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Japan - Korea


Despite a good working relationship during the last quarter of 2004, during the first three months of 2005, some tiny, uninhabited rocks in the middle of the sea between Japan and Korea became the source of a major diplomatic spat between both Koreas and Japan. “Who owned Tokdo/Takeshima first” is evidently more important to Japan and South Korea than is concluding a free-trade agreement, resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, or sorting out relations with China and the U.S.  This might be fitting: although 2005 is “Japan-Korea Friendship Year,” which marks the 40th anniversary of normalized ties between the two countries, it is also the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea.

That said, not much progress was occurring in any of these other issues. Japan and North Korea remain sidetracked in a dispute over abductees, and Japan moved toward economic sanctions even as the Six-Party Talks stalled. South Korea and Japan made little progress toward a free-trade area, preferring to argue about history.

The twin issues of North Korea and history continued to dominate Japan-Korea relations in the second quarter of 2005. Unfortunately, little progress toward resolution was made on either issue. In dealing with North Korea, Japan continued to mull sanctions or other measures against the North, although the government did not take any actions toward that end and Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro publicly disavowed sanctions in early June. In mid-June, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Koizumi met in Korea for a summit that failed to bring any progress on the range of issues between the two countries, from the disputed Tokdo/Takeshima territory to the issue of Yasukuni Shrine visits and how Japan’s middle-school textbooks treat the past. On the economic front, Japan and South Korea continued to deepen their relationship. However, increasing economic interdependence has hardly dampened political disputes between the two countries.


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By David Kang and

Japan - Korea

July — September 2005

No Major Changes

Japan-Korea relations in the past quarter showed no major surprises, and no major changes. Although there was real progress within the larger context of the Six-Party Talks, the agreement in principle by Japan and North Korea to “normalize their relations in accordance with the Pyongyang Declaration, on the basis of the settlement of the unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern,” was both a step forward and yet also the mere reiteration of agreements already made between the two sides. The real issues – and the real work – will begin in the future, as the two sides begin discussing details of just exactly how to settle the abductee issue and move toward normalized ties. It is significant, however, that Japan was willing to forego greater pressure on North Korea on the abductee issue in favor of a broader agreement with the six parties.

With the focus on the two meetings of the six parties in Beijing, much of the heat between South Korea and Japan over disputed islands and textbooks faded to the background. Although the issues are still quite prevalent, the surge of emotion over the issues subsided, although most likely this is a temporary respite. Although Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made both a deep bow and public statement of apology in general for Japan’s role in World War II, this apparently did little to assuage South Korean resentment over Japan’s policies on specific issues. However, despite the friction over textbooks and history, Japan and South Korean cooperation continued to increase on matters such as judicial cooperation on international crimes, and the two militaries found ways to cooperate on issues such as high-level officer exchanges and Coast Guard operations. Economic interactions between South Korea and Japan continued to deepen over the quarter. Although much of this was “business as usual,” the most notable move was an alliance by Samsung and Sony to cooperate on various technical matters, marking a further integration of the economies of these two high-tech Asian nations. Finally, in cultural issues, Japanese continued to see Koreans as more friendly than Koreans saw Japanese.

Japan - Korea

October — December 2005

The Big Chill

“Japan-Korea Friendship Year” limped to a close, with petty unresolved problems between Japan and South Korea continuing to overshadow the relative stability of the actual relationship. The media in both countries had a field day with the various spats, almost gleefully highlighting disputes over territory, textbooks, and history. Japan-Korea relations have worsened, not improved, in the past year.

It is important to keep these diplomatic disputes in context: very few of these disputes had actual consequences for policies on either side. Although South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s frigidly polite interaction with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro at the East Asia Summit was noted throughout East Asia, most policies between the two countries remained unchanged. South Korean-Japanese economic interaction proceeds apace, and the long-discussed free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries is victim, not of sentiment over history, but of much more mundane domestic politics and an unwillingness by either side to give ground on agricultural issues. Policy toward North Korea is stalled, but that is because the Six-Party Talks themselves have not made progress. Thus, although relations are hardly warm, these disputes remain the province of rhetoric and showmanship. It is too early to tell whether 2006 will see renewed leadership between the two leaders or a slide further into diplomatic squabbling.

The first quarter of 2006 produced no real movement in Japan-South Korea relations, nor Japan-North Korea relations. Politics remained chilly while economic and cultural relations were somewhat warmer. Japan-North Korea relations remained stalled over the abductee issue, and Japan-South Korea political relations remain stalled over Yasukuni Shrine. The Japanese and South Korean economies continue to integrate and interact, and cultural relations experienced no real controversies. The next quarter looks to be a continuation of this one. Japan and North Korea have not scheduled another round of bilateral talks, and Roh Moo-hyun and Koizumi Junichiro show no signs of extending the olive branch that will allow them to resume summit meetings. South Korea and Japan will continue discussions about a free-trade area, although such negotiations are likely to make little progress.

Japan-Korea relations continued to be tense during the quarter. North Korea and Japan faced off over abductees, history, and the North’s presumed preparations for a missile launch. South Korea and Japan came close to a skirmish over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands, and only intensive negotiations avoided a crisis between the two countries. With Japan and both Koreas seemingly locked into their respective foreign policy approaches, it is no surprise that there was little progress and much squabbling.

 

As a tumultuous summer drew to a close, North Korea’s missile launches in July and the election of Abe Shinzo as prime minister of Japan in September may have marked the beginning of a new chapter in Northeast Asian regional relations. Although neither by itself has clearly redefined Japan-Korea relations, both events are widely seen to presage a new series of options and possibilities in the region. The missile launches in early July marked the escalation of the North Korean issue to new heights, prompting a stern response even from countries such as China and South Korea, the end result being a UN resolution that could open the door to economic sanctions against the North.

As for Abe’s election, former Prime Minister Koizumi was widely considered to have been a revolutionary Japanese politician, and whether Abe will continue along the same path as Koizumi remains to be seen. Certainly Abe, as both the youngest prime minister in the postwar era and the first one born after World War II, appears to have the potential to continue Koizumi’s reformist path. How Japan under Abe might deal with both North and South Korea has been the source of tremendous speculation, and while there are a number of predictions, it remains to be seen how and in what manner Abe’s foreign policy will develop. Some speculate that Abe will be even more assertive toward the Koreas than was Koizumi. Others wonder whether Koizumi might have been the exception, and whether Abe will revert to the norm of previous prime ministers remarkable mainly for their blandness and conventionality.

Japan - Korea

October — December 2006

Abe’s Ascension

With Abe Shinzo becoming prime minister of Japan in late September, Japan-Korea relations entered a new period. Political relations with both North and South Korea deteriorated badly under Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, and both Koreas waited to see whether Abe would take a new course toward the peninsula. His initial act of visiting South Korea and China won cautious praise from the South Koreans, although the real test of his leadership and where he plans to take Japanese foreign policy remain to be revealed. With North Korea’s nuclear test, Japan became one of the most eager participants in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1718, although this was widely expected and thus did not unduly affect relations with South Korea. North Korea’s nuclear test marks a new phase in Northeast Asian politics, and how Japan and the two Koreas manage their relations in the coming year could have a major impact on stability in the region.

The first quarter of 2007 saw new developments in the Japan-Korea relationship, while some very old issues resurfaced. Prime Minister Abe’s honeymoon appears to be over in both domestic politics and Japan’s foreign relations, while South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is a lame duck with the next presidential election coming this December. The Six-Party Talks experienced unexpected and dramatic progress as a result of U.S. and North Korean initiatives, with a potential resolution appearing on the horizon. Japan’s unyielding insistence on making resolution of the abductions issue the center of its relations with North Korea threatened to isolate Japan even further as the six-party process continued.

Abe further heightened regional suspicions about Japan’s intentions when he seemed to cast doubt on both the Japanese government’s role in the World War II “comfort women” brothels and its 1993 apology, by questioning whether coercion was involved and whether the military and government were directly involved. This led to predictable outrage in South and North Korea, although South Korea’s responses were more muted than in the past. Even Australian Prime Minister John Howard told Abe that Japan should “stop quibbling” over the details of the women who were pressed into sexual service during World War II. Given Japan’s new emphasis on human rights and “value-oriented diplomacy,” as well as its insistence on resolving the abduction issue, Abe’s comments led to concerns about Japan’s new foreign policy direction.

Despite the political tensions between Japan and the Koreas, economic relations between South Korea and Japan continued their slow integration, and at the working levels, the two governments continued to find new areas of cooperation. So far, Abe has not fully defined his stance toward the two Koreas, and the coming quarter promises to be an eventful one.

If the previous quarter was marked with little movement in the stalemate between Tokyo and Pyongyang, this quarter appears to be transitional. North Korea shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and announced its intention to disable other nuclear facilities by the year’s end. In Japan – Abe Shinzo who gained national popularity for his hardline approach to North Korea – stepped down in September, and Japan’s new Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo has hinted at softening Japan’s stance toward the North. Arguably, the quarter’s developments signaled that the pendulum of Japanese foreign policy may swing back closer toward dialogue with Pyongyang.

Abe’s decision not to visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15 was welcomed by Seoul, keeping bilateral relations relatively cool compared to the wars of words that had occurred under Koizumi. History issues continued to linger between Japan and South Korea, as Seoul made noises about Japan’s “lack of repentance” on its 62nd Liberation Day and the two countries continued to clash over the naming of the Sea of Japan/East Sea and over Japan’s 2007 Defense White Paper’s inclusion of the Dokdo/Takeshima islets as part of Japanese territory. But the quarter also witnessed important efforts aimed at strengthening bilateral cooperation. Tokyo and Seoul agreed to conduct joint surveys on the level of radiation in waters near the Dokdo/Takeshima islets and on daylight savings time policies. South Korea seemed reasonably happy with Fukuda as Japan’s new prime minister, as he said early on that he would seek more friendly relations with China and South Korea and not visit Yasukuni Shrine. Tokyo expressed concerns over the timing of the inter-Korean summit, watchful of its possible impact on the December presidential election in South Korea, and of one-sided payoffs from Seoul to Pyongyang.

Japan - Korea

October 2017 — December 2007

Lost in the Six-Party Talks

The final quarter of 2007 was eventful and left observers in both Japan and South Korea cautiously optimistic about bilateral relations. Both Japan and South Korea chose new chief executives this fall, and both of them promised to search for more collaboration and to begin repairing relations between the two countries. Halting progress on North Korean denuclearization through the Six-Party Talks led to hope that momentum could be sustained, although Japan for the time being has chosen to be supportive but skeptical of North Korea’s promise to denuclearize, and continued its sanctions against the DPRK. Indeed, North Korea’s missed deadline for declaring its nuclear programs was a reminder that progress in relations with North Korea is never straightforward or easy. Although no country has decided to forego the process, it is unclear how relations between North Korea and other states in the region will evolve in 2008.

Japan - Korea

January — March 2008

Inaction for Inaction

Despite the change in Japanese leadership from hard-liner Abe Shintaro to the more dialogue-oriented Fukuda Yasuo, this quarter’s Japan-North Korea relations were largely uneventful and produced little progress. Tokyo criticized Pyongyang for missing the year-end deadline for declaring all its nuclear programs and facilities, urging North Korea to make a “political decision” to fulfill its commitment under the Six-Party Talks agreement. Pyongyang reiterated that Japan should be excluded from the talks, and blamed Japan for the U.S. failure to remove Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terror. North Korea asserted that there would be no improvement in their bilateral relations as long as Japan continues to press resolution of the abduction issue on Pyongyang. By mid-March, Tokyo had decided to extend economic sanctions against Pyongyang for another six months after they expire April 13, if the current situation continues with no breakthroughs. Meanwhile, with the change in South Korean leadership from a liberal-minded Roh Moo-hyun to the more conservative Lee Myung-bak, Tokyo exerted diplomatic efforts to bring South Korea closer to Japan by trying to form a united front between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. against North Korea.

Japan’s relations with both North and South Korea improved over the past quarter. In conjunction with the North’s June declaration of its nuclear activities, there was renewed momentum in resolving the two biggest pending bilateral issues between Tokyo and Pyongyang – the North’s nuclear development program and the abduction issue. Bilateral talks resumed in mid-June after more than six months of no progress. The second quarter also marked a fresh start for Tokyo and Seoul as President Lee’s Myung-bak’s visit to Japan – the first since December 2004 by a South Korean president – marked the resumption of so-called “shuttle diplomacy.” The summit between Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and President Lee produced agreements on several bilateral issues, including the stalled bilateral FTA negotiations, closer coordination on policy regarding North Korea’s nuclear development program, and youth exchanges.

Japan - Korea

July — September 2008

Who’s in Charge?

Although there was little movement in Japan’s relations with North Korea, this quarter was dominated by the news leaking out of North Korea in early September that Kim Jong-il was potentially very sick. Questions about Kim’s health, the status of his leadership in North Korea, and the future of North Korea’s leadership quickly dominated discussion. Coupled with Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda’s surprise resignation and the quick choice of Aso Taro as prime minister, Japanese foreign policy was on a brief hiatus while the new leader set his own agenda. Known as a conservative, it is expected that Aso will take a harder line toward the North – and the region more generally – than did Fukuda. But his official appointment, coming on Sept. 24, was so recent that it is too early to see how Aso plans to proceed. Thus, there was actually little substantive change in Japan’s relations with North Korea, and the quarter ended basically where it began.

In contrast, Japan-South Korean relations plunged to new lows after a promising spring in which both Fukuda and President Lee Myung-bak had pledged to move the relationship forward. The question of who owns the Dokdo/Takeshima islets once again reared its ugly head, and both sides dug in their heels, choosing to be as provocative as possible. In what was at best a tone-deaf decision in July, Tokyo released a new set of guidelines for its middle-school teachers claiming that Takeshima was irrefutably Japanese. Seeming to contradict the spirit of the just completed and highly successful summit meeting between Japan and Korea during the spring, the decision left President Lee with little choice but to respond strongly, and relations quickly cooled between the two countries.

Although it appeared at first that there was some potential for progress on the two enduring issues on the agenda of Japan-North Korea relations – the abduction issue and Pyongyang’s nuclear development program – by the end of the quarter both issues remained essentially in the same place as they had been before. The abduction issue continued to define the tone of bilateral relations, as Japan tried to ensure that progress in the Six-Party Talks was tied to its resolution. The Tokyo-Pyongyang working-level talks in mid-August, following last quarter’s agreement that Pyongyang would reinvestigate the fate of the Japanese abductees in exchange for partial lifting of the sanctions on the North, concluded with an agreement on the terms of the investigation to be completed as swiftly as the fall of 2008. But Fukuda’s resignation as prime minister led Pyongyang to notify Japan that it would wait and see how the Aso administration approaches bilateral issues before starting the reinvestigation. Despite taking a step closer toward normalizing their diplomatic relations, there was no substantive policy change in Japan toward Pyongyang and by the end of the quarter, the new Aso administration decided to extend economic sanctions against North Korea for another six months.

The year ended fairly quietly in Japan-Korea relations with no major events marking the last few months of 2008. Japan-North Korea relations remained stagnant and Japan-South Korea relations essentially ignored the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, instead focusing on dealing with the widening global economic crisis. The biggest diplomatic event was the successful trilateral summit in December among China, Korea, and Japan, which may set the stage for further diplomatic movement. Whether 2009 will bring dramatic progress on these issues remains to be seen, but with new leaders in Japan and South Korea entering their first full years of rule, the continued concerns about the health of North Korea’s leader, and a new U.S. president, the new year holds the possibility for progress on at least some of these issues.

Japan - Korea

January — March 2010

Same As It Ever Was

Korea-Japan relations have foundered over territorial and historical disputes for quite some time. Indeed, much of this quarter’s report could have been written in 2004, or perhaps even earlier. Yet, we dutifully report the Japanese government’s latest claim, the South Korean government’s latest protest against that claim, and so on, while also reporting the increasing trade, travel, and institutional relations between the two countries. Which leads to a question: how consequential are these territorial disputes? The mere fact that Japanese and Koreans think they are important enough to alter textbooks and put claims on the Foreign Ministry website makes them consequential.  However, do these claims have an impact on the other military, diplomatic, or economic affairs in the region? One could make an argument that despite the sturm und drang over who owns Dokdo/Takeshima, those affairs have not yet led to different policies in other areas, and certainly nobody thinks the territorial disputes might lead to actual war. This is not the place to discuss that question in depth, but it is one of the more intriguing questions that occurs to us as we, yet again, write about the same issues.

The sinking of the South Korean warship on March 26 turned the second quarter into a tumultuous time for Northeast Asian diplomacy. A multinational team of investigators concluded that North Korea was responsible, bringing Seoul and Tokyo closer together in a united stand against Pyongyang, while Japan’s relations with North Korea relations declined even more than usual as they continued their “sanctioning and blaming”: Tokyo placed more sanctions on Pyongyang, and Pyongyang blamed Tokyo for being used as a US “servant.”  For its part, the Democratic Party of Japan found a face-saving solution to the problem of the Futenma relocation issue, putting the matter on hold due to the threat from North Korea. At the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the region appears largely the same as it did in 1950. Both Koreas view each other as the main enemy, US alliances are the cornerstone of Japan and South Korean foreign policies, and China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) is sympathetic to North Korea and faces strong criticism from the US and South Korea.

The two highlights in Japan-Korea relations during this quarter are Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s apology to South Korea for Japan’s colonial rule, and the appointment of Kim Jong-un, as vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Military Commission and military general in the Korean People’s Army. While these developments hold the promise to potentially change the security landscape of Northeast Asia, Prime Minister Kan’s first full quarter in office reveals that Japan’s North Korea policy is likely to continue along the lines of previous Japanese administrations, at least for now: an unfavorable attitude coupled with hostility and inaction. Pyongyang’s attitude toward Tokyo, too, changed little and remained more or less predictable – it denounced Prime Minister Kan for apologizing only to South Korea, criticized Japan for “shamelessly” wanting a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and demanded compensation for all of Japan’s past wrongdoings. Japan-South Korea relations appear to be moving closer, although whether Kan’s apology will truly change anything remains to be seen.

Japan - Korea

October — December 2010

The New Cold War in Asia?

The year ended with heightened tensions resulting from Pyongyang’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 and the subsequent show of force by South Korea, the US, and Japan. Yet, despite dueling artillery barrages and the sinking of a warship, pledges of “enormous retaliation,” in-your-face joint military exercises and urgent calls for talks, the risk of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula is less than it has been at anytime in the past four decades. North Korea didn’t blink because it had no intention of actually starting a major war. Rather than signifying a new round of escalating tension between North and South Korea, the events of the past year point to something else – a potential new cold war. The most notable response to the attack on Yeonpyeong was that a Seoul-Washington-Tokyo coalition came to the fore, standing united to condemn North Korea’s military provocations, while Beijing called for restraint and shrugged away calls to put pressure on North Korea. Within this loose but clear division, Japan-North Korea relations moved backward with Prime Minister Kan Naoto blaming the North for an “impermissible, atrocious act.” On the other hand, Japan-South Korea relations have grown closer through security cooperation in their reaction to North Korea. Tokyo’s new defense strategy places a great emphasis on defense cooperation and perhaps even a military alliance with South Korea and Australia in addition to the US to deal with China’s rising military power and the threat from Pyongyang.

The triple tragedy in Japan overshadowed all other regional events in the first four months of 2011. The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in March riveted the world and shone a spotlight on a country that had long been seen as an economic powerhouse. The vivid images of the disaster area were a reminder that even the most developed of countries is subject to the random course of nature and caused many to wonder how the events would affect Japan and the region. As its closest neighbors, the tragedy provided opportunities for both Koreas to offer condolences and aid to Japan and led to some hope that a stronger relationship could emerge between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. However, the tragedies did not remove the difficult issues between Japan and its neighbors or fundamentally alter longstanding trends in the region. In fact, quite soon after the earthquake these old issues began reappearing. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the Fukushima earthquake marks a new era in Japan and what effect that might have on Japanese foreign relations, but certainly in the short term the Japanese will be focused more internally than externally as they concentrate on recovery and rebuilding.

South Korea and Japan are neighbors that are advanced, technologically sophisticated capitalist economies with capable and well-educated populations, and are fully consolidated liberal democracies. They share an alliance with the US, and generally view themselves as stalwart regional allies. As has been the case for many years, relations between them during the past four months were relatively stable, with increasingly deep economic relations, voluminous cultural flows, and general agreement on a strategy of isolation toward North Korea.  They also share a tendency to provoke each other over their shared history and the ownership of several islets that sit between them. When this happens, the media goes into a frenzy, breathlessly reporting the latest incident. But which is reality? Do the historical disputes meaningfully affect their bilateral relations? On the one hand, yes: they could cooperate more closely on issues such as military coordination and a free-trade agreement. On the other hand, no: it’s not at all clear that historical issues are holding up cooperation and relations are deeper across a range of issues.

Unfortunately, relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) over the summer were portrayed by the media in both countries as punctuated by that familiar spirit of: “give me ______ (insert Dokdo or Takeshima) or give me death!” But, what else was occurring while the media with its steadfast attraction to sensational stories provided immense coverage of South Korea’s denial of entry for the three Japanese lawmakers intent on visiting Ullengdo (near the contested island of Dokdo/Takeshima) at Gimpo airport in early August? Coverage of the political sparring occurred at the expense of shedding light on other issues that deserved as much attention, if not more. Although we have no clear answer as to whether the disputes are real or symbolic, we choose to focus on other events between Korea and Japan that received far less attention, but may be more meaningful in moving the relationship forward.

The last four months of 2011 were dominated by two leadership changes – the mid-December death of Kim Jong Il after 17 years as North Korea’s leader and the election of Noda Yoshihiko in September as Japan’s sixth prime minister in the last five years. Kim’s death is a watershed event that could mean changes in North Korea’s domestic and foreign policies with repercussions around the region. South Korea and Japan reacted cautiously to the news of Kim’s death and the rise of his son, Kim Jong Un, as the “Great Successor” and new leader of North Korea. Beyond this event, however, Korea-Japan relations showed little change. Early indications suggest that Noda will maintain the foreign policy direction of his predecessors. Economic relations between South Korea and Japan – and indeed between Korea, Japan, and China – continue to move slowly forward as they continue to build financial and trade relations and institutions that will facilitate greater openness and interactions. Politically, Seoul and Tokyo remain firmly stuck arguing the same issues that have aggravated relations for decades. North Korea-Japan relations also showed little change in late 2011 as both sides repeated the usual accusations and demanded they make amends, but neither showed any inclination to do so. Meanwhile, there were three main trends in relations. First, external forces drove state behavior as evidenced by the almost domino-like efforts at free trade agreements (FTA) in both South Korea and Japan. Second, there was growing recognition of the high (and seemingly insurmountable) domestic political costs associated with non-pliable issues such as the comfort women/sex slaves. Third, there was a growing realization that change could mean opportunity as embodied in the cautious desire in both Seoul and Tokyo to shape the contours of the post-Kim Jong Il landscape in North Korea.

Japan - Korea

January — April 2012

Sisyphus

The most dramatic events affecting relations in early 2012 concerned North Korea. The power transition appears to be proceeding smoothly, although mixed signals indicate that a clear foreign policy has not yet been worked out in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan continue on their seemingly disconnected tracks. In economic relations and day-to-day issues, they continue to move closer together on issues from dealing with tax evasion to joint disaster relief planning. Yet, territorial claims or claims about history are a constant irritant that threaten to derail relations. Both sides seemingly wanted relations to worsen by picking fights over Dokdo/Takeshima and making claims about history. One could dismiss the squabbling as peripheral to the main relationship, but it hinders coordination and planning over important issues, diverts diplomatic attention, and remains salient for domestic politics of both sides.

Diplomatic disputes between Korea and Japan over historical issues and territory flared yet again this summer, being by far the most serious row since the mid-2000s. With both sides focused far more on proving the others’ misdeeds than on finding some stable equilibrium, the disputes threatened to spill over and affect economic relations as well as distract leaders from focusing on a number of pressing domestic and foreign issues. We try to avoid overreactions in this forum, hence the title. Korea-Japan relations are nowhere near falling off a cliff, but without stabilizing relations, there are potential deleterious bilateral and regional effects that could result from the current disputes. There were three underlying themes that characterized and reinforced the general lack of rapport: first, the reverberations from these bilateral disputes onto third parties (US, China, and North Korea); second, the domestic sources of foreign policy (known as the “second-image” in international relations theory); and third, deliberate moves toward negative issue-linkage in stymieing diplomatic relations in the region.

Elections dominated the news in both Korea and Japan. South Koreans elected the first female head of state in modern Northeast Asian history and Japanese voters overwhelmingly returned the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power, giving Abe Shinzo a second run at prime minister. Unsurprisingly, both elections focused on domestic economic issues, and both Park and Abe made an effort to downplay Korea-Japan relations during their campaigns. This did not stop observers from speculating about how both would rule and in particular how Korea-Japan relations might evolve. This was particularly salient because 2012 marks a considerable cooling in relations between the ROK and Japan. Surprisingly, North Korea was not a major factor in either case. The DPRK’s December satellite launch failed to disrupt or significantly change the dynamics of either election and was met with a predictable but muted sense of outrage from the US and the countries in the region.

In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray is fated to repeat one day of his life over and over – that description is apt for relations between Korea and Japan. North Korea’s histrionics again dominated media headlines and managed to overshadow the inauguration of Park Geun-hye in February 2013, even while South Korea and Japan under-reacted to the bluster. With Park’s inauguration, new leaders have taken office in every country in Northeast Asia, including North Korea and China, over the past 18 months. Despite new leadership, the issues remain very much the same: North Korean threats, increased South Korea-Japan economic interactions despite continued squabbling over historical and territorial issues, and a reminder that the US remains deeply involved in regional issues.

South Korea-Japan relations have been frozen for some time and despite the summer heat, no thaw appears likely anytime soon. Although economic interactions continue to deepen between the two countries, and although there is a clear desire – and even a need – to coordinate policies toward North Korea and China, the two countries appear more focused on other issues as their main foreign policy priorities in the short-term. The two recently elected leaders have yet to meet for a summit, a sign that even a symbolic attempt to repair relations is proving difficult. Japanese Prime Minister Abe has grown stronger with a rousing Liberal Democratic Party victory in Upper House elections, yet a number of rhetorical controversies kept attention focused on Abe’s foreign policy, particularly toward Korea and China. To date not much has changed and there is little evidence that either Seoul or Tokyo desires improved relations.

Japan - Korea

September — December 2013

More Naughty than Nice

The last four months of 2013 were uneventful for Korea-Japan relations. That is, simmering disputes continued to simmer and both sides made moves that annoyed the other, but there was almost no substantive action. Significantly, South Korean President Park Geun-hye continued to refuse to meet Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, and even some meetings between lower-level officials were called off. The biggest events were domestic issues that had implications for relations among the countries: the execution of Jang Song Thaek in North Korea and the release of the new National Security Strategy in Japan being the most notable. In all, relations remained frozen, with little evidence that 2014 would see any major changes in either attitudes or relations among Japan, South Korea, and North Korea.

For the last few years, it has been popular for Japan-Korea watchers to ask about the possibility of a “reset” in their relations. The best time for this may be 2015, given that it marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan and the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan-Republic of Korea that normalized relations. As if to refute the idea that there might be any lull before a storm, Tokyo and Seoul rang in the New Year not with bells and whistles but a promotional video for Korea’s claim to Dokdo/Takeshima that went viral on YouTube. This may have set the tone for the months that followed. A major theme for the early months of 2014 was the role of the US – both as a setting and an actor – in issues ranging from the naming of the East Sea/Sea of Japan to getting the two heads of state in the same room.

Relations between Japan and the two Koreas were relatively calm. The most significant events centered on domestic issues with Japan’s reconsideration of the Kono Statement being the most notable. In all, relations remained frozen. In particular, ROK-Japan political relations remained “the worst of times.” But, so far these troubles have not had a significant impact on economic relations. Meanwhile, the DPRK and Japan have made tentative moves to repair relations, which could have major consequences for regional security if sustained. While “the best of times” is an exaggeration, it is worth noting that even though there is tension in East Asia, deadly conflict is relatively rare. Disputes between other countries remain confined to the rhetorical and diplomatic spheres, and economic cooperation continues to grow.

Despite continued political bickering between Japan and its neighbors, Chinese and Korean tourism to Japan reached record heights in 2014. While the increase can be partly attributed to the plunging value of the yen, it also emphasizes one fact: the people of Northeast Asia are deeply interconnected in a number of ways. It is ironic that while both Japan and South Korea use the same characters and pronunciation for both “past” and “future,” there is little to suggest a consensus on either the past or the future. Nevertheless, the process of seeking some accord dominated the relationship in the final months of 2014 as evidenced by occasional meetings and brief encounters on the sidelines of multilateral conferences. To an optimist, there was no single dispute that consumed the bilateral relationship; to a cynic, there was no observable progress resulting from the meetings.

At the end of 2014, there were both stern warnings but also cautious optimism for what 2015 held in store for Japan and South Korea in anticipation of the 50th anniversary in June of the restoration of diplomatic relations and the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The early months of 2015 did not bring any new explosive point of contention to the surface, but issues such as talks on comfort women/sex slaves and territorial sovereignty over Dokdo/Takeshima remained the focus of relations. The most visible manifestation came with Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the US in late April. Clearly playing to his audience, he reassured Americans but disappointed Koreans. While governments were fine-tuning their art of politics, a group of nongovernmental actors – academics, large corporations, and the art community – got swept away by the politicization of bilateral relations.

It has become the norm for countries to at least try to avoid undermining the spirit of bilateral celebrations. The general mood enveloping both Japan and Korea – in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of normalization of relations on June 22 – was to accentuate areas where progress was being made while marginalizing issues that are predictably controversial. This translated into some compromise on Japan’s pursuit of gaining inscription for several sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, a few exchanges of cultural artifacts, and bilateral talks and meetings on the sidelines of major international conferences. The general mood, however, was decidedly anticlimactic as the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule or the defeat by Japan in World War II were not so much an occasion to celebrate how much each country had accomplished, but a reality check on how much the two had yet to achieve. This “glass half empty” sentiment prevented any one event to stand out as a hallmark of bilateral cooperation over the summer.

Japan - Korea

September — December 2015

A Litigious Time of the Year

The overarching theme for the end of the year was litigation. The trial of Kato Tatsuya (former Seoul bureau chief for Sankei Shimbun) led to his acquittal for criminal libel. The trial of Park Yu-ha, a professor at Sejong University charged with defamation for her 2013 book Comfort Women of the Empire began in December. The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) and its affiliates faced three separate lawsuits in Japan and South Korea. A Korean was arrested and later indicted for his role in placing a bomb at Yasukuni Shrine. There were also competing interpretations of the international status of North Korean refugees in the case of contingencies. The much-awaited November Park-Abe summit was quickly tested by incidents that could easily strain relations. To the credit of Seoul and Tokyo, neither government let a single issue damage the relationship. In fact, the two ended up reaching an accord on “comfort women/sex slaves” at yearend. Despite immediate praise from the US, there was considerable frustration from both publics over the agreement.

The beginning of a new year offers an opportunity to evaluate how circumstances change. While the first few months of 2015 conveyed (cautious) optimism amidst notable celebrations like the anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, there was no focal point in early 2016 to push the momentum toward greater cooperation for Seoul and Tokyo. The main difference to the start of this year was the dominance of the Japan-North Korea dyad. Perhaps the Jan. 6 nuclear test by Pyongyang was a foreshadowing of things to come, as relations with Tokyo remained rather tumultuous: several missile tests by Pyongyang combined with retributive actions on the part of Tokyo made progress on the abduction issue – arguably Japan’s top priority vis-à-vis the North (alongside denuclearization) – extremely unlikely.

The summer months were less tumultuous than usual for Seoul and Tokyo. Aside from the main political issue surrounding the implementation of the “comfort women” deal that was struck back in December 2015, there were many visible instances of cooperation across a range of sectors. To some extent, Seoul was preoccupied with the fallout from its decision to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system while Japan was focused on its House of Councillors election in July. It was business as usual with North Korea for Japan, with efforts to denounce Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests and the stalemate over the investigation into the abduction of Japanese citizens since the North’s decision to suspend the probe in February 2016.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Japan - Korea

September — December 2016

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Going into the final months of 2016, Seoul-Tokyo relations had been on a positive trajectory, creating that ill feeling that it was time for things to go awry. While the relatively calm period witnessed palpable results with the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and solidarity against North Korea’s provocations, the political chaos in South Korea that climaxed with the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in December put the brakes on further developments. The scandals surrounding the abuse of power involving a shadowy confidante made it difficult to shake off the feeling that the administration’s deals with Japan have become tainted. Now, South Korean presidential hopefuls are tapping into public discontent to undermine the “comfort women” deal reached in December 2015, and there is high skepticism in the media over the implementation of GSOMIA.

Running on Rivalry: Presidential Hopefuls Capitalize on Disputes

With South Korean presidential election scheduled for May 9, the early months of 2017 witnessed not only avid campaigning by candidates, but also a deepening diplomatic conflict between Seoul and Tokyo. In particular, the installation of a “comfort woman” statue facing the Consulate General of Japan in Busan last December perturbed bilateral relations, calling into question the landmark “comfort women” agreement. While the anticipated installations of additional statues by provincial and civic actors risked escalating tensions further, the presidential candidates have made nominal efforts to quell the concerns of Japanese diplomats. As the Blue House prepares to greet its new occupant, prospects for a significant turnaround in bilateral relations remain uncertain.

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