By Yuichi Hosoya / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunJapan-South Korea relations are worsening to a level not seen since the end of World War II.
The deterioration began on Oct. 30, 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a Japanese company to pay compensation to South Korean former wartime requisitioned workers. This was the moment the long-established foundation of relations between Japan and South Korea collapsed.
Around the same time, there was a unilateral policy change by the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in regarding the issue of comfort women.
In December 2015, the then Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers met and agreed to confirm that “the issue [of comfort women] is resolved finally and irreversibly” and that South Korea would establish a foundation, with a ¥1 billion contribution from the Japanese government, to provide support for the former comfort women. Nevertheless, the Moon administration has unilaterally moved to effectively nullify the agreement, dismissing it as something concluded by the administration of his predecessor.
Moreover, in late December 2018 there was an incident in which a South Korean Navy destroyer directed fire-control radar at a Japanese Self-Defense Forces plane, sending Japan-South Korea relations downhill even faster.
On Aug. 2, the Japanese government adopted a Cabinet decision to remove South Korea from the list of nations with so-called white nation status, which are those treated preferentially through simplified export control procedures. As the reason for this, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said at a press conference, “[South Korea’s] export controls and their implementation have been insufficient.” Indeed, a number of inadequate cases of South Korean export control had been found, making it difficult for Japan to continue preferential treatment of South Korea.
In response to Japan’s decision, Moon concluded, however, “No matter what pretexts are given, the Japanese government’s decision is undeniable trade retaliation against our Supreme Court’s rulings.” The South Korean president vehemently denounced the Japanese government’s tightening of export controls applied to his country as “a very reckless decision” and “unjustifiable economic retaliatory measures.” Given his status as South Korea’s president, his language was too emotional and intemperate.
How should Japan deal with this matter? How should we fathom the ongoing deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations?
As an important premise, first and foremost, it is necessary to calmly and objectively analyze and understand the current state of Japan-South Korea relations.
From the geopolitical perspective of Japan, it is of the utmost importance what the United States, Japan’s ally, and China, which is becoming a regional hegemonic power, are doing. Relatively speaking, South Korea’s actions are less important.
In other words, Japan’s peace and prosperity can be sufficiently assured as long as it keeps its alliance with the United States robust while stabilizing its relations with China.
Investing enormous diplomatic resources in dealing with South Korea, getting excessively dragged into disputes with Seoul, or overreacting to what South Korea says and does cannot be described as wise judgment.
As we look back at history, it is clear that relations with the Korean Peninsula have always been difficult for Japan to navigate — in fact, they have caused many emotionally difficult situations.
In modern history, Japan and Imperial Russia fiercely confronted each other to increase their influence over the Korean Peninsula.
In the meantime, on the internal political scene of the Korean Empire, which was proclaimed in 1897 by King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty, intense antagonism was seen between pro-modernization reformists and conservatives, with the reformists placing importance on relations with Japan, which was already modernizing at the time, and the conservatives prioritizing traditional relations with Qing Dynasty China and trying to eliminate Japan’s influence.
It may be said that internal struggles over political paths on the Korean Peninsula and geopolitical confrontations between major powers tended to evolve in tandem, resulting in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War and leading to the Korean War that involved the world’s major powers.
Growing nationalist sentiment on the Korean Peninsula was linked with confrontations there over the direction of external relations. Circumstances on the Korean Peninsula remain the same today. Postwar politics in South Korea have evolved with a series of showdowns between two camps. One of them has grouped conservatives — also known as the camp favoring international cooperation — giving importance to the U.S.-South Korea alliance and relations with Japan. The other camp has grouped progressive factions — also known as nationalists — prioritizing the realization of North-South reunification and expressing straightforwardly anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments.
The issue of comfort women and that of requisitioned workers have stemmed from such internal political rivalry in South Korea. We need to calmly understand this point first of all.
More important is the fact that South Korea’s internal political rivalry has always evolved in parallel with confrontations between major powers over the Korean Peninsula.
When we take a longer historical perspective, we realize that such geopolitical confrontations between major powers occurred as conflicts at the outer rim of Eurasia between a coalition of maritime nations and one of continental nations.
One such historical example was the Russo-Japanese War. Behind the war was the ongoing global geopolitical conflict between the British Empire, which had already secured the safety of sea lanes between port cities along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent, and the Russian Empire, which had a southward expansion ambition that posed a challenge to Britain.
Traditionally, peninsulas, where land and sea meet, turned out to be the spots where maritime powers and continental powers clashed.
The Korean Peninsula, the Indochina Peninsula and the Middle East are all not only areas of the Eurasian continent linking land and sea but also places of strategic importance. These three peninsulas became the primary theaters of the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Middle Eastern wars. The geopolitical reason mentioned above is largely why the three peninsulas were the scenes of such major wars.
In recent years, the United States has tended to gradually reduce its military influence in the three areas. This is why the situations on the three peninsulas have recently become less stable, with regional conflicts or disputes increasing.
To be specific, on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons; in the South China Sea off the Indochina Peninsula, China has been building military bases; and in the Middle East, Syria remains trapped in a civil war while the issue of Iran’s nuclear development lingers.
We should not overlook the fact that increased influence of the continental coalition of China and Russia is commonly behind such issues. Countries in the three regions have been redefining their relations with the United States while keeping an eye on the actions of both China and Russia toward them.
On the Korean Peninsula, South Korean President Moon’s administration has a strong passion for North-South reunification, and North Korea is increasing its influence on South Korean politics. These developments have already emerged as a strong counter to trilateral security cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea. This is the reason why the Moon administration has repeatedly indicated that it would abolish the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Tokyo and Seoul, even though the intelligence-sharing accord has no relevance to Japan’s tightening of export controls.
We must not narrow our vision by being overwhelmed with displeasure at anti-Japanese politics. Diplomacy cannot ignore national sentiments, yet cool-headed realism is indispensable at the same time.
Should South Korea choose to resort to even further emotional action against our country, Japan should refrain from retaliating in kind and should instead calmly call on South Korea to exercise self-restraint. Even if the worsening of national sentiments in the two countries against each other is inevitable, Japan needs to keep Japan-South Korea relations from falling into a vicious cycle of unproductive disputes.
Why? Because there is a group of forces that are maneuvering behind the South Korean government to bring an end to security cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea and to seek the withdrawal of the U.S. armed forces from the Korean Peninsula. A rupture in Japan-South Korea relations would be a strategic triumph for those forces.
As a consequence of such a development, North Korea would accelerate its efforts to transform itself into a strong military power, China would finally cement its hegemonic position in Asia and the United States would reduce its military engagement in the region. What would then happen? That is the consequence Japan must avert.
Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs.Speech