The images of South Korea that appear in the Japanese media can be either friendly or frightening, depending on which articles you read. One of the most sensational recent stories suggested that, in the event of a war, a majority of South Koreans would side with North Korea in attacking Japan.
This wild claim was based on a completely unscientific survey, yet it nevertheless generated plenty of coverage – especially on social media, which cares little for credibility.
By contrast, South Korean pop stars, such as Twice, are wining positive press as they undertake a musical charm offensive. Next year, the girl group will play the Tokyo Dome, Japan’s largest venue. Tickets on secondary markets are already selling for the equivalent of $500.
The media coverage enjoyed by even most successful K-Pop stars, however, pales into comparison to the headlines generated by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in.
His photograph appeared everywhere following an 11-minute meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a regional forum in Thailand in early November.
The liberal daily newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, noted that “No meetings between Abe and Moon have been held since September 2018, and South Korean officials had sought such a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit.”
The lack of a communique with tangible proposals only served to fuel media speculation. The topic filled airtime on the serious television discussion programs and became a hot issue in the weekly gossip magazines.
Many media commentators pondered the outlook for the defense alliance between South Korea, Japan, and the United States. South Korea is poised to break off an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, citing a breakdown of trust. The General Security of Military Information Agreement will lapse on November 23, and Seoul has declined to renew it.
America has warned strongly against such a move. David Stilwell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, has been shuttling between Seoul and Tokyo, pressing for a truce.
He will have realized that the region’s problems run deep and have lasted many decades. Relations have been particularly fraught since last year, when South Korea’s Supreme Court began a series of rulings ordering Japanese businesses, such as Nippon Steel, to compensate Koreans who worked as forced laborers during the colonial period, in the early part of the 20th century.
The Japanese government has rejected the Korean court ruling. It maintains that all wartime compensation claims were settled in 1965 through a bilateral treaty, which restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.
According to the Asahi newspaper, “Both governments are responsible for the biting chill in the bilateral ties that has caused a dampening effect on a wide range of areas including trade, tourism and grass-roots exchanges between the two countries.” The Asahi’s editors advise the Japanese prime minister to meekly offer more concessions.
One option, suggested by the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, Moon Hee-sang, on a visit to Tokyo, is to set up a new fund for compensation, to which both countries contribute.
This suggestion is rejected outright by the conservative Japanese newspaper the Sankei, which is noted for its nationalism.
“We don’t need the South Koreans economically – they’re a relatively insignificant market,” said one of its editors. But he went on to express concern at the potential damage to the trilateral security alliance.
The Sankei seems to be underestimating the economic impact. For example, according to the Korean automobile importers and distributors association, new registrations of Japanese cars have plunged by more than 50 percent since last year. There has also been a sharp fall in the number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan, as well as a high-profile boycott of Japanese goods, including beer.
Shigeto Nagai and his team at Oxford Economics say that prolonged political uncertainty will affect investment decisions by both Japanese and Korean companies, as they reconsider their previously win-win supply-chain relationship.
“We expect South Korea to try to lessen its dependence on high-end Japanese products, which may not only damage Japanese companies but also make regional supply chains less efficient,” says Nagai.
One of the opinion column writers from Japan’ Nikkei newspaper told me that these economic issues are a matter of deep concern for the business lobby. He said that many executives wish that Abe would use diplomacy to resolve the dispute. But he added that Nippon Steel – which is facing extensive compensation claims – is standing firm against concessions.
Both South Korea’s Moon and Japan’s Abe face domestic political trouble.
Abe has lost both a justice minister and a trade minister to corruption scandals. And in South Korea, Justice Minister Cho Kuk, one of Moon’s closest aides, resigned following massive street protests.
Moon’s opponents are attempting to block his reform agenda and some critics caution against stoking up further animosity against Japan at a time of weak exports and sluggish investment. The economy is a key issue in South Korea, ahead of a general election in April 2020 that could jeopardize the legislative majority of Moon’s Democratic Party.
In Japan, meanwhile, Shinzo Abe has said he will not seek reelection when his current term ends in September 2021. In the time that he has remaining, Abe claims his principal goal is to reform the Japanese constitution. He hopes to change the status of the Japanese Self Defense Force, turning it into a regular army, which would have the capacity to fight abroad in support of foreign allies. This plan is condemned by South Korea, China, and North Korea.
China has said that despite the tension, it will press ahead with a three-way summit next month. The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, plans to meet Abe and Moon in the southern city of Chengdu, in the Chinese province of Sichuan.
If the South Koreans suspend the joint intelligence sharing commitment with Japan before then, the atmosphere in China will become very tense. Japan-South Korea frictions will undoubtedly overshadow any trilateral efforts, or even bilateral meetings with China’s Li. The journalists and commentators who cover the Chengdu meeting will no doubt attempt to get a story of it, even if it’s built on speculation.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo.