Tracking the Downswings in a ‘Virtual Alliance’: Japan’s Policy toward the Korean Peninsula over a Decade

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This year, 2022, could be critical for Japan-ROK relations. The relationship has been in free fall for a decade—although there were a couple of moments at which the plunge seemed to have halted, and the trajectory turned—but events now offer a genuine opportunity to change the trajectory of this troubled partnership. While South Korea deserves considerable blame for this sad state of affairs, Japan contributed as well. The unvarnished nationalism of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who took office at the end of 2012, colored and in some ways undermined his pursuit of a realist foreign policy. Nevertheless, Abe’s shift in 2015 to facilitate a breakthrough agreement with President Park Geun-hye, which her successor, Moon Jae-in, undermined, casts a different light on Japanese thinking. A tumultuous decade in Japan-ROK relations deserves to be showcased as we reflect on how Japanese thinking toward Asia has evolved.

According to conventional wisdom, Japan-South Korea relations were going to suffer when Abe returned to the prime minister’s office at the end of 2012. That logic reasoned that Abe, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative nationalist, would pursue an agenda whose core components—constitutional revision, international assertiveness, and a more robust defense posture—would guarantee conflict with South Korea and other Northeast Asian neighbors. The conventional wisdom proved correct: Tokyo’s relations with Seoul deteriorated throughout Abe’s tenure, reaching their nadir as the two governments battled over history and its manifestation in both countries’ politics and their bilateral relationship. In early 2022, after Abe had been succeeded by Suga Yoshihide and then Kishida Fumio, the situation had not appreciably improved, but new leadership soon to come in Seoul offered hope for change.

The relationship did not have to devolve as it did. While he is a conservative, Abe is also a pragmatist who adjusted policy to reflect prevailing political reality. Moreover, he is a strategist whose pre-eminent concern is the advancement of his country’s national interests. He knows well the central position South Korea plays in the security of Japan and could have forged a partnership to better protect and defend both countries’ interests. He did not do so, however, because Abe did not think he had a partner he could trust. Abe contributed to the downward spiral in relations, but the fault was not his alone. Indeed, an upturn in relations in 2022 would not be primarily of Japan’s doing: a new attitude in Seoul would be the most important change, while a new determination in Washington to promote better relations among its two allies, would nudge the two forward. Decisions in Tokyo will remain vital, however. Seoul may open the door, and the US administration will urge Japan to walk through it, but it is up to the Japanese government to do so.  

This article begins with a brief overview of Japan-South Korea relations during Abe’s second term in office. It traces the path of the relationship, highlighting key moments of his tenure. It then examines in depth three issues that played an outsize role in that trajectory: historical concerns, made concrete in debates about “comfort women” and compensation for South Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula; an economic dispute over restrictions on the export of chemicals from Japan to South Korea that are critical to the production of high-tech goods; and military controversies, triggered by efforts to sign an agreement to exchange information between the two militaries and an incident in which an ROK navy vessel is alleged to have turned its fire-control radar on a Japanese aircraft. Despite the tumult, throughout the period, there was growing strategic clarity about the challenges Japan faced and the depth of US interest in trilateralism with Tokyo and Seoul, an interest that culminated in a critical behind-the-scenes role for Washington in the 2015 Abe-Park agreement. The challenges have become even sharper in early 2022 amidst a deepening global crisis over Ukraine with implications for Taiwan and North Korea. A final section explores the situation after Abe, pointing both to the continuity that followed and to signs of a turnabout in 2022. The conclusion attempts to make sense of this history and to identify key inflection points for a future that is fast upon us.

In sum, Japan bears some responsibility, but less than South Korea, for the troubled relationship of the 2010s, and the onus increasingly has shifted from Tokyo to Seoul—particularly from 2016. Still, there is much that Tokyo can do to capitalize on a new international environment and a new mood in Seoul in 2022. Assessing what went wrong over that decade can help tease out lessons on what could be transformative ahead.

A Troubled Inheritance

Abe inherited a troubled relationship. According to the annual survey of public views of diplomacy by the Cabinet Office, relations between Japan and Korea were in sharp decline. In the October 2012 poll, just 18.4% of respondents characterized Japan-South Korea relations as “good,” a sharp fall from 58.5% the year before. Those calling it “bad” more than doubled, going from 36% in 2011 to 78.8% in 2012.1 The primary cause of that plunge was history. The territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima assumed new sensitivity when ROK President Lee Myung-bak visited the island in August 2012, the first time a South Korean president had done so. He threw fuel on the flames when he subsequently suggested that Japan’s emperor apologize to Korean freedom fighters during any future visit to the ROK.

South Korean media criticized Noda Yoshihiko, who served as prime minister immediately prior to Abe’s return, for his “lurch to the right.”2 That characterization of a Japanese politician from a party that had hitherto been to the left of the LDP augured poorly for Abe. After all, the defining feature of Abe’s biography has been his ancestry: His grandfather was Kishi Nobusuke, imprisoned after World War II on suspicion of being a Class-A war criminal (although he was released after three years without ever being charged). Abe was seen as having fully embraced his grandfather’s nationalism, and was for some tarred by it. Abe backed rightwing groups that promoted revisionist views of history and his first term as prime minister (2006-2007) was characterized by a conservative agenda that sought to instill patriotism in citizens through, for example, education reform that would encourage “love for one’s country and hometown.” He sought to raise Japan’s international political profile by revising the constitution to reduce and eliminate restrictions on the use of the country’s armed forces. He made progress by upgrading the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry.  

Expectations for Abe’s second term, which began in the final days of 2012, were set by his first term as prime minister. He seemed to validate the darkest visions by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan’s wartime dead are enshrined—among them, 14 Class A war criminals—and telling a rightwing newspaper that he wanted to replace an apology for Japan’s behavior during World War II, issued in 1995, at the 50th anniversary of its end, with a “forward looking statement that is appropriate for the 21st century.”3 At the annual February 22 Takeshima Day celebrations in Shimane Prefecture—at which locals reaffirm their claim to islands known as Dokdo in South Korea and administered by the ROK—Abe dispatched a parliamentary secretary with the Cabinet Office, the first time a Cabinet member attended the ceremony, triggering Korean anger.4

That anger mounted after Abe’s August 15 speech marking Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. In it, he failed to express remorse for Japan’s past aggression, breaking with 20 years of tradition. South Korea focused on the omission, insisting that it confirmed the negative views of Abe. A final blow to the relationship came as the year drew to a close and Abe made a surprise visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Visits by Japanese officials, especially cabinet ministers, invariably trigger vocal protests in Seoul (and Beijing). Earlier in the year, Abe denounced such criticism as attempts at “intimidation.” Abe’s visit, the first by a sitting prime minister in more than seven years, was infuriating—and not just to Northeast Asia neighbors. The United States too was blindsided and criticized Abe in surprisingly tough language.

Throughout his first year, Abe pressed his ROK counterpart, Park Geun-hye, to meet, with no success. The two leaders did not even talk until March 2013, several months after Park was elected, which allowed perceptions of indifference or hostility to harden. Lower-level meetings took place, but lacking top cover or determined attempts to change course by the highest levels of leadership, negative influences dominated the relationship. Attitudes calcified and eventually routine bureaucratic meetings stopped. Abe’s December 2013 visit to Yasukuni forced the cancellation of several proposed bilateral defense meetings and military exchange programs, even though those conversations had traditionally been insulated from the vicissitudes of the political relationship.

Throughout the first half of 2014, the bilateral relationship was dominated by the “comfort women” controversy, which is examined in more depth below. The prospect of an official reassessment of the 1993 Kono Statement, which acknowledged Japanese government responsibility for that tragedy, horrified and angered South Koreans and ensured that bilateral relations remained in the deep freeze. Even though the Abe administration ultimately reaffirmed the statement, deep and abiding damage was done. Every few weeks there were reports of South Korean rebuffs of Japanese overtures for a summit between Abe and Park, and that failure to meet became an issue of its own.

Eventually, the two leaders met—in a trilateral setting, that included (and was engineered by) the United States—at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March 2014. Reporting from that meeting pointedly noted that Abe and Park did not take up the issue of a bilateral summit. They had an informal chat in November when they sat next to each other at the APEC leaders meeting that China hosted in Beijing. There, they agreed to promote director-general level talks between the two foreign ministries that had begun shortly after the March meeting.5

Relations in 2015 were dominated by history issues. There was considerable attention to and concern about the speech that Abe would give to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In it, he bluntly stated that “Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war,” and went on to acknowledge the suffering imposed on innocent people and especially “women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.”6 That was not enough for Park, whose own speech the following day to mark the 70th anniversary of Korean liberation noted that Abe’s remarks “did not quite live up to our expectations.” Park called on the government of Japan “to match with consistent and sincere actions its declaration that the view of history articulated by its previous cabinets will be upheld,” and “hope the Japanese government resolves the issue of ‘comfort women’ victims of the Japanese Imperial Army in a speedy and proper way.”7

Dialogue continued. Park and Abe met briefly the following month on the sidelines of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, and they then held their first official summit in November in Seoul, when Park hosted a South Korea-Japan-China trilateral meeting. The readout from that sit-down is anodyne, but the “comfort women” issue is the only issue specifically identified from the “small meeting” between the two leaders. Also notable was the characterization of the consultations between the two governments on the issue as “tenacious.”8

A breakthrough occurred in December 2015, when the two foreign ministers announced that they had reached an agreement in which Japan would issue an apology and use government monies to fund a foundation to assist former military sex slaves. While the agreement proved extremely controversial in South Korea and would eventually collapse, it allowed Park to declare progress in the bilateral relationship. Park and Abe would meet twice again in 2016, in March and September, and in November, Park put some meat on the bones of the promise of improved relations when her administration concluded a long-anticipated intelligence sharing agreement between the two countries’ militaries (GSOMIA). The pact was bitterly contested in South Korea and it became, as will be discussed below, a source of controversy in its own right.

Hopes for more progress in the relationship imploded when Park was impeached at the end of 2016. Park was forced from office in March 2017, and her replacement, Moon Jae-in, was eager to engage with Abe. In their first phone call, the day after his inauguration, Moon agreed to hold a summit with Abe “as soon as possible.” That occurred two months later, on July 7, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg that the two men were attending. There, they agreed to resume annual reciprocal visits by the leaders that had been suspended in December 2011, and to maintain close cooperation on policies toward North Korea. History would continue to be a nearly insurmountable hurdle to a productive bilateral relationship, but Moon’s commitment to reaching a breakthrough with Pyongyang would compound the difficulties.

In their first telephone call, the tensions were clear. Moon urged Japan to “face up to history” to ensure that historical issues are not an obstacle to mature and cooperative relations, Abe countered that Japan expected “faithful implementation” of the “comfort women” agreement. Moon hedged, explaining that the “reality is that the majority of South Koreans could not emotionally accept the agreement over the sexual slavery issue,” and “there are limits to government’s capacity in managing the issues taking place in the private sector.” Those limits wreaked havoc on the South Korea-Japan relationship for the remainder of Abe’s term.

Moon adopted a “dual track” approach to relations, one that aimed to separate history from other pressing concerns. Topping that list was North Korea. The Pyongyang regime conducted seven missile tests and successfully launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) twice during Moon’s first four months in office. Those tests put the newly signed GSOMIA to use and tested—and confirmed—the two governments’ commitment to close consultations when dealing with the North. Still later, at the G7 summit in Hamburg, Abe, Moon and US President Donald Trump issued a joint statement condemning Pyongyang’s July 4 ballistic missile test.

Over time, however, dealing with North Korea would become a wedge issue for the two countries. Moon sought a restoration of inter-Korean relations and the forging of a genuine partnership between Seoul and Pyongyang. Strategists and decision-makers in Tokyo were quick to characterize that determination as eagerness and naivete, and they worried about how far Moon would go in pursuit of dialogue—concern that was magnified by their own lack of progress as they reached out to Pyongyang and the resulting fear that the North was trying to separate Seoul from its ally in Washington and its partner in Tokyo. Nevertheless, bi- and trilateral consultations continued as the North twice tested missiles before the year was done.

2017 closed with the Moon government announcing the results of its review of the 2015 “comfort women” agreement. It concluded that the deal was flawed and did not solve the problem. Japan objected to those findings, and Abe signaled his frustration by indicating that he would not attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics that South Korea would host in February. Soon after, he reconsidered—reportedly at US urging—because of worries about inter-Korean relations. (Also weighing on Abe’s calculations were the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games; a refusal to attend would likely prompt a similar demurral by the ROK president when time came for Japan to play host.) Japan requested an invitation, and it was extended: Abe came, held a bilateral summit with Moon, at which he reportedly cautioned his counterpart about moving too fast and urged him to maintain solidarity in the drive to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons. Moon rejected Abe’s warnings and his call to resume joint US-ROK military drills.

Those drills assumed more significance in the wake of Trump’s declaration after his June 2018 Singapore summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un that he would cancel joint US-ROK military exercises to help build a better relationship between the US and North Korea. Japanese defense and security officials were dismayed by the ad hoc decision, fearful that it would not only undermine security on the Korean Peninsula, which those officials argued was intimately connected to Japan’s own, but might presage larger US disengagement from regional security affairs.   

For all their disagreements, and they did intensify, conversations between the two governments continued. There was a regular flow of officials between Seoul and Tokyo as well as frequent phone calls on a variety of subjects: North Korea tended to dominate the agenda, although the continued unraveling of the “comfort women” agreement was another oft-broached topic.

In October, historical issues again rocked the bilateral relationship when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese corporations that used Korean slave labor during World War II had to pay reparations to survivors. This was in Japanese eyes a flagrant violation of the terms of the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries and proof that South Korea was more interested in occupying the moral high ground than forging a proper and forward-oriented relationship.

Soon after that decision, the ROK government decided to shut down the foundation established by the “comfort women” agreement, a final fatal blow to that deal. And if that was not enough, the year closed amid reports that an ROK navy vessel had locked its fire-control radar on a passing Japanese aircraft. The Moon government denied the accusation, and the resulting back-and-forth pushed the bilateral relationship to new lows.

The sad state of affairs was made plain by the failure of Abe to mention South Korea in his annual policy address to the new Diet session in 2019. Nor was that bottom. The relationship continued its downward spiral, battered by historical issues and the corrosive effects of the radar incident. Tokyo worried that weakening ties would make it easier for Seoul to pursue accommodation with Pyongyang, although the collapse of the second Trump-Kim summit, in Hanoi in May, eased some of that concern. Tokyo threw more fuel on the fire in July when it removed South Korea from a list of preapproved export destinations, essentially threatening to cut off supplies of three chemicals essential to high-tech manufacturing. The Japanese move was officially the result of proliferation concerns regarding end users of the products; South Koreans (and much of the world) saw it as the politicization of trade and retaliation for the forced labor decisions.

In response, South Korea threatened to let expire its military intelligence sharing agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. Under considerable pressure from Washington, Seoul relented, agreeing to extend the pact, with conditions. That decision, along with realization of the potential consequences of a continuation of the existing trajectory prompted both leaders to try to put a halt to the slide.  A November 2019 Gallup Korea poll sobered both leaders; In that survey of public opinion. Abe’s favorability among the South Korean public was the lowest of all leaders: His 3 percent rating was only a third of that of Kim Jong-un (9 percent).

In January 2020, Abe and Moon made rhetorical gestures signaling a commitment to de-escalating bilateral tensions. Notably, in his policy address to the Diet, Abe described South Korea as Japan’s “most important neighbor, sharing the same basic values and strategic interests,” a formulation he had not used for six years. Moon reciprocated a few weeks later. In remarks for the March 1 national holiday celebrating Korean independence from Japan, Moon said Japan was “always our closest neighbor,” and he was referring to more than geography.

There was more to complain about than celebrate in bilateral relations for the rest of 2020. The two countries sparred over history and trade relations, and the WTO took up South Korea’s complaint about Japan’s export restrictions. At one point, Tokyo allegedly sought to block Moon’s participation at the G7 meeting that would be hosted by Trump.

Abe’s announcement in August that he would step down as prime minister because of health concerns offered a rare opportunity to reset the relationship. Moon sent a congratulatory letter to Suga Yoshihide, Abe’s successor, upon his election, and Suga reciprocated with a note underscoring the importance of bilateral relations. In a phone call, they agreed on the need to repair the relationship. In his first address to the Diet as prime minister, Suga called South Korea “a very important neighboring country.” Those words—and other similarly reassuring statements—were not matched by deeds, however. Instead, disputes over forced labor and “comfort women” continued to fester. Indeed, the tensions forced postponement of the trilateral South Korea-Japan-China trilateral summit that Seoul was to have hosted in December 2020 because of fears that Suga would not attend unless there was prior resolution of the historical issues contested in court.

Perhaps the most profound influence on ROK-Japan relations in 2021 was Joseph Biden’s entry into the White House. Biden impacted South Korea-Japan relations in two ways. First, he was far more skeptical of North Korea than his predecessor, and was thus far less inclined to back Seoul’s aggressive pursuit of inter-Korean relations. His view of Kim Jong-un aligned more closely with that of Japan, which shifted dynamics within the trilateral relationship. Second, and related, Biden believes in alliances and sought to affirm, support, and mobilize them in pursuit of his foreign policy agenda. His administration aggressively promoted coordination among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. In both endeavors, South Korea’s room for maneuver diminished as the US and Japan were more closely aligned in strategy and tactics.

The two governments had plenty of other items to distract them from bilateral problems, most notably the COVID pandemic. Resurgent waves of infection ensured that both countries stayed closed to foreign visitors. Early in the pandemic, there was some tension as each country shut its doors and those locked out typically complained; close business relations between the two Northeast Asia neighbors meant that the price of exclusion was higher, and both initially took offense. But as the pandemic dragged on, governments and publics became more accepting of those measures (often grudgingly); COVID provided a convenient excuse for heads of state who did not want to go to Japan for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, which were held in the summer of 2021. Moon hesitated to go, fearing that he would make no progress on key issues, particularly the export controls, which would make him look weak at home. Insulting comments by a Japanese diplomat provided a final nail in the prospects for a visit.9 The two leaders eventually had their first face to face meeting at the G7 summit in the UK in June but even that encounter was marred by sparring in the media over who was responsible for the lack of progress.10

There was an additional reason for the stagnation: Both men were weak leaders with little ability to deliver on key issues. Suga’s falling popularity would force him from office by the end of the summer and while Moon would remain in office for over a year, he had little leverage as South Korea turned to the prospect of a new president. It has been a depressing decade, marred by controversies that plunged the bilateral relationship to new depths.

 

“Comfort Women”

The treatment of “comfort women”—women forced into sexual slavery during World War II—has been the most potent and poisonous issue in the bilateral relationship. Estimates of the number of women forced into sexual servitude range from a high of 200,000 to a low of 50,000. After years of denial, the Japanese government in 1993 issued the Kono Statement (named after Kono Yohei, the chief Cabinet secretary who made the announcement) which accepted responsibility for that tragedy and apologized to those women. During his first term as prime minister, Abe denied imperial military responsibility for the tragedy, essentially disavowing the statement.11 His abbreviated tenure as prime minister prevented him from doing more, but he maintained that view. Whatever tolerance a ROK government may have had for such revisionism was put to the test when South Korea’s constitutional court ruled in August 2011 that Seoul’s failure to pursue negotiations or win compensation for the “comfort women” was unconstitutional.

That made doubly insulting and even less tolerable Abe’s comment, made just before he returned in 2012, that the Kono Statement disgraced Japan and that he would issue a “new statement” on the issue.12 He tried to fulfill that promise. His government put together a five-person panel to review the statement;13 although the process ended in June 2014 with confirmation of its accuracy, the damage was done.14 In South Korea, Abe was deemed an unrepentant revisionist who could only be checked by an international community united in its outrage.

The two governments continued to discuss the issue, holding several rounds of director-general level talks in the spring and summer of 2015. The issue would remain a focus of public attention in both countries. The Korean media reported that the Seoul government would release a three-volume white paper on the topic by July; the deadline was pushed back to December and then abandoned. In Japan, public debate went in the opposite direction following revelations that Asahi Shimbun, one of the most prominent voices in the country arguing for Japanese responsibility, had made factual errors by relying on unsound testimony as it made that case.

The damage that the issue was doing to the relationship and the seeming lack of progress in bilateral talks spurred the US to take a more forward-leaning role in the discussions, and to help prod the two sides to an agreement.15 On December 28, 2015, the foreign ministers for South Korea and Japan announced that they had “finally and irreversibly” resolved the issue.16 Japan acknowledged the imperial military’s responsibility for the “comfort women,” Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to the victims, and the Japanese government would make a one-time payment of 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to set up a fund for the victims to be run by the South Korean government. For its part, South Korea said that it valued the Japanese government’s announcement and efforts, and added that it would cooperate to implement the Japanese measures. It acknowledged Japan’s concern about a statue of a young girl that was placed in front of its embassy in Seoul—to call attention to the women victimized—and promised to “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner.” Finally, both governments pledged to “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community.” 

The agreement quickly came under attack, one of the many cudgels used against Park as her presidency collapsed. ROK progressives charged that the deal was made without consulting the surviving “comfort women,” undermining public support for the agreement. After Moon Jae-in became president in March 2017, his administration in July launched a task force to review the pact, with a mandate to examine the agreement from the perspective of the victims. Japanese officials cautioned South Korea, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide noting that the two sides agreed that the deal solved the issue “finally and irreversibly.”

The warning did little good. The review concluded at the end of December with the head of the task force reporting that “A victim-oriented approach, which has been accepted as a norm of the international community for human rights of wartime women, has not been fully reflected (in the deal).”17 Moon accepted the findings, calling them “regrettable but something that we can’t evade.” He concurred that “the comfort women issue can’t be settled through the deal.”18

Nevertheless, ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa said less than two weeks later that her country would not seek a renegotiation of the deal, but asked instead for Japan’s “voluntary and heart-felt apology” to victims,19 a request echoed by Moon the next day in a nationally televised press conference. Japan rejected both requests, noting that the agreement was designed to end such demands. Tokyo did however promise to continue to work with Seoul on key issues. Six months later, Seoul shuttered the foundation set up to administer the agreement.

The “comfort women” controversy receded in visibility as other issues, forced labor in particular, came to the fore. But in early January 2021, the “comfort women” tragedy again seized headlines when a Seoul district court ruled that the Japanese government had to compensate 12 plaintiffs who were victims of wartime sex slavery. Four months later, another court rejected a similar claim. In September, however, another court ordered Japan to disclose all assets in South Korea by March 21, 2022 in connection with the compensation ruling months before. Given Kishida’s role in forging the 2015 agreement, he can be expected to continue to assert the relevance of that deal and to insist that it be the basis of bilateral relations on this vexing issue.

Forced Labor

As corrosive as the “comfort women” issue is the question of compensation of Koreans forced into slave labor for Japanese companies during World War II. Millions of people were forced to work for some of the most prominent Japanese business concerns. When confronted with those complaints, the Japanese position has been that all such claims were foreclosed by the 1965 South Korea–Japan normalization agreement. Long dormant, the issue seized public attention in October 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese corporations that used Korean slave labor during World War II had to pay reparations—$89,000—to surviving slave laborers, insisting that the individual right to compensation had not been cut off by the diplomatic accord. A month later a second court made a similar ruling, prompting official protests from the Japanese government and a request for bilateral talks with the Moon administration.

Moon demurred, insisting that his government “cannot involve itself in judicial decisions,” and “must respect court rulings,” a position that generated criticism in Tokyo. The legal battles continued with plaintiffs winning more often than they lost to corporate defendants. In August 2021, an ROK court ordered the seizure of corporate assets to pay compensation. Yet another court, in two verdicts a few weeks later, refused to order compensation for the children of a World War II forced laborer, ruling that the statute of limitations had expired.20

Japan Ups the Ante

Those legal defeats prompted Japan to open a second front: On July 1, 2019, the Japanese government launched a trade war against South Korea, announcing that it would restrict the export to South Korea of three critical chemicals— photoresists, hydrogen fluoride and fluorine polyimide—used in high-end display and semiconductor manufacturing. The sanctions, which began three days later, were designed to hurt: Japan’s market share for two of the chemicals exceeds 90%.21 Officially, the measures reflected Japanese concerns about the ROK’s control of the re-export of those chemicals and their potential use in the production of weapons of mass destruction. South Korea denied the charges, noted that Japan did not provide any details for the allegations and highlighted the timing of the move.  Moon urged Japan to retract the restrictions, calling it “trade for political ends,”22 and Kang upped the ante by telling US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the measures would have an “undesirable” impact on trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States. As in other disputes, the two sides argued publicly about what they are arguing over and what they agreed to make public. After the Japanese Cabinet in August voted to remove South Korea from its export “white list” of approved trade partners, South Korea retaliated by downgrading Japan’s status on its list of trade partners and then a month later removed Japan from its white list.

Trade officials from the two countries met to try to find some common ground, without success. There was a venue for discussions and resolution of this issue—a bilateral export control policy dialogue—but it had been in abeyance. It reconvened in December 2019, after a three-and-a-half-year suspension. Discussions continued, with another round taking place in March 2020. Japan loosened, but did not lift, the restrictions. Meanwhile, Korea took preliminary steps to bring the dispute to the World Trade Organization (WTO). That effort was suspended amidst signs of bilateral progress, but Korea in June 2020 revived the WTO complaint as frustrations with Japan grew. The issue remains at a stalemate: When Korean and Japanese foreign ministers met at the UN in September 2021, they pledged to cooperate on key issues while reiterating positions on their disputes.23

Korea Doubles Down

Tokyo was not the only government ready to link other issues to increase its leverage. As the trade dispute intensified—itself an outgrowth of the forced labor controversy—the Moon administration threatened to let lapse the bilateral agreement to exchange military information (GSOMIA) that had been signed by the Park and Abe administrations in November 2016. GSOMIA was a bitterly contested issue in South Korean politics. It had nearly been signed twice before during the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008-2013) but both times public—or at least political—opposition forced the government to retreat; after the failed second attempt deputy national security advisor Kim Tae-hyo resigned to take responsibility.

South Korea officially notified Japan in August 2019 that it would withdraw from the pact, hoping to use the threat of expiration to either press Japan or to get the US to press it to move on the trade and historical issues. South Korean National Security Council Director Chung Eui-yong explicitly linked the issues, telling the National Assembly that GSOMIA extension depended on Japan’s decision to remove the export controls. The US instead voiced strong concern “and disappointment” at Seoul’s decision. Ultimately, just hours before the November deadline, Korea announced that it would remain in GSOMIA conditionally, a move that Abe applauded as a “strategic decision.” 

With a Flip of the Switch …

Perhaps contributing to Seoul’s decision to avoid cutting yet another thread in the partnership was a previous crisis that had rocked the bilateral military relationship. On Dec. 20, 2018, South Korean coast guard and naval vessels, as well as a Japanese patrol aircraft, deployed to the Sea of Japan in response to a distress signal from a North Korean fishing boat. The Japanese government alleged that the South Korean destroyer locked its fire-control radar on the aircraft, calling it “an extremely dangerous act that could cause an unexpected situation.” That targeting, the final preparatory step before launching an attack, would have been a violation of the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a multilateral agreement adopted by both South Korea and Japan that is designed to avoid such dangerous incidents.

South Korea said that it had not “painted” the Japanese plane, and that set off a near-daily exchange of allegations and denials. Within a week, Korean legislators asserted that the Japanese government had fabricated the claim. Defense officials held working-level virtual meetings to discuss the incident, but they were unable to exchange information because of security concerns. In remarks at the beginning of 2019, Abe called the lock-on a “dangerous act.” South Korea responded the next day with a call for Japan to apologize for threatening the ROK vessel. Soon the two sides were publicizing videos and tapes to support their explanations for the event. Working-level talks between the two countries proved unable to resolve the incident and on February 1, the two governments agreed to suspend all senior-level defense exchange programs for the first half of the year. Three years later, they have not yet resumed.

A More Complicated Assessment

The return of Abe Shinzo to the prime minister’s office was anticipated to torpedo relations between Japan and South Korea. Sadly, those expectations were realized. But a narrative that blames that outcome on Abe’s nationalism is simplistic and overdetermined. The appalling state of South Korea-Japan relations reflects a more complex array of factors.

First, there was the behavior of Abe’s first counterpart, Park Geun-hye. Some (including the author) expected her to more aggressively protect the bilateral relationship since it is a cornerstone of her father’s legacy—he presided over the 1965 Normalization Agreement between the two countries. Just before her inauguration in February 2013, Abe called her father “the best friend of my grandfather.”24 Nevertheless, she was deeply suspicious of Abe and refrained from engaging until he apologized for Japanese behavior in the past and in so doing took that issue off the table.25

Japanese concerns were magnified when Park decided to go to Beijing for her first foreign visit in Asia. The decision to prioritize China over Japan not only rankled but confirmed the view among the political leadership in Tokyo that Seoul was an increasingly unreliable partner and fueled a belief that its commitment to the US alliance system was weakening.26

Domestic political dynamics reinforced conventional thinking—and prejudices—in both countries. Abe was the first Japanese politician in the 35-year history of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s survey of prime minister support to record a linear rise in popularity during his first four months in office. Abe’s position was further strengthened in July, when his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) scored a resounding win in Upper House elections—the first time in decades that the ruling coalition controlled both houses of parliament. For Abe, the vote validated his policy line; he paid no political price for a failure to improve relations with Seoul. For South Koreans, the victory confirmed their view that conservative forces were ascendant in Japan and it was no longer a reliable partner.

By contrast, President Park’s approval rating was only 44% by the time she took office, a fall from the level recorded immediately after the election and the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in South Korea’s democratic era. Abe saw a weak partner, unable to deliver on contentious issues and unwilling to spend what little political capital she had on the bilateral relationship.

At notable moments, domestic politics seemed to enable conflict. The announcement that Japan would restrict exports of key chemicals to South Korea came before an Upper House election, encouraging speculation that Abe was taking a hard line to win votes. South Korea’s decision to let GSOMIA lapse occurred during a scandal involving one of Moon’s close aides, leading to accusations that the military controversy was intended to distract attention from the allegations of wrongdoing.  

The argument that Abe was destined to damage the South Korea-Japan relationship also overlooks one of the defining characteristics of his extraordinary second political act: his pragmatism.27 Few observers of Japanese politics anticipated that Abe would prove so savvy or flexible as he pursued his political agenda. He had apparently learned a key lesson of his first term: the need to trim sails in the face of political opposition. Abe didn’t always back down. He pushed through contentious legislation when he felt it was required or the price wasn’t too high, but he remained alert to public opinion and the views of the opposition. He presided over the evolution, not the revolution, of Japan’s national security policy.28 Throughout, he remained fixed on the prize: A transformation of Japan’s capabilities that would allow the country to play a bigger role on the international stage.

Unfortunately, as Scott Snyder and I have argued, that ambition, no matter how well intended, clashes with foundational tenets of South Korean identity.29 Abe’s efforts to assume that position ran headlong into a belief that Japanese aggression and brutality were inherent in the national character and were the anvil upon which modern South Korea had been hammered.

There were other, more practical and obvious ways in which South Korean policies forced a clash with Tokyo. As a nationalist, security concerns dominated Abe’s political calculations, not only because the first priority of any national leader is protection of the country, but also because of the domestic agenda those concerns enabled. Simply put, a credible external threat validated Abe’s reforms. South Korean policy undercut that project.

Seoul’s insistence on prioritizing relations with North Korea and using dialogue rather than strength as the foundation of rapprochement undermined Abe. If Pyongyang was not a threat, then there was no need for Tokyo to reinvigorate national defense policy. Outreach by Park and Moon to China similarly challenged a purported rationale for defense reform. In both cases, South Korean policies effectively upended Abe’s approach. And while Abe could make similar rationalizations when he wanted to maintain channels of communication with potential adversaries, he rejected South Korean priorities: For Japan, tangible progress toward denuclearization would always take precedence over a peace regime.

Moon’s seeming readiness to play politics and put national security cooperation at risk by suspending GSOMIA was another blow to Abe’s worldview and prioritization of national security concerns. Moon’s devotion to inter-Korean reconciliation, even if it would result in a downgrading of the readiness of the US-ROK alliance, confirmed for many in Japan that Moon was not committed to the military partnership with the US. and was ready to undo Northeast Asia’s regional security architecture.  

Japanese (and some Americans) rationalized a loosening of the ties of the alliance as a natural outgrowth of China’s growing role in South Korea’s economy. ROK-China two-way trade grew from $6.34 billion in 1992 to $241.5 billion in 2020, a 38-fold increase.30 In 2019, 25 percent of South Korea’s export revenue and 21 percent of its imports by value came from China; the US took about half that amount of Korean exports ($75 billion or 13.5 percent) and 12 percent of Korean imports. Japan’s presence has also been shrinking: South Korea’s exports to Japan fell from 11.9 percent of the total to 5.24 percent in 2019.31 An economic relationship that was once viewed as vital and complementary was instead becoming increasingly competitive, which also contributed to ill will and a readiness to fight rather than compromise. This economic reorientation shapes Seoul’s strategic calculations and Tokyo is convinced that its relationship with Seoul has been damaged as a result. In this context, the trade sanctions introduced in 2019 are an attempt to remind Korean decision makers of Japan’s continuing importance to South Korea’s economic future. (That the move may backfire by pushing Korean businesses to find or develop substitutes to Japanese products seems not to have weighed on thinking in Tokyo.)

There are two potential inflection points for the South Korea-Japan relationship in 2022. The first is the ROK presidential ballot that will be held in March. The fatigue and lack of trust that dominate relations with the Moon administration now defines the stasis in bilateral relations. Tokyo will do nothing that would allow a progressive candidate in South Korea to claim that he can do business with Japan.32 From a Japanese perspective, Conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party has made all the right noises about the bilateral relationship, calling for a new era that will be modeled after the partnership forged in 1998 by ROK President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo. Those two men agreed to look forward, not back, and use the convergence of their two countries’ values and interests as the foundation of a genuinely strategic partnership. In addition, Yoon’s skepticism toward North Korea, prioritization of the alliance over inter-Korean relations and preference for denuclearization of the North before reconciliation, all align with Japan’s own policy priorities. Of course, Japan will not weigh in on the ballot and make their preferences explicit, but there is no mistaking the desire for a change in orientation in the Blue House. If Yoon wins the vote and sticks with his campaign rhetoric, the Japanese government will have an obligation to test the new leader to see if he is sincere. A rebound in the relationship could result.

The second formative development will be consideration of South Korea’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the trade pact that aims to set the gold standard for regional economic relations. Japan is not only a founding member of the CPTPP but played a critical role in its resurrection after the US withdrew from the deal under Donald Trump. New members must have the unanimous consent of all current members, giving Tokyo an effective veto over Seoul’s prospects. South Korean membership makes sense for all concerned given the size of its economy, its place in supply chains, its technological capabilities, and its stake in an open and transparent economic order. Its values and interests align South Korea with Japan and should make Seoul an important ally and supporter of the rules and norms that Tokyo aims to propagate. Japan’s support for the ROK bid would signal its readiness to turn the corner on the relationship and partner with the Yoon administration to extend a shared vision of regional order.

Another factor is the role of the United States. Washington’s preference for its two allies to work together bilaterally and with it in a trilateral setting has long been clear. History suggests that active US engagement is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for progress and US administrations have taken concrete steps to encourage and facilitate their cooperation. The Biden administration has taken up where the Obama team—midwife to the 2015 Comfort Women agreement—left off. Its Indo-Pacific Strategy highlights the importance of trilateral cooperation between the three governments and calls for its expansion.33 There has been aggressive promotion of trilateral meetings of foreign and defense officials, with participants talking regularly about North Korea.34 Technology controls are a topic of growing interest, and a potential avenue for conversations to defuse the Japan-ROK trade dispute. (The CPTPP discussions might also serve that purpose.) The US will push the two governments to seize the moment afforded by the change of administration in Seoul.

The governments in all three capitals are acutely aware of the evolution of the regional security environment, and of the need for their active engagement to shape that development in ways that protect or advance their national interests. All three also recognize that their capacity to do so is greatly enhanced when they work together. The potential for Japan-ROK alignment is evident in an expansive list of initiatives and should be the guiding principle for the South Korea-Japan relationship more generally. And yet …. The challenge for the next administration in Seoul and its partner in Tokyo is transcending the narrowly defined and configured set of interests that have guided policy over the last few years and build a more forward-looking relationship. It is obvious, really, but it has been obvious for nearly a generation. The failure to move beyond the stalemate is a blot on both governments’ strategic thinking and does a disservice to both nations.

Conclusion

Over a decade, Tokyo has blamed South Koreans—their leadership, media, and public opinion—for an emotional attitude toward Japan, which is responsible for a poor and deteriorating relationship. There has been scant acknowledgment of the price of this deterioration for Japan and of its own responsibility, if less than that of South Korea, for this state of affairs. The conclusion here is that the cost of Japan-ROK distrust has been considerable and could rise sharply.

The cost has been born by both Japanese and South Koreans. It is seen in the insufficiency of US leadership, owing to discord limiting trilateralism, the emboldening of North Korea, and China’s wedge tactics to capitalize on the divisions between two US allies. Japan has concentrated on Southeast and South Asia effectively, working closely with the United States, but strategy to Northeast Asia—Russia as well as the Korean Peninsula—has oft been found wanting. Unable to solidify multilateral alliance ties in Northeast Asia, the US has recently found it easier to advance such diplomacy in Asia’s southern tier.   

The situation in 2022 is different for at least three reasons. First, the Biden administration has determination to transform Japan-ROK relations, starting with spring 2021 summits with both countries’ leaders and pressing harder in 2022. Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put enormous pressure on Tokyo and Seoul, as two allies whose positions toward Moscow have veered from alliance cohesion, to act separately to stand firmly with Europe and the US at a time when China supports Russia and lines are being clearly drawn. If not in concert, parallel moves in this environment promise to boost trilateralism. Third, leadership change in Seoul and the experienced diplomacy of Kishida in Tokyo have raised expectations that a breakthrough is possible if efforts are sufficient in these propitious times. History issues are overshadowed by security concerns in an unprecedented way. The forces of alliance strengthening have a new and novel momentum. Lessons from the past decade about shortsightedness and missed opportunities must be grasped.



1.   Cabinet Office of Japan, “Overview of the Public Opinion Survey of Diplomacy,” 2012, https://survey.gov-online.go.jp/h24/h24-gaiko/2-1.html

2. David Kang and Jiun Bang, “Japan-Korea Relations: Grappling on a Hillside,” Comparative Connections: A Triannual E-journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations 14, no. 2 (September 2012), Pacific Forum/ CSIS, http://csis.org/ les/publication/1202qjapan_korea.pdf.

3. Justin McCurry, “Will Japan retract its sex slave apology?” Global Post, January 4, 2013, https://theworld.org/stories/2013-01-04/will-japan-retract-its-sex-slave-apology

4. “Seoul hits senior official’s Takeshima Day presence,” The Japan Times, February 23, 2013.

5. “Abe, Park chat briefly in Beijing, agree to advance working level talks,” The Japan Times, November 11, 2014, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/11/11/national/politics-diplomacy/abe-park-speak-informally-dinner-apec-leaders/

6. Prime Minister’s Office, Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, August 14, 2015, https://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201508/0814statement.html

7. Republic of Korea Cheong Wa Dae, “Commemorative Address by President Park Geun-hye on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation,” August 15, 2015,  https://www.ncnk.org/sites/default/files/content/resources/publications/THE%20REPUBLIC%20OF%20KOREA%20CHEONG%20WA%20DAE.pdf

8. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-ROK Summit Meeting,” November 2, 2015, https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page3e_000408.html

9. Hyonhee Shin and Chang-Ran Kim, “S. Korea’s Moon scraps Tokyo trip over ‘unacceptable’ diplomat remarks,” Reuters, June 19, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japans-suga-skoreas-moon-hold-first-summit-meeting-friday-yomiuri-2021-07-18/

10. Jesse Johnson, “G-7 a missed opportunity for Tokyo-Seoul ties as Suga and Moon fail to connect,” The Japan Times, June 15, 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/06/15/national/japan-south-korea-suga-moon-ties/

11. Kozo Mizoguchi, “Japan’s PM Backs off Apology,” Associated Press, March 1, 2007, https://www.pressreader.com/canada/vancouver-sun/20070302/281792804566849

12. “Stop undermining Kono Statement,” The Japan Times, June 26, 2014,  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/06/25/editorials/stop-undermining-kono-statement

13. Martin Fackler, “Japan to revisit apology to wartime sex slaves,” The New York Times, February 28, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/01/world/asia/japan-to-review-apology-made-to-wwii-comfort-women.html

14. The review also found that there was consultation between the two governments over the wording of the Kono Statement, a finding that managed to anger both sides.

15. Daniel Sneider, “Behind the Comfort Women Agreement,” The Oriental Economist, January 10, 2016, https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/99891

16. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Announcement by Foreign Ministers of Japan and South Korea at the Joint Press Occasion, December 28. 2015, https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page4e_000364.html

17. “South Korea issues report casting doubt on ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan,” The Japan Times, December 27, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/12/27/national/politics-diplomacy/south-korea-issues-report-casting-doubt-2015-comfort-women-deal-japan/#.WkrzTq2B3R1

18. Jung Min Kyun, “Moon decries 2105 Korea-Japan ‘comfort women’ deal as flawed,” The Korea Herald, December 28. 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171228000905

19. Daisuke Kikuchi and Tomohiro Osaki, “South Korea will not seek renegotiation of ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan,” The Japan Times, January 9 2019,  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/01/09/national/politics-diplomacy/south-korea-will-not-seek-renegotiation-comfort-women-deal-japan/

20. Michael Lee, “Court nixes suit by kids of Japanese forced labor victim, Korea Joongang Daily, September 8, 2021, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2021/09/08/national/diplomacy/Japan-war-labor/20210908192600411.html

21. Mitsuro Obe and Kim Jaewon, “Inside the lose-lose trade fight between Japan and South Korea,” Nikkei Asia, July 31, 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Big-Story/Inside-the-lose-lose-trade-fight-between-Japan-and-South-Korea

22. Choi He Seuk, “Moon urges Japan to reconsider export restrictions on Korean tech firms,” The Korea Herald, July 8. 2019, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20190708000652

23. “Top Japanese and South Korean envoys vow to improve ties but fail to end various disputes,” The Japan Times, September 24, 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/09/24/national/japan-south-korea-envoys-meet/

24. Hiroshi Minegishi, “South Korea suffers from its alternating approach toward Japan,” Nikkei Asia, November 26, 2018.

25. Peter McGill, “Why history is a problem for Park Geun-hye in confronting Japan,” East Asia Forum, September 23, 2014, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2014/09/23/why-history-is-a-problem-for-park-geun-hye-in-confronting-japan/

26. Julian Ryall, “Tokyo’s regional isolation higher than ever,” DW.com, May 20, 2013, https://www.dw.com/en/japans-regional-isolation-higher-than-ever/a-16824957

27. Tobias Harris, The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan, (London: Hurst 2020).

28. Adam Liff, “Japan’s security policy in the ‘Abe era’: Radical Transformation or Evolutionary Shift,” Texas National Security Review, Vol 1, Issue 3, May 2018, https://doi.org/10.15781/T29S1M35C

29. Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder, The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

30. Kim Young-Bae, “S. Korea-China trade relations transition from complementary to Competitive,” Hankyoreh, December 8, 2021, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_business/1022511.html,

31. World Bank, World Integrated Trade Solution, South Korea 2019, https://wits.worldbank.org/countrysnapshot/en/KOR

32. The irony is that the only truly enduring deal between the two countries is one that will be struck by a progressive president in the ROK and a conservative Japanese prime minister.


33. White House, “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States,” February 2022, p. 17.

34. US Department of State, “Joint Statement on the US-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Ministerial Meeting,” February 12, 2022, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-the-u-s-japan-republic-of-korea-trilateral-ministerial-meeting/

Now Reading Tracking the Downswings in a ‘Virtual Alliance’: Japan’s Policy toward the Korean Peninsula over a Decade