Japan and South Korea Talk but Old Issues Continue to Figure
Prof Rajaram Panda

While the China factor, particularly its assertive and expansionist policies on a host of regional issues, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programmes are perennial issues of concern for the rest of the Northeast Asian region, two countries – Japan and South Korea – still continue to carry hangover of the war issues. Despite the fact that both are allies of the US, the past continues to haunt their present relationships. Time and again, the US has played the role of peace mediator but still mutual suspicion and accusations continue. The comfort women issue, demand for compensation for Korean labour used during the War years, textbook revision issue and many more continue to recur and become impediments for promoting understanding between the two and hinder addressing larger issues facing the region and the world.

There have been cases in the past when senior Japanese leaders have left abruptly from Seoul on their mission to negotiate bilateral issues out of frustration and Korea’s unbending stances on issues involved in talks. It was on 5 May, the Foreign Ministers of both the countries – Toshimitsu Motegi of Japan and Chung Eui-yong of South Korea – held their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year in London, mainly due to the initiative of the US and its efforts to find a common ground with the two Asian allies on China and North Korea.1

Though the meeting between the two Foreign Ministers took place on the sidelines of a Group of Seven Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the US initiative, as expected, the historical issues again cropped up. The “comfort women”, the euphemism for sex slaves, drafted to provide sex to Japanese military personnel before and during the World War II, and lawsuit verdicts by Korean court in January 2021 ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to former Korean labourers during the war, two most present issues frequently raised again figured in the discussion. In the meeting held for the first time since February 2020 and lasted just for 20 minutes, Motegi urged his Korean counterpart to drop the demand for compensation and resolve the issue internally in the larger interest of regional issues which both should focus. Motegi also questioned the Korean demand of either to liquidate or sell off assets of the Japanese companies to pay compensation to former labourers and asked to present a formula that is acceptable to Tokyo. Not deviating from the stated official position, Chung stuck to the Korean demand that Japan needs to have a correct understanding of the past history between the two countries.

Other issue that figured in the discussion was the decision of the Japanese government to dump treated radiation-contaminated water stored on the grounds of the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant into the ocean. Chung conveyed concern of Korea that the Japanese decision to release the contaminated water could pose a health and safety of the people in the region as well as the maritime environment. While the meeting between the two Foreign Ministers is a welcome development, mainly due to Biden’s persuasion, it is too early to expect that bilateral issues would be resolved so soon. A series of meeting and dialogues with possibly third party involvement could be necessary.

No doubt a meeting between the two Foreign Ministers was welcome but it was not expected the talks to decrease tensions overnight due to sharp differences between the two sides. The differences between the two sides is so sharp that Chung who took office in February 2021 did not have even a telephone talk with Motegi due to Japan’s refusal to accept any attempts to contact. A summit meeting is due between Biden and Moon Jae-in on 21 May and also a possible Moon-Suga summit on the fringes of the G-7 summit in Britain in June. But given the suspicions and mistrust between Japan and Korea, not much can be expected. The Japanese side is aware that Moon’s term shall end soon and may be unwilling too to discuss much now and wait for the next leadership in South Korea and what policy it crafts to address the Japan-Korea issues.2

So far, a summit meeting between Suga who took office after Abe Shinzo abruptly resigned on health grounds and Moon Jae-in has not been held in person. While a bilateral summit meeting, even if it is held, is unlikely to be expected to find any path to end the feud, a trilateral meeting with the US President Biden in it, on the sidelines of the G-7 summit could be promising for a way out. Even that could be also a bold and ambitious proposition. The sticking point is that both do not trust each other.

Another challenge faced by the three countries is how to deal with North Korea and its nuclear/missile development policies. The most immediate and urgent need is to get North Korea to the negotiating table. Pyongyang has so far resisted any pressure that any outside nation has tried to impose on it. The former US President Donald Trump did try and drew Kim Jong-un into three summit meetings but none yielded any positive outcome. Kim remained inflexible on his position that there could be no change in Pyongyang’s policy without any substantive sanctions relief and assurance for the regime stability, which Trump was unwilling to guarantee. Now the US, Japan and South Korea are toying with the idea persuading Kim to come to the negotiating table.

In London, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Toshimitsu and Chung discussed “shared concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes” and “reaffirmed their commitment to concerted trilateral cooperation toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. The stakeholders felt that the relevant UN Security Council resolutions should be honored by the UN member states, including North Korea, with a view to stop proliferation. Since the carrot and stick policy adopted by the Trump administration did not work, the Biden administration has chosen an incremental approach, akin to Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience”.3

In the meantime, South Korea’s perception on its relations with Japan on historical issues is likely to be hardened further as South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party elected on 2 May Song Young-gil, a blunt-speaking political veteran who advocates a hard line policy towards Japan. Song now heads South Korean Parliament’s foreign policy and unification committee. When the next presidential election is held in March 2022, Song will have a crucial role. Though Moon’s popularity ranking has plummeted to as much as 29 per cent, first time below 30 per cent, Song is expected to have a key role in the next candidate’s campaign strategy, as he himself is unlikely to be a candidate. For the remaining period of Moon’s tenure in office, Song is likely to urge Moon to pursue a harsher line against Japan. Such a strategy can help Moon to regain his declining public appeal. Should the ruling party return to power in March, Song is likely to have an important position. This means, South Korea-Japan reconciliation process could be more problematic.4

Japan and South Korea vis-à-vis North Korea

President Biden in his first address to Congress called North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programmes “a serious threat to America’s security and world security”. North Korea warned that the US will face “a grave situation” because of Biden’s “big blunder” in demonstrating his hostile policy towards it. However, what Biden is expected to pursue in his North Korean policy is to find a middle ground between Trump’s “grand bargain” and Obama’s “strategic patience” approach. Both Japan and South Korea shall have to craft their respective policies accordingly.5

As it transpires, the North Korean issue shall be just one of the issues impinging Japan-Korea relations. Dealing with the North Korean issues shall have outside intervention as the issue if too complicated. But since both Japan and South Korea continue to get entangled on bilateral issues stemming from history, a concerted approach to deal with the North Korean issue is unlikely to be a priority option for both Japan and South Korea.

It is unfortunate that at a time when the world is grappling with how to fight and defeat the pandemic sweeping every country in the world, the two Asian countries are investing so much time in quarreling on events that happened long back. Their priorities should have been on how to coordinate between them and with other nations in Asia on development of vaccine, augment production and choosing an efficient distribution strategy, improving healthcare infrastructure and many such related issues. The urgency now is to save precious lives. Discussion on what happened in the past and seeking solution to those can wait.

  1. “Japan, S. Korea foreign ministers meet for 1st time in over a year”, Asahi Shimbun, 6 May 20221, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14343287
  2. Kang Seung-woo, “Uncertain future ahead of Korea-Japan relations”, 6 May 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/05/120_308400.html
  3. “U.S., Japan, South Korea diplomats review North Korea strategy”, Asahi Shimbun, 6 May 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14343383
  4. Takuya Suzuki, “South Korea’s ruling party elects hardliner on Japan issues”, Asahi Shimbun, 3 May 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14342195
  5. “N. Korea warns U.S. of ‘very grave situation’ over Biden speech”, Asahi Shimbun, 2 May 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14341796

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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