Assessing the Direction of South Korea-Japan Relations in a New Era

From the Editor

The Korea Public Square is a forum for expert discussion on issues related to Korea’s past, present, and future. The CSIS Korea Chair hosts this series for open dialogue on issues of importance to Korea and its future in the region. Experts, journalists, scholars, and opinion leaders are invited to engage in featured discussions.

In the third Korea Public Square, the CSIS Korea Chair invited Dr. Cheol Hee Park, an expert from South Korea, and Dr. Michael Green to assess South Korea-Japan relations as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga starts his first term in office.


Will Suga and Moon Shake Hands?

Cheol Hee Park, Professor, Graduate School of International Studies; Director, Institute of International Affairs at Seoul National University

Will new Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean president Moon Jae-in shake hands? A simple answer would be that it is not so likely in the short term. Suga has made it clear he will inherit his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s policy line, and this applies to South Korea-Japan relations. As Abe’s chief cabinet secretary for nearly eight years, he is well aware of the complexity, sensitivity, and volatility of the South Korea-Japan relationship. Suga clearly knows he can hardly get a positive political score out of negotiations with his South Korean counterpart. This may be why he opted not to mention South Korea during his first press conference as prime minister. Considering the prevalence of anti-Korean sentiments in today’s Japanese society, it is not easy for him to take a refreshed approach.

Yoshihide Suga poses for a portrait at his office following his press conference at the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo on September 14, 2020. (Photo by NICOLAS DATICHE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.)

On South Korea’s side, President Moon did not shift his stance on the forced labor issue with Japan. Despite kind gestures—he wrote a letter and made a phone call to congratulate Suga on his inauguration—Moon did not clearly offer a new concrete alternative plan to solve this long-standing issue between the two countries. In other words, though a new prime minister has taken office, Moon does not seem so enthusiastic about upgrading South Korea’s ties with Japan, despite their shared status as U.S. allies. President Moon does not feel pressured to change his position on the most controversial issue between the two countries. Each side should offer their hands to make a diplomatic and political compromise, but they are not willing to do that yet.

This does not necessarily imply that we should remain helplessly pessimistic about the future relationship between South Korea and Japan. Both Moon and Suga are facing difficult situations at home and abroad, which may augment the political need to make some kind of breakthrough, whether economic or diplomatic.

Moon is diplomatically cornered at this moment. Despite repeatedly wooing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Moon failed to receive corresponding responses from North Korea this year. Despite concerns from the conservatives in South Korea as well as from overseas, South Korea made a number of proposals to work with North Korea, all of which were futile. Moon wants to invite China’s Xi as a state guest, but because of the coronavirus situation in both countries, it is unlikely that Xi will visit Seoul this year. It is undeniable that China wants to draw South Korea closer to China’s orbit through diplomatic means. Nonetheless, China has hardly acted to fully lift its sanctions on South Korea, which were imposed after the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system was deployed on South Korean soil. Moon cannot get closer to Xi, but nor can he get far away from him. The United States under President Donald Trump is both an asset and a liability for the Moon administration. Though many diplomatic issues are closely consulted between the two sides, the Trump administration does not always handle those issues in South Korea’s favor. Under this diplomatic impasse, Moon has little incentive to escalate its conflict with Japan, especially when he has not fully tested the new Japanese prime minister’s posture toward South Korea.

Moon is currently keeping a relatively low-key profile toward Japan. He suggested a negotiated solution of the issue through dialogue. He proposed that both sides make the utmost efforts to overcome historical grievances with wisdom and construct future-oriented relations.

The Suga-Moon adventure is likely to be a struggle with time. The best moment to tackle the issue would be between now and the trilateral summit (South Korea-Japan-China) at the end of this year.

Suga is positioned to accomplish regulatory reform, domestic economic recovery, and a diplomatic breakthrough during the initial phase of his administration. But issues on the diplomatic front are not comfortable to manage, even for an experienced politician. Solving the abductee issue with North Korea is symbolically important, but it will be extremely difficult to broker a deal with Kim Jong-un in the near future. The northern island conflict with Russia—which Suga highlighted as diplomatic homework for Japan—is not on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s priority to-do list. Improving South Korea-Japan relations is a tough challenge for the new prime minister, but the bar may be lower than it is for the abductee issue with North Korea or the territorial dispute with Russia. As the new prime minister of Japan, Suga may feel tempted to open a new window of opportunity if South Korea is willing to correspond.

The Suga-Moon adventure is likely to be a struggle with time. The best moment to tackle the issue would be between now and the trilateral summit (South Korea-Japan-China) at the end of this year. Suga’s popularity is high at the moment, but his approval rate will go down as time goes by, as it does with any other prime minister. Striking a deal when his popularity is still high is a smarter political choice. Moon may also feel the urge to make a diplomatic breakthrough amid adverse domestic political and economic circumstances.

It all depends on whether Moon can offer a reasonably acceptable alternative formula to Suga and whether Suga would be willing to take on the opportunity to rack up his political score.


Suga and Moon: Small Steps Please

Michael Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair, CSIS; Director of Asian Studies, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Can Japan’s new prime minister Yoshihide Suga solve the impasse in Japan-South Korea relations? I would not bet on it. However, a modest improvement in tone and a renewed focus on areas of common strategic interest between Seoul and Tokyo is possible . . . and badly needed.

Suga has said he will continue Abe’s foreign policies, including toward South Korea. But even if an Abe-critic like Shigeru Ishiba had taken over, there would have been little chance of a breakthrough on the core issues confounding relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Part of this is structural. In CSIS polls of strategic elites in Asia, Japanese and Korean respondents are the most closely aligned on the importance of democratic values and a robust American leadership role in the region. But the two countries have fallen into diametrically opposed positions on how to achieve those common goals. There is a broad consensus in Tokyo that Japan must reinforce the U.S.-led order with a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that links the U.S.-Japan alliance with other maritime democracies like India and Australia. In Seoul, meanwhile, there is a growing consensus that South Korea should maintain “strategic ambiguity” in the U.S.-China strategic competition while keeping its alliance with the United States strong on the Korean peninsula. Koreans see Japan’s strategy as exacerbating South Korea’s dilemma with China, while Japanese think South Korea is undercutting Japan’s counterbalancing strategy by “bandwagoning” with China.

However, a modest improvement in tone and a renewed focus on areas of common strategic interest between Seoul and Tokyo is possible . . . …and badly needed.

The immediate cause of the diplomatic confrontation is even more intractable. President Moon wants Japan to do more than was promised to former South Korean president Park Geun-hye in the 2015 agreement on comfort women. The Japanese position is that both sides made a binding commitment in 2015 that there would be no further demands. The Supreme Court of South Korea’s decision that Japanese companies can be sued for forced labor before 1945 has given the Moon government no recourse under South Korean law but to demand some form of compensation for the victims, but Japan is adamant that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations permanently waved any such reparations, and Tokyo is not about to open a Pandora’s box of other claims by veering from that position. Moreover, Suga faces virtually no pressure at home or from the international community to compromise on those points of international law. Indeed, were he to do so, he would face a major backlash from within the Diet. That is especially true today before he tests his support in national elections, but it will be just as true afterward.

Protesters sit next to a statue of a South Korean teenage girl in traditional costume honoring former comfort women on November 11, 2015. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images.)

It may therefore be that the worst thing Seoul could do right now is to try out a new formula for compensation on Suga. As the old saying goes, when you are in a hole, stop digging. Suga is a savvy political operator, but he has fewer ideological trappings than Abe. Abe was elected to the Diet with a mission to carry on his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke’s vision of a Japan that is judged for its contributions to peace rather than how often it apologizes for the past. In contrast, Suga’s parents were strawberry farmers, and he was elected from Yokohama on a pledge to make practical changes to peoples’ lives. However, it would be a big mistake to assume that Suga is naïve about international affairs. While he only traveled abroad once as chief cabinet secretary, he was the politician behind the scenes responsible for disciplining the bureaucracy and the cabinet, including Abe’s 2015 agreement with Park. He understands the dynamics and the importance of the Japan-South Korea relationship well.

The two governments will have to keep working on the diplomatic impasse, but Moon and Suga should delegate that work to bureaucrats or prominent former officials in order to buy a bit more time and lower the temperature. In the meantime, Moon and Suga should telegraph the overlap in their shared democratic values and strategic objectives. Japan and South Korea could initiate a joint program between Japan International Cooperation Agency and Korea International Cooperation Agency on democracy promotion or women’s empowerment in Asia, for example. The two leaders could invite top CEOs to talk about the future of technology at their first bilateral summit (for example, cooperation between NEC and Samsung could be critical in the development of 5G alternatives to Huawei). Moon and Suga could jointly propose a study of best practices on Covid-19 for the next G20. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the Moon and Suga governments should be talking about how to jointly manage the very real threat that a reelected Donald Trump will try to withdrawal U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula.

When divided, Japan and Korea are weaker vis-à-vis China, North Korea, and Russia—and frankly much less influential in Washington. But if the Blue House swings for a home run with Suga, they will strike out. This is the time for singles and doubles and a disciplined longer-term strategy for victory in the ninth inning. What that looks like is harder to say right now, but the only way to get there is to change the tone in the relationship soon.

Cheol Hee Park Responds

I fully agree with Michael Green that Suga was a politician behind the scenes who took care of politically sensitive issues with disciplined control over Japanese bureaucrats. Suga is the last person to be naïve about South Korea-Japan relations. Rather than ideologically driven, Suga is a pragmatic politician with a keen sense of how to achieve a targeted goal.

Underlying the South Korea-Japan conflict are diverging perspectives about coping with changing strategic landscape in East Asia, including the China and North Korea issues. However, those structural issues are highlighted in an oversimplified form, especially in mass media. Japan, while taking a comprehensive balancing strategy against China in the diplomatic and security arena, tries to handle China more pragmatically in the business sector. Rather than simply pushing back China, Japan seeks to stabilize ties with China by unfolding joint adventures in the overseas market. South Korea seems as if it is unilaterally tilting toward China, which may be contrasted with Japan’s counterbalancing strategy. Still, the Moon administration clearly understands that getting away from the alliance with the United States is too risky an adventure. South Korea tilting toward China at the expense of the United States and Japan is not a realistic choice even for the progressive Moon government.

Suga and Moon should not swing for a home run, but they are supposed to stand on the same ground and play the game together.

Michael’s proposal for small steps first makes good sense, considering high political risks involved in moving a big step forward. Initiating cooperative projects in areas of common interests should be welcomed, including responding to the Covid-19, facilitating human exchange between regional neighbors, jointly exploring new technological frontiers, and standing together on the platform of strengthening the alliance with the United States.

South Korean protesters hold up signs reading “No Abe’s government” during an anti-Japanese rally in central Seoul on August 13, 2019.(Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images.)

However, the two sides should go beyond making small and piecemeal steps only. Because the forced labor issue is the most troubling anxieties of the two countries, both Moon and Suga cannot take steps forward without addressing the issue adroitly. Shying away from the issue is not a solution. It goes without saying that the two leaders do not have to hurry too much and make a hasty proposal that would only partially resolve the issue. Naively expecting that the other party would manage the situation well would also invite misfortune. Suga and Moon should not swing for a home run, but they are supposed to stand on the same ground and play the game together. Victory is not necessarily a goal of the game. Finding a compromised solution to the thorny problem may be the way to stay on as a partner to play with.

Michael Green Responds

My first reaction to Cheol Hee’s nuanced analysis is renewed appreciation of his standing as South Korea’s most savvy scholar on Japan. I hope the Blue House is listening to him. The most important point in his essay is how isolated Korea is right now in Northeast Asia: bullied by China, disdained by Russia, and dismissed by North Korea. Cheol Hee’s analysis of Suga’s foreign policy prospects is also accurate: Japan has little near-term prospect of making progress with either Russia or North Korea, and the improved tone in Japan’s relations with China since 2018 is probably coming to an end as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party passes statements calling for Xi Jinping to be disinvited from a state visit to Japan because of the Hong Kong crackdown. For all these reasons, Suga and Moon would be wise to look for ways to show the other capitals in Asia that South Korea and Japan are working together more.

Then-prime minister Shinzo Abe (C), China's prime minister Li Keqiang (L), and South Korea's president Moon Jae-in (R) attend a joint news conference following their trilateral summit talks in Tokyo on May 9, 2018. (Photo by KIMIMASA MAYAMA/AFP via Getty Images.)

Where I might disagree with Cheol Hee is the idea that Suga can get a political win at home by reaching a deal with Moon. In some Japanese public opinion polls, 80 percent of the public does not trust South Korea. The prevailing view in Japan is that South Korea will eventually move the goalpost again no matter what agreement is reached. So Suga will face more cynicism than applause if he announces a breakthrough. The advantage for Suga in changing the tone with South Korea is entirely geopolitical rather than domestic political—but still critical for his country’s interests.

The U.S. role should be consistent but subtle—reinforcing the focus on common interests trilaterally while quietly encouraging progress behind the scenes.

The other key issue neither of us addressed is the role of the United States. Trump unhelpfully responded to questions about Japan-South Korea relations by whining, “how many issues do I have to get involved in?” If Biden wins, I hope he does not go too far in the other direction by publicly pressuring Seoul or Tokyo to compromise. The U.S. role should be consistent but subtle—reinforcing the focus on common interests trilaterally while quietly encouraging progress behind the scenes. The current lack of leadership from the White House in that respect has clearly not helped.

Cheol Hee Park is professor at the Graduate School of International Studies and director of the Institute of International Affairs at Seoul National University. He was dean of the Graduate School of International Studies between 2016 and 2018 after serving as a director of the Institute for Japanese Studies between 2012 and 2016. He was the president of the Korean Association for Contemporary Japanese Studies in 2017. In 2016, he initiated the formation of the East Asian Consortium for Japanese Studies. He serves as an executive secretary of the Korea-Japan forum and is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council from 2001 through 2005, first as director for Asian affairs with responsibility for Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and then as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia, with responsibility for East Asia and South Asia. He also worked in Japan on the staff of a member of the National Diet.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Cheol Hee Park

Professor, Graduate School of International Studies; Director, Institute of International Affairs at Seoul National University