The Debate | Security | East Asia

Japan and South Korea Should Use the Coronavirus to Patch up Their Differences

It’s in both Seoul and Tokyo’s interest to get along.

By Rintaro Nishimura for
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Japan and South Korea Should Use the Coronavirus to Patch up Their Differences
Credit: Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo via AP

South Korean-Japanese relations have been deteriorating in the last two years with no clear resolution in sight. What initially began as a conflict over historical issues quickly spilled over into the political realm, resulting in retaliatory action from both sides. Most recently, Japan’s adoption of a temporary 14-day self-quarantine period for people flying in from South Korea and China, as well as the suspension of the visa waiver program, prompted Seoul to suspend their visa-free entry program.

Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has worked to aggravate existing tensions between these two allies of the United States. However, there seems to be little to gain from prolonged conflict. Both countries have much to gain from better relations and have more in common than they think. With that in mind, South Korea and Japan should use this pandemic to begin improving relations for their own interests, and ultimately, the security of the entire Asia-Pacific.

How Did Things Get Out of Hand?

While historical tensions can be traced back as far as the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 when Japan annexed Korea, contemporary issues began back in 2018. That year, several court rulings in South Korea awarded compensation from Japanese companies to forced wartime laborers. Tokyo disputed the cases, citing a 1965 bilateral pact with Seoul which stipulated that issues regarding wartime issues had been completely and finally resolved.

Then, in July 2019, Japan imposed export restrictions on three chemicals crucial to the manufacture of semiconductors. The move was followed shortly after by an official decision to remove South Korea from the “white list” of trusted countries given preferential treatment for export licensing (which meant less stringent screening). This caused outrage in South Korea, as many claimed it was retaliation for the court rulings on wartime labor. The Japanese government denied the allegations, pointing to South Korea’s illegal transfer of certain materials to North Korea and Seoul’s refusal to participate in working-level export-control talks. Experts claim this act came at the worst possible time, allowing South Korea to portray Japan as the aggressor in the dispute.

In retaliation, Seoul took similar measures and some additional provocative actions. In particular, South Korea filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization over Japan’s weaponization of trade in their dispute. South Korea also threatened to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the intelligence sharing pact, but pressure from Washington halted such a move.

Conciliation During the New Year? Enter the Coronavirus

The dispute dragged on until the end of 2019, but the beginning of 2020 saw both leaders attempt to mend relations. Both leaders took a conciliatory tone toward the other, with President Moon Jae-in proposing the two countries work together to solve the wartime labor issue, and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo calling South Korea the most important neighbor with which Japan shared values and interests.

It was around this time that the coronavirus struck. To date, there have been 10,450 confirmed cases in South Korea and 5,530 in Japan. While the pandemic was initially a welcome break from the dispute, Japan’s travel restrictions brought the conflict back to the fore. South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha described the move as “unscientific,” while Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young protested the lack of prior consultation on the matter.

Since then, South Korea has reversed course, choosing to provoke Japan amid the pandemic. On April 1, President Moon visited a factory producing semiconductor materials and explained that his visit was intended to show that South Korea would overcome the coronavirus like it overcame Japan’s export restrictions.

Benefits of Improved South Korea-Japan Relations

It will not be an easy task to resolve tensions between the two countries. When history and nationalistic pride are involved, people tend to get emotional and forget the realistic benefits of cooperation.

Security-wise, both Seoul and Tokyo should know that a good relationship is better than one of animosity. Both sides know that coordination will help deter any aggression from North Korea and to an extent, China. GSOMIA is a prime example of such coordination. This agreement allows Seoul and Tokyo to share information about North Korea’s military and nuclear activities directly with each other. When it comes to nuclear weapons, having immediate access to information is crucial. In that sense, both sides have much to gain from this agreement.

Infighting between allies should also be prevented at all costs. With increasing uncertainty over U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula, coordination between Seoul and Tokyo will become of paramount importance. The radar dispute in December 2018 is a case in point. In the incident, Japan claimed that its Maritime Self Defense Force P-1 aircraft was targeted with fire control radar from a South Korean warship. On the contrary, South Korea said the warship felt threatened by the low altitude of the P-1 aircraft.

In response to the incident, Japan’s Ministry of Defense produced a report stating that the lack of cooperation from South Korea on this issue led to the decision that it had become “difficult to continue to hold consultations with the ROK regarding this matter.” The lack of substantial dialogue between the sides should not be taken lightly. If both sides cannot straighten out their issues, experts claim that South Korean resentment could lead to “the two nations to sort of shoot at each other.”

This would most certainly be taken advantage of by countries looking to break up the U.S. alliance in Asia. In fact, it already has been last November, when Seoul and Beijing agreed to foster bilateral exchanges and cooperation in defense. While the U.S. alliance is not in immediate danger of collapse, South Korea’s closer relations to China are certainly a cause of concern.

What Now? 

Despite resurging tensions over the travel restrictions, South Korea and Japan can use the pandemic to quell tensions. In that sense, the April 15 parliamentary elections will set the course for engagement. At the moment, South Korea’s stringent response to the pandemic has paid off, with Moon’s approval rating hitting the highest point in more than a year at 52.5 percent. A separate poll also showed that his party, the Democratic Party of Korea, had a 15 percent advantage in popularity over the main opposition, the United Future Party.

With his approval ratings rising due to the government’s coronavirus response, this may provide an opening to restore relations with Japan. Evidence of this is the connection between Moon’s past approval ratings and his anti-Japanese rhetoric. Data shows that Moon started his tenure with approval ratings over 80 percent. As the economy began to halt, Moon’s approval ratings took a hit. It was at such a time the dispute with Japan surfaced. Once Moon began his confrontational approach toward Japan, his approval ratings improved. This trend suggests that as long as Moon’s approval ratings are relatively high, the dispute with Japan can be toned down. Therefore, this parliamentary election will be key in predicting how South Korea and Japan can establish better relations.

Cooperation during the pandemic can also help begin the process of building trust between the two countries. During this year’s annual address on March First Independence Movement Day, Moon mentioned that unconventional security threats can be mitigated by strengthening cooperation between China, Japan, and South Korea. This speech was followed by a video conference in mid-March between the three nations’ foreign ministers, sharing information on the coronavirus. By showing that cooperation is possible, this sort of exchange can eventually lead to conversation about the trade dispute and historical matters.

Sharing the Burden 

Another avenue in which South Korea and Japan can cooperate is through their cost-sharing negotiations with the United States. In the midst of the pandemic, America and South Korea failed to reach an agreement on sharing the costs of U.S. troops in the country. Despite the United States warning Seoul that nearly half of the Korean workers on U.S. bases would be laid off, the seventh round of negotiations produced nothing.

A major issue South Korea has is the U.S. demand that Seoul increase its financial contributions from $925 million to the range of around $4-5 billion. Public sentiment expressed in a poll suggests that while South Koreans support the alliance, they disagree with the idea of paying more. In fact, many state that caving to President Trump’s demands would be political suicide for Moon.

With the impending expiration of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) for hosting American troops in 2021, Japan faces similar negotiations later in the year. Currently, Japan is contributing $1.72 billion per year under the SMA and at least $187 million per year under the Facilities Improvement Program (FIP). Like South Korea, Japan is one of many allied countries Trump believes is unfairly benefiting from current agreements. Trump’s demand for a fivefold increase in contributions has not been received well by the Japanese government, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stating that the current level of contributions were already “reasonable.”

As countries in similar situations, South Korea and Japan can exchange information on this issue and demand better conditions in unison. This should be a joint exercise aimed at sending a message to America that financial contributions are not what allies are there for. The key here is knowing that while South Korea and Japan have their issues, they need not agree on everything to work together on specific issues such as North Korea and bilateral relations with the United States.

In every crisis, there is opportunity. Today, this holds true for South Korea-Japan relations. Coronavirus can either aggravate or help mend relations between the two countries. Trust building exercises will be essential to set the process in motion—information exchange on coronavirus for starters, and perhaps communication on the U.S. cost-sharing negotiations in the near future.

To get this right, both countries will need to ensure no mixed messages are sent. Communication will be crucial to guarantee there is no misinterpretation of intentions. The hope is that both countries can see the merit in improving relations and stepping up for the security of the region.

Rintaro Nishimura is a Korean Studies Spring 2020 Research Assistant at the Center for the National Interest. 

This article originally appeared in The National Interest and is reprinted here with kind permission.