursuit of its own national interests, abandoning its current weak posture and considering sanctions against South Korea, as some LDP Diet members have discussed. The US seeks both Tokyo and Seoul to show restraint in its national interest, as it pursues sensitive negotiations with North Korea and China. Tokyo should seek US understanding for imposing sanctions on Seoul, since Seoul shows no self-restraint about its dealings with Tokyo; there is no need for excessive concern in response to a country it should consider a threat in a long-term war. The military power of South Korea should be seen as a threat, and its military industry as something to constrain through Japan’s role in the supply chain. Japan should substitute for South Korean products even if higher costs are borne, readers are told in this extreme article.
In the April Bungei Shunju five persons exchanged views on whether Japan and South Korea should severe relations or, alternatively, Japan should impose sanctions on its neighbor. This exchange reflected the seriousness of the debate in Japan about punishing South Korea for its hostile behavior over the previous months. It was recognized that compared to prior times when Japan-ROK relations were the “worst ever” this time is unprecedented for the anger it has aroused in Japan and the voices calling for an extreme response. Listing monthly developments that only heightened the ire of Japanese, Kuroda Katsuhiro asked if such drastic responses are in order, pointing to the vulnerability of a stumbling Korean economy, the precedent of what happened when Japanese FDI fell after Lee Myung-bak went to Dokdo (Takeshima) in 2012, and the current mood of Japanese companies facing demands of compensation for forced labor.
The responses were cautious about taking such action. Japanese companies would be heavily influenced, making parts for companies such as Samsung and LG. The cost would be high of the withdrawal of 5000 Japanese businessmen. South Korea would naturally draw closer to China and Russia, giving China more say on the peninsula. Japan’s security would be jeopardized, reminiscent of 663 when Japan lost its foothold on the peninsula and first experienced a threat from the north. Also recalled was the scene in the Korean War when North Korean troops were close to taking Busan. Again, a great security risk could arise. Applying sanctions would not only be economically costly, it could damage Japan’s reputation in international society and arouse greater anti-Japanese nationalism in South Korea. The case against extreme action was clear.
The exchange proceeded to examine which generations in South Korea are anti-Japanese and if being progressive means thinking this way, coinciding with Moon’s base of support. One source equated progressive with anti-Japan and pro-North Korea but qualified this for the cohorts born in the 1980s and 1990s, who identify progressivism with economic and social reforms and not necessarily with these two, outward-looking causes. When asked if anti-Japan messages stoke support for Moon, the response was “no.” Another response was that Moon is less anti-Japan than indifferent to Japan. Kuroda finds a contradiction a “Japan boom” in daily life and travel and the disparagement of Japan in politics and foreign policy. It is noted that “shinilpa” voices are almost absent in Moon’s circle, and the Blue House gives little voice to the foreign ministry, which hopes to improve relations. Kuroda contrasts the new situation of an absence of fervor in South Korea toward Japan despite the provocative moves taken and Japanese public opinion as a whole aroused to Korea bashing with the opposite situation in the past, when developments in Japan were viewed as the source of disputes. Also mentioned is Japan’s loss of status in Seoul, which is associated with its peripheral role as a player in the dynamics with Pyongyang that now matter most. Self-confidence had been deepening for a year over Moon’s leadership in shifting the diplomacy over the North, but one respondent wondered if the failure of the Hanoi summit would lead to a change since it is not bilateral Japan-ROK relations driving the recent rethinking.
Discussion turned to civic organizations undertaking an anti-Japan performance aimed at going beyond taking down Park Geun-hye and undercutting conservatives in South Korea of the heirs to pro-Japan forces dating well back in Korean history. Blaming all vices on the establishment in the old order, the revolutionary goal is a new political and social order. This means denying the domestic achievements of the conservatives and removing the vestiges of the Cold War. North Korea policy is a means to that end, and Japan has become peripheral damage, it appears. The defense of legal principles and the pursuit of national interests fade before the cause driving those in the lead in South Korea now. In the exchange, it is noted that South Korea has been catching up to Japan with per capita GDP close to $30000 compared to Japan’s $38000, having relied on three models—in the 1960s, from 1997, and from 2008. If some in japan are saying Japan can do without the South’s small market, they ignore the fact that Japanese companies there are 85 percent in the black, first in the Asia-Oceania region and that in the economic development process foreign capital from Japan has been the engine, e.g., the bulk of Samsung parts were Japanese made. Also, despite China’s great economic significance for South Korea, it is not a real economic partner due to value differences and the threat of being swallowed into the Chinese system. True, since 2013 Japanese FDI and trade have slipped. Many Koreans may now think that their country is winning over Japan or that cooperation with North Korea is the pathway to a livelier economy, but that will not be the effect of reunification nor do Koreans mostly share such optimism. Meanwhile, in Japan, as strategic interests have diverged, South Korea’s standing has fallen sharply below Australia, India, and Southeast Asia. In 2018 North Korea was successful in breaking the coalition against it, even affecting the South Korean military, but much depends on what happens in US-North Korean relations. In any case, the exchange made clear that the risks in breaking relations or imposing sanctions are too great. Finally, one source went further, calling South Korea a core interest for Japan and maintaining relations extremely important for security and economics. That leaves the option of redoubling efforts to make Japan’s case to the Korean people and to media in the West in what is a “war of words,” with hopes for improvement in relations after the Moon administration. Still, the battle needs to be fought and won on a wide front is the message left with readers without any hint of Japan rethinking its stand on history or adjusting its geopolitical reasoning in this trying time.
In the same issue of Bungei Shunju Funabashi Yoichi wrote of the danger of new geopolitics that echo the Acheson line drawn by the US just before the Korean War, which left South Korea out of the protected zone. Trump’s eagerness for a “deal” with North Korea threatens to diminish the US military presence in South Korea, and he represents a kind of Santa Claus for Moon, who wants to purge the Cold War legacy. Yet, the NSC and Pentagon are anxious about pivoting to Japan in the region and leaving South Korea to rely more on China and press for the indivisibility of triangular defense inclusive of South Korea, voices in Japan are demanding retribution for the demands that Japanese firms pay compensation for compulsory labor or are doing little in the wait for a post-Moon conservative administration. Funabashi does not recommend that in light of Lee Myung-bak’s harsh posture toward Japan and his view that its influence has slipped and even that Japan is dispensable. This is paralleled by US thinking—stronger under Trump—that South Korea is dispensable—a revival of the strategic thinking. All of this raises the possibility of a Pakistan solution to the Acheson line. Funabashi shifts attention from anger at Moon over how he is damaging Japan’s security situation to anxiety about Trump not only in enabling Moon but in arousing distrust in the US alliance system and nuclear umbrella in Asia. He casts the problem as deeper than Moon or progressives in Seoul and also Trump in Washington without suggesting how Tokyo may find a satisfactory outcome to this impasse.