Japan and South Korea: Breaking the Deadlock

Kimiya Tadashi calls for non-stereotypical, rational decisions to be made to maintain and bolster the cooperative structure between Japan, the United States and South Korea.

Prime Minister Abe with President Moon at the Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit Meeting in Chengdu, China, December 24, 2019

Starting in October, the South Korean government’s moves to break the deadlock in its relations with Japan have become visible. Seoul is making active moves, such as a meeting between Lee Nak-yeon, Prime Minister of ROK, who visited Japan to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony, and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, and a follow-up statement that South Korea would observe the Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Co-operation between Japan and the Republic of Korea. South Korea has become active in the conversation between the leaders of Japan and South Korea, with President Moon Jae-in’s call for cooperation at the ASEAN+3 Meeting in Bangkok and a new proposal for setting up a foundation based on funds provided by Japanese and South Korean companies and the public when Moon Hee-sang, Speaker of the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly, visited Japan in November.

It seems that behind these moves is the South Korean government’s intention to head off the scrapping of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) by making strides in the improvement of Japan-South Korea relations ahead of the November 22 date set for the termination of the agreement between the two countries in the face of growing uncertainty over North Korea. Washington also attempted to persuade Seoul through the recent visit of David R. Stilwell, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Mark T. Esper, the Secretary of Defense, to South Korea. But the South Korean government likely believes that it cannot unilaterally change its decision to end the information-sharing agreement, and expects the Japanese government to support such a change of heart.

But Tokyo’s reaction appears cold, at least on the surface. In my opinion, this is because of the invisibility of Seoul’s clear attitude toward a fundamental solution to the issue of wartime forced labor aggravated by the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling. Speaker Moon Hee-sang’s bold proposal could overturn the court’s decision, in the sense that it implies the possibility of legislatively limiting South Korean victims’ individual rights to claim damages for wartime forced labor. But the South Korean government’s clear attitude toward a fundamental solution to the issue cannot be seen from either the “1+1” approach by Japanese and South Korean companies that it proposed in the past or the “1+1+α” approach of the South Korean government first paying in subrogation and then claiming payment from Japanese and South Korean companies.

Certainly, it is understandable that the South Korean government does not want to choose a policy that will not work at least for the general election scheduled next year. But will that policy choice really fly in the election? For example, President Moon dismissed Cho Kuk, whom he had appointed as the Minister of Justice in the face of considerably strong opposition because he did not want to show weakness. In fact, the dismissal resulted in increasing approval ratings for the administration. The South Korean people probably expect the Moon administration to be flexible and pragmatic. Given this, I suspect that the South Korean people want their government to spend some more time in the trenches of diplomacy and break the deadlock in Japan-South Korea relations. The essence of the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling is that the victims have an individual right to claim damages, which logically infers that Japanese companies bear an obligation to pay compensation. The controversial subject of compensation may be subject to judgment based on policy.

Prime Minister Abe sits across the table from President Moon at the Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit Meeting in Chengdu, China, December 24, 2019.

As the South Korean side is visualizing moves to break the deadlock in its ties with Japan this way, Tokyo and Washington should again send Seoul a strong message that the continuation of GSOMIA between Tokyo and Seoul is necessary for regional security, and Seoul should start by retracting its decision to terminate the agreement. Following these actions, the “2+1” approach of the South Korean government joining Japanese and South Korean companies by clarifying its responsibility should be established as the basic approach, and a structure in which the Japanese government supports that approach actively should be constructed.

Therefore, instead of taking a stereotypical approach claiming that it is a violation of international law and that South Korea should deal with the issue domestically, the Japanese government should facilitate Japanese companies’ smooth operations in South Korea by confirming and respecting their intentions. The Japanese government needs to at least cooperate with the initiatives led by the South Korean government in the first steps toward fundamentally resolving the issue of wartime forced labor, possibly even including the comfort women issue.

In 2019, unlike the previous year, the situation on the Korean Peninsula grew considerably more uncertain. With no progress at all in denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, contrary to the optimism between the leaders of the two countries, you could again forecast a situation in which North Korea conducts nuclear tests and launches long-range ballistic missiles and the United States takes a hard line against them. To prevent a return of this nightmare situation, it is important to once again maintain and bolster the cooperative structure between Japan, the United States, and South Korea, and gain Chinese cooperation in turning the tide toward North Korean denuclearization. Overcoming the GSOMIA conflict between Japan and South Korea must be the rational and wise choice for maintaining that cooperative structure and preventing issues over the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling from escalating into an economic war between Japan and South Korea.

KIMIYA Tadashi is a professor in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo specializing in Korean Studies.

Note: Translated from the Japanese article written on November 15, 2019.

[This article first appeared in the November/December issue of the Japan Journal.]

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