Can Tokyo and Seoul Afford to Drift Apart?
President Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in. (Photo: The Asahi Shimbun)
By Tai Wei Lim

Can Tokyo and Seoul Afford to Drift Apart?

Feb. 12, 2019  |     |  0 comments

As early as 1993, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight and then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono had already confirmed that the Japanese military had some parts to play in compelling Korean women to offer sexual services for its troops. A quarter of century later, the son of Yohei Kono, Taro Kono, is handling the same wartime issue again. This time, under the Abe administration.


The international media has been playing up difficulties between Tokyo and Seoul over a number of issues. Seoul is cancelling the foundation set up by both countries in 2016 that promotes Reconciliation and Healing (also the name of the Foundation) over the comfort women issue. It was an initiative approved by the former Park Geun-hye government and the Shinzo Abe administration in December 2015.


The deal then included a Japanese apology and USD 8.8 million for elderly care of former comfort women. The agreement made with former President Park was “final and irreversible”. However, former President Park has been jailed and a new left leaning liberal government under President Moon Jae-in has taken over. The Moon administration has been busy trying to promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, working closely with the US and China on this and also in intelligence consultation and sharing with Japan.


Like any other democratic regimes, the leader must cater to his political support base. President Moon has been more responsive to the calls for relooking at the comfort women issues. President Moon’s political power base are the progressives, left-leaners, pro-democrats and liberals. The progressives are most keen on revising, editing or revisiting the 2015 deal that was mainly supported by a conservative government.


In fact, the deal frayed two years before 2019. As early as 2017, majority of the directors of the Foundation had already resigned, bringing the Foundation’s activities to a virtual standstill. The South Korean foreign ministry also argued that the 2015 deal was a political one and therefore not legally binding. The Foundation and the political compromise it represented was doomed by South Korean unilateral political changes.


The Park-era conservatives and the Moon progressives are in fact mortal political enemies. Moon’s political senior Roh Moo-hyun, a leader of the progressives, is widely believed to have committed suicide. After his death, conservative regimes under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye came into power. Both conservative Presidents are now in jail, in an era that marked the return of a progressive regime.


Japan is particularly concerned about the precedent established by the rejection of the 2015 agreement, fearing it can affect other agreements in the future. Japanese PM Abe is worried that if Seoul does not abide by this agreement made over comfort women in December 2015 which is signed with the former government, then international relations between the two countries may then unravel.


Tokyo also did not like the idea of Seoul disbanding its Reconciliation and Healing foundation/fund unilaterally. Japan had contributed USD 9 million towards that fund to repair relations and put comfort women issue to rest. Japan’s foreign ministry protested that move directly to the South Korean embassy and also South Korean foreign ministry. Japanese displeasure was clear in this instance.


In 2018, Japan also rejected the Moon administration’s call for a second apology. Voices for Japanese resistance against South Korean demands were uncharacteristically united. Even center left media like Asahi, an oft critic of PM Abe, called on the government to consider all options for carrying on with the 2015 agreement without complying to Seoul’s demands. Some in Japan have difficulties understanding shifting positions in South Korean ideas on this issue.

Moon’s strategy is a dual track approach in separating national security concerns from wartime issues and as a consequence, bilateral relations has to navigate through this delicate balance.

The Reconciliation and Healing Foundation is set up through South Korean parliamentary procedures so Tokyo is unable to stop any unilateral disbanding from the Korean side. Seoul says it will deal with the Japanese donations for the foundation separately. Under Moon administration’s watch, a government panel ruled that South Korea did not sufficiently represent the legality and reparations needs of the affected individuals.


Apparently, what former comfort women desired is an acknowledgement of legal responsibility. In 2018, the Moon administration also did not wish to renegotiate the deal as it contemplates how to use its side of the fund while finding an appropriate outlet for Japan’s contributions to the Foundation.


After this wartime memory issue, in October 2018, South Korean government asked Japanese naval vessels not to fly the so-called “rising sun flag” at a naval review organized by Seoul. Following that, calls came from the South Korean side for compensation by Nippon Steel, Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for World War II activities. This culminated in 2019 with the recent radar locking incident in which a Korean destroyer locked its radar onto a Japanese plane. 


But the two countries cannot afford to have such quarrels. They are both US allies and there are many issues of commonality between the two countries. The most urgent issue is solidarity to manage North Korean denuclearization. The intention by both US allies is to remove the stigma so that they can carry on with strengthening bilateral cooperation in security issues. Tokyo needs Seoul’s help for the return and outcome of the status of its citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang while Seoul is keen to work with Tokyo to have solidarity in persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile testing programs.


The two countries already deploy standardized weaponries from the US and also achieved a high level of interoperability with US forces to handle any issues in Northeast Asia, including a Korean Peninsula crisis. Both countries are also important shields against rogue states and accidental or intentional deployment of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) alongside US deployments against rogue missiles (chemical warheads or in the future nuclear ones if denuclearization goes south) so they are interdependent on each other.


The Americans have deployed the state of the art THAAD (Theater High Altitude Air Defense) missile system with its powerful radar that covers large swathes of Northeast Asia. Both Tokyo and Seoul are using sea-based US Aegis systems and PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capability 3) advanced missile systems. Thus, the two countries are bound together under the same air defense dome underpinned by pluralistic democratic values as well as economies that are subjected to market capitalist forces. In other words, they are natural allies.


Moon’s strategy is a dual track approach in separating national security concerns from wartime issues and as a consequence, bilateral relations has to navigate through this delicate balance. This is a risky one as it may have the potential to fray relations with its nearest allied neighbor and take attention off the most important geopolitical issues at hand.


Together, the two countries are collectively able to deal with other non-US alliance network major powers in the region, including India, Russia and China positively in the direction of regional and world peace. When they are apart, their attentions are taken off the need to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and work with the US in maintaining peace in the region as well as work with China in trade pacts like RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreement. Thus, they cannot afford to be distracted.

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