2018 began in spectacular fashion for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In a surprise but long-awaited move, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reached out to South Korea and offered an olive branch: he wished Seoul a successful 2018 Winter Olympics, offered to send a North Korean team and representatives to the Games, and called for the resumption of high-level inter-Korean dialogue after a two-year hiatus. South Koreans – and much of the world – were delighted by the overture, although skepticism was an almost instinctive second reaction to the news.
To help the Moon administration analyze the North Korean offer, its prospects, and the potential pitfalls, here is a cliché-ridden assessment of these developments (clichés are in italics for emphasis). After all, for the seeming novelty of recent events, there is nothing new under the sun.
First, Moon must be careful what he wishes for. He, like all progressives and many South Koreans, has sought to open dialogue with Pyongyang, both to dampen tensions on the peninsula as well as reassert South Korean centrality in any discussion and resolution of Korean problems. North Korea has, until Kim’s New Year’s address, stiff-armed Seoul and insisted that it would only deal with the United States on strategic and security issues.
Kim’s sudden shift has delighted the South Korean government, but it should also have alarm bells ringing, since one of the North’s most fervent ambitions is to divide South Korea, the United States, and Japan, and prevent them from maintaining a united front against Pyongyang. There are intense suspicions in Tokyo of South Korean motivations and fear that Seoul’s readiness to talk to Pyongyang will split those three countries, move Seoul closer to Beijing – a longstanding fear in Japan – and undermine efforts to get Pyongyang to denuclearize. In his eagerness to talk to the North, there are worries that Moon has kicked a hornet’s nest and stirred up tensions among the allies.
Second, Moon is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The desire for dialogue with Pyongyang seemingly puts Seoul at odds to some degree with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has insisted that, while they ought not to be ruled out entirely, talks with the North will be fruitless and that more pressure must be applied to force it to the negotiating table. Japan is on the U.S. side of that equation, favoring still more pressure on the North before commencing talks.
Relations with Japan more generally have also whipsawed Moon, with the president being tugged in opposite directions by strategic and domestic political considerations. The focal point of this dilemma is the December 2015 comfort women agreement, accepted by Moon’s predecessor, President Park Geun-hye, and which progressives have condemned since it was first announced.
South Korean opposition stems from several sources: deep and abiding suspicion and ill-will toward Japan; the feeling that Japan is shirking responsibility for misdeeds committed during the war; a general anger at Park that tars any of her accomplishments; and a sense that the process behind the agreement – regardless of the deal itself – was tainted by its opacity and the failure to bring the victims – the surviving comfort women themselves – into the negotiations. For critics of the deal, sunshine is the best disinfectant.
Yet reopening the agreement, as Moon promised during the 2017 presidential campaign, threatens cooperation with Japan, which is critical to countering the North Korean threat. The Japanese government insists that the deal is, as the two sides agreed at the time of its announcement, a “final and irreversible” solution to the comfort women issue and Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned that reopening it would be “totally unacceptable.” He added, “The bilateral agreement is an essential foundation upon which the two countries will build future-oriented ties through joint cooperation in the face of North Korea’s threat.” That echoed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement to visiting South Korean politicians that “We would like to develop future-oriented relations so that the difficult problems between the two countries will not have a negative impact on overall Japan-South Korean ties.”
Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Moon has taken a page from Abe’s own playbook and insisted – as Abe did when he called for re-examination of the 1993 Kono Statement, which admitted Japanese government involvement in recruiting Comfort Women – that he seeks a two-track solution that separates politics from security. And, as in Abe’s review, the South Korean government concluded that despite its misgivings, it would bite the bullet and stick to the agreement because of the importance of honoring commitments and the need to maintain a solid relationship with Japan to address the North Korean threat.
Moon has also copied Abe in dealing with Trump. Agreeing with the North to resume talks could put Seoul and Washington at cross purposes, but Moon smartly credited Trump for creating the conditions that brought Kim Jong-un to the table, deflecting a potential complaint by Seoul’s ally and partner. Moon is a savvy politician who knows not to burn his bridges.
Unfortunately for Moon, this episode has reconfirmed for Tokyo the worst assessments of South Korean behavior and intentions. In conversations with Japanese officials, there is widespread irritation that South Koreans do not appreciate the role that Japan plays in defending the peninsula and the risks that Japan invites by aligning unflinchingly with Seoul. They are troubled by Seoul’s seeming courtship of China, and readiness to articulate “the three nos” – no trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan, no additional THAAD missile defense batteries, and no joining the U.S. missile defense network – which, while stating nothing new, look like rebukes to Tokyo and attempts to curry favor with Beijing.
This comes on top of the state dinner in Seoul during Trump’s November visit during which the president met a former comfort woman and “Dokdo shrimp” was on the menu, two slights to Japan that prompted Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to warn that “South Korea should avoid making moves that could have adverse effects on close trilateral coordination with the U.S.” Japanese also complain that the Seoul government has – contrary to the 2015 agreement – done nothing about the comfort girl statue in front of their embassy in Seoul.
Not surprisingly, sentiment in Japan is hardening. In a January Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 83 percent of Japanese respondents supported their government’s refusal to accept additional demands from South Korea regarding the 2015 agreement. Slightly fewer Japanese – 78 percent – said they considered South Korea either “not very trustworthy” or “not trustworthy at all,” an increase of 9 percentage points from a May 2017 poll. Chickens are coming home to roost.
Still, there are reasons for hope. Moon’s acknowledgement of strategic realities with Japan is a foundation upon which to build. For all the distrust of and anger toward Japan, most South Koreans back their president: in a recent poll, two-thirds of South Koreans agreed on the separation of historical and security issues. China is helping: despite fears that it would lure Moon into its orbit, Beijing’s heavy hand – punishing Seoul for deploying THAAD – has angered many South Koreans and reminded them who their real friends are.
These realities have eased some Japanese frustrations and encouraged Tokyo to bite its tongue in response to South Korean provocations. Abe would do well to swallow his irritation and commit to go to the PyeongChang Olympic Games. It would be a feather in Moon’s cap, a signal that Abe understands the larger stakes in this situation and set an example for putting the national interest above domestic politics. After all, there is an even chance that rapprochement with the North will prove temporary – a calm before the storm. Only time will tell.
Brad Glosserman is a visiting professor at Tama University’s Center for Rule Making Strategies and a senior adviser for Pacific Forum CSIS. He is the co-author (with Scott Snyder) of The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash (Columbia University Press, 2015). This piece is an update to a longer essay published in the Korea Economic Institute of America’s Academic Paper Series. The full-length essay can be viewed here.