Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Before Trying to Improve Japan-Korea Relations
CHINO Keiko / Journalist

November 21, 2019
South Korea has gutted the Japan-Korea “comfort women” agreement. Its navy vessel has directed a fire control radar at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol plane. Its Supreme Court has ordered Japanese companies to compensate Korean wartime forced laborers. And it has announced the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). In response to this series of moves, Japan has removed South Korea from its export control “white list.”

No end is in sight to the deterioration of Japan–South Korea relations. Moreover, the South Korean government shows no signs of having taken any concrete measures or steps toward improving the situation. From where Japan stands, the administration of President Moon Jae-in does not appear to have any interest in rectifying matters. If that is an overstatement, suffice it say that the administration places a very low foreign policy priority on improving bilateral relations.

Foremost on President Moon’s mind must be the promotion of inter-Korean relations and conciliation with North Korea, as well as a peaceful future for the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s once-critical alliance with the United States has lately faded in importance, due in part to the emergence of US President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, interestingly enough, China—which until a short while ago would have sided with South Korea—has been sitting tight without pitching in with the latter’s anti-Japanese rhetoric.

The souring of Japan-Korea relations is not unrelated to fundamental changes in the East Asian fabric exemplified by China’s recent attitude. This may be something of a chicken-or-egg situation, but whether it was the worsening of relations or the aforementioned changes that came first, any improvement in relations must take into account such changes in the political fabric of East Asia.

It goes without saying that it is better for neighboring countries to be on good terms. That said, improving relations should not be the be-all and end-all. Looking back on the history of Japan-Korea relations, it is evident that superficial improvements have not benefited either country. The current state of bilateral ties could be seen as a consequence of these past choices. Toughing out periods of poor relations is at times necessary.

“The 1965 system will no longer work”—it was early on in the 2000s that I heard South Korean scholars express this view at the Korea-Japan Forum for private-sector dialogue between Japan and South Korea. At the time, I could not quite make sense of it and simply wondered if some ideological debate was taking place in South Korea. But now, after the South Korean claims regarding the issues of comfort women and wartime forced labor, I realize what it was about; it was a domestic debate regarding the Park Chung-hee administration, which had been an embodiment of the 1965 system, as well as an alarm call signaling a reset of Japan-Korea relations.

Following domestic protests in both countries and other twists and turns, Japan and South Korea signed and ratified the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965, thereby normalizing diplomatic relations. Also signed at this time was the Agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation. Article II of the agreement confirms that problems regarding property and claims “have been settled completely and finally.” That is why Japan has consistently asserted that the issues, whether of comfort women or of forced laborers, have already been resolved and has urged South Korea to comply with international law, of which its claims are in violation.

Japan’s behavior is only to be expected, not merely from a domestic perspective but also from an international one. It would be a different story if the counterpart were a rogue country that had no qualms about ignoring international law. But South Korea is no such country, and yet it has not only refused to respond to Japan’s assertions; with regard to wartime forced labor, for instance, it has instead astonished Japan by stating, “Japan continued to ignore us in a clear affront to our national pride and a breach of diplomatic etiquette” (Deputy National Security Advisor Hyun Chong Kim). It is doubtful whether South Korea would use such excessive terms as “national pride” and “breach of diplomatic etiquette” toward any country other than Japan.

What I sense from South Korea’s behavior over the course of this affair is that the Moon administration takes international law lightly and views extralegal constructions like “correct perception of history” and “historical truths”—which it frequently cites—as being more important and more desirable. These notions, moreover, are where the basis for its value judgments lie. Evident in the Moon administration’s behavior is a self-pride that might be described as follows: Past administrations may have accepted (or been made to accept) the 1965 system without protesting against Japan, but South Korea today is no longer the same country, and it must engage in diplomacy befitting a middle power that occupies a key position in the Group of 20.

In short, Japan and South Korea are at complete odds with each other, arguing on two different planes. For all its efforts to stress international law, Japan might as well be preaching to deaf ears when it comes to the Moon administration, which is intent on sacking the 1965 system.

Calling on South Korea to observe international law and asserting the legitimacy of the claims settlement agreement are not enough for Japan to expect a détente with South Korea; that would be a tall order. The claims settlement agreement may certainly be the foundation on which the current bilateral relations were built, but even for the Japanese, they have become a thing of the past. Many Japanese today have likely never even heard of the agreement.

South Korea dwells on the past because doing so gives it an edge over Japan. The same is not true for the latter. While I would not say that Japan should not discuss the past, it is the future that the country should be talking more about—about what sort of order it envisions for East Asia as the region undergoes structural change. There is excellent fodder for that: the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. In addition to the core countries of Japan, Australia, India, and the United States, support for such a plan is steadily expanding to Africa, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Pacific island countries. Japan would also do well to talk more about the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP11).

South Korea, which is concerned about China and North Korea, is not included in either framework. Precisely for that reason, Japan’s articulation of a grand plan for multilateral cooperation in East Asia and its leadership in the region by promoting the plan would contribute—if by a circuitous route—to a future-oriented relationship between Japan and South Korea.

Chino Keiko is a freelance journalist and Guest Columnist of the Sankei Shimbun. 
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

千野 境子 / ジャーナリスト

2019年 11月 21日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Before Trying to Improve Japan-Korea Relations