East Asia Compass

Japan-South Korea: Antagonism Despite Alignment

02 Feb, 2015    ·   4824

Prof Sandip Kumar Mishra looks at the nature of bilateral engagement

On 29 December 2014, Japan and South Korea concluded a military intelligence-sharing agreement related to the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes. It is a three-way pact in which the US is the connecting party. The negotiations between South Korea and Japan on a similar but bilateral pact got into controversy two years ago when the information about it became public in South Korea. The recent agreement, even though limited in scope and trilateral in character, was considered to be the right note for the beginning of the new year. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II. Just as former Japanese Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi expressed remorse over wartime atrocities on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also expected to at least reiterate the old Japanese position.

In another move in early January, a high-level economic consultative meeting between the two countries happened in Seoul in which both agreed to boost their economic relations despite politically strained ties. It is interesting to note that despite the acrimonious verbal exchanges, which both countries have quite frequently, their bilateral trade is almost US$90 billion and neither tries to hamper their bilateral economic exchanges with their political disputes.

Furthermore, in the second week of January, a parliamentary delegation from South Korea visited Japan with South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s message to improve bilateral relations. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly responded that he would like to make this year “a year to improve Japan-South-Korea relations.” These moves indicate that Japan and South Korea may be able to forge a cordial relationship with each other and would move forward in resolving their differences. The top leaders of both countries who apart from a few awkward encounters such as in November 2014 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum have not met each other after assuming their positions - Shinzo Abe in 2012 and Park Geun-hye in February 2013 - might finally have a direct dialogue in 2015. 

But amidst these positive moves there have also been the old acrimonious murmurs that seem to be straining the attempts to move forward in the bilateral relationship. On 27 January, South Korea expressed concern that Shinzo Abe may backtrack from the Japanese apology on the comfort women issue, which was expressed by former Japanese Chief Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993. China also expressed similar doubts because Abe recently made a statement that he might change the terms of apology which was used in 1995 and it would reflect his government’s present position. The Japanese government has also not announced any specific date about the release of Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary which would be in August this year.

Japan considers that it has put in ‘maximum efforts’ to address the comfort women issue and South Korea should therefore not put any precondition for a summit meet between the two leaders. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshidhide Suga made this statement in reaction to the South Korean President Park Gue-hye’s remarks on 13 January in which she asked for a more sensitive response from Japan on the comfort women issue before expecting direct talks between the two countries.

On 18 January, South Korea also protested to Japan against the distribution of the Korean version of Japan’s Defense White Paper, which claimed Takeshima as a Japanese territory. The islands, which South Korea calls Dokdo, have been in Seoul’s possession for more than six decades, and Korea has a historical claim over it.

The long trajectory of Japan and South Korea relations indicates that even though both countries share a common friend in the form of the US and a common threat in North Korea (also China during the Cold War), their bilateral relations have always been complicated. There have been impressive economic, cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries for the normalisation of relations since 1965, but they continue to have negative political postures against each other because of historical disputes related to textbooks, Yasukuni Shrine visits, comfort women and also territorial disputes such as Dokdo/Takeshima.

Basically, it is politically convenient for leaders of both the countries to continuously use the controversial issues for their vested political interests. Common people in South Korea are more interested in economic opportunities and their daily lives. While they do not seek another Japanese apology, Japanese political provocations may sometimes induce them to behave otherwise. Similarly, Japan’s common people are not eager about these controversial issues but when there are huge politically motivated emotional outbursts from Korea, Japanese people also become more adamant. This vicious cycle does not allow Japan and South Korea to move forward towards a future-oriented relationship and it seems that the trend of antagonism despite alignment in their bilateral relations would continue in the near future.