Since early November, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration has seemingly adopted an approach of stepped-up outreach toward Japan. The first significant development was National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won’s visit to Japan. Park Jie-won and Lee Nak-yeon, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, are key figures in Moon’s administration and known to be experts on Japan. Park also enjoys a close relationship with Toshihiro Nikai, the Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Next, a seven-member delegation to the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union from the ruling and opposition parties, led by the union’s chairman Kim Jin-pyo, visited Japan on November 12. Among their meetings were one with Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, which took place on November 13.
At a press conference in Seoul on the same day, Lee called for a Japan–South Korea summit to be held as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the Korean government confirmed on November 23 that it had unofficially decided to appoint Kang Chang-il, a former chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union, to be its new ambassador to Japan. The Korean media reported that the decision reflects Moon’s intentions to seek improved relations with Japan. According to some sources, regarding the wartime labor issue, the greatest outstanding issue between Japan and South Korea, the Korean government has reportedly proposed that if Japanese companies have incurred actual losses and damages, the government was ready to compensate them. If true, this would clearly suggest that the Moon administration is suddenly becoming more positive in its approach to Japan. The underlying motivation is that Seoul views the change of Japanese prime minister from Abe Shinzo to Suga as a chance to improve relations.
But is this change in direction actually welcome in Tokyo? That is much less clear. In fact, the Japanese government is becoming increasingly suspicious of Korea’s intentions. A careful observation of the Moon administration reveals factors that lie behind the sudden increase in outreach, after South Korea previously showed little apparent interest in improving bilateral relations during the Abe administration. One is the concern in Seoul that the U.S. under a Biden administration will pressure both Japan and Korea to improve relations or that it will seek to break the deadlock surrounding North Korea with the cooperation of the Japanese government.
Still, that doesn’t entirely explain Japan’s reluctance. Specifically, the reported proposal to settle the wartime labor issue is the very thing that Japanese government has been seeking to achieve and there is no reason to refuse it. The contrast is particularly sharp with 2015, when the comfort woman agreement was concluded. Although Japan and South Korea were at loggerheads over the comfort women issue, the Japanese government accepted Seoul’s proposal that South Korea would relinquish its claims for compensation and promise to consider the issue resolved “finally and irreversibly” in return for financial measures by the Japanese government. That enabled the two countries to reach an agreement, significantly – if temporarily – improving bilateral relations.
Faced with an apparently similar situation, however, why is the Japanese government so hesitant about Seoul’s approach? The answer is the continued body blows to bilateral trust over the past five years. The 2015 comfort woman agreement was practically invalidated when the Moon administration, which took power in 2017, dissolved the fund established under the agreement. In the wake of the Supreme Court of South Korea’s October 2018 verdict that upheld the right to demand compensation from Japanese companies in association with the wartime labor issue, the South Korean government appeared to be ready at one point to work on a concrete proposal to settle the issue under the direction of Lee Nak-yeon, the prime minister at the time, with the Japanese government pinning a great deal of hope on it. Moving into January 2019, however, the Moon administration ceased work on the settlement. Shortly afterwards, the Japanese government instituted export controls on certain semiconductor products to South Korea, a reflection of the deterioration in relations, which led to a large-scale boycott of Japanese products and trips to Japan by the Korean public that angrily opposed the measures. And so 2020 began with relations at a nadir.
Given this, no matter what the Korean government proposes, it will obviously not be easy for the Japanese government to accept it. Nation states undertake discussions to settle pending issues on the premise that both sides will comply with any settlement that is reached. To rephrase, diplomatic negotiations can’t be conducted if one party strongly distrusts the other party, and therefore no meaningful settlement can be reached.
Nonetheless, if the situation remains as is, Japan–South Korea relations will not improve and the relations between these two Northeast Asian countries, the third and twelfth largest economies in the world respectively, will be at an impasse. Japan may then decide to wait for a new administration to come to power before it starts trying to rebuild relations. Moon’s term is set to end in May 2022.
If the Moon administration does want to improve relations with Japan, what should it do? First, it should demonstrate that it places more importance on Japan–Korea relations than on other issues and that it is working sincerely on settling the wartime labor issue, which has become the greatest obstacle to positive ties. To do this, instead of dispatching the head of the intelligence agency or members of parliament to conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations, senior officials from the South Korean government, including government leaders such as the president himself, should publicly share this position. The issue of historical awareness, a major stumbling block in relations between Japan and Korea, is one that concerns the Korean public, which is why past administrations have repeatedly chosen to nullify agreements that they had made, fearing public opinion. Can Moon ever take the risk of expressing to the Korean people the importance of relations with Japan and the need to settle the wartime labor issue? What is needed is not proposals but the exercising of leadership.
Kimura Kan is a professor at Kobe University.