Japan and South Korea seem stuck in a ceaseless exchange of invectives. In January 2022, Japan’s Council for Cultural Affairs recommended that the island of Sado’s defunct gold mine, now a museum, be nominated as a World Heritage site. But when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave the go-ahead, South Korea responded with protests.
Seoul remains indignant over Tokyo’s lack of acknowledgement of Korean forced labourers during the Second World War, including in the Sado gold mine. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi responded by calling South Korea’s claims ‘unacceptable’.
Since assuming office in October 2021, Kishida has labelled his foreign policy vision as ‘realist diplomacy for a new era’. This includes a pledge to ‘resolutely and fully protect the lives and livelihoods of the Japanese people’. And, over the years, the Japanese government seems to have given up on South Korea’s out-going progressive Moon Jae-in administration.
Japan is braced for an upper house election in July, and the emerging rift between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, will likely mean that improving bilateral relations is low on Kishida’s list of priorities.
South Korea, too, is preparing for a presidential election in March 2022. The first TV debate touched on the THAAD missile defence system, with candidates divided over South Korea’s strategic imperatives and the prospect of rising tensions with China. Victory in South Korea by a conservative, rather than another progressive, will likely make it easier for Kishida to attempt some form of reconciliation, as the North Korean threat potentially provides a common platform.
With new administrations in both states, it is tempting to ask whether the often-acrimonious relationship between the two neighbours is now ripe for a ‘reset’.
New leaders in Japan and South Korea have helped improve relations in the past. When Yasuhiro Nakasone assumed office in 1982, he chose South Korea as his first official overseas visit. The short-lived rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul in late 1998 was also a by-product of new leadership. It is also worth remembering that when Shinzo Abe assumed premiership for the second time in 2012, he pledged to improve relations with China and South Korea.
The past few years have been particularly tumultuous for Tokyo and Seoul. The Japanese government removed South Korea from a ‘whitelist’ of export controls in September 2019 amid escalating tensions over comfort women and forced labour. The removal precipitated a South Korean boycott of Japanese goods, hurting the sales of automobiles and beer. While the South Korean threat to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement was averted at the very last minute in November 2019, a foul aftertaste lingers between Tokyo and Seoul.
Kishida’s first phone conversation with Moon in October 2020 did not inspire confidence, with the Japanese Prime Minister stating that the ongoing conflict over comfort women and forced labourers put Japan–South Korea relations in an ‘extremely difficult position’. Kishida added that Tokyo expected Seoul to respond ‘appropriately’ to international promises and abide by international law — a reference to South Korea’s stated intention of annulling the December 2015 comfort women agreement and seeking restitution for former forced labourers.
A ‘reset’ in bilateral relations remains a distant prospect. As the recurring exchange of invectives shows, the fundamental dynamic between Japan and South Korea is still a ‘clash of realities’. Conflicting perceptions in Tokyo and Seoul have resulted in both sides consistently blaming the other for the deterioration in relations.
Japan sees South Korea as being obsessed with discrediting Tokyo through constant references to Japan’s past misdeeds. But South Korea perceives an unrepentant Japanese government seeking to whitewash the past and trivialise South Korean claims of suffering under Japanese rule. Such clashing realities consign Tokyo and Seoul into an endless round of mutual finger-pointing.
Addressing business leaders, diplomats and think tanks in January 2022, Kishida reiterated the three pillars of his foreign policy vision and emphasised the importance of Japan being assertive in ‘resolving geopolitical tensions’. Conspicuous by its absence was any reference to South Korea. If anything, Kishida’s assertiveness may make the bilateral relationship worse.
The clash of realities means that mutual finger-pointing remains the default position, and the kerfuffle over the Sado gold mine does not bode well. With Kishida’s ‘realist diplomacy for a new era’ resting on Japanese assertiveness, there is currently no obvious recipe for a ‘reset’ in Japan–South Korea relations.
Taku Tamaki is a Lecturer in International Relations at Loughborough University.
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