Japan and South Korea relations will possibly reboot as new administrations change political landscapes. Prospects for this reboot are discussed here.
Japan and South Korea relations reached their lowest point in decades during the governments of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as bilateral history issues flared. With a new Japanese leader at the helm and a presidential election looming in South Korea, questions abound about whether the changing political landscapes of both countries will usher in a reboot of the bilateral relationship.
To comprehend the chances of a Japan and South Korea relations reboot, we must first comprehend the diplomatic scope with which leaders can shape the relationship, as well as the structural factors that limit their ability to do so.
There is a significant institutional restriction on the leaders of both countries, particularly on the South Korean side, in handling the bilateral relationship’s ever-present history problems. This is the normalization treaty of 1965, as well as the agreements that came with it. What is less obvious is that, over time, this treaty has become more of a constraint, particularly since South Korea’s democratisation process began in the late 1980s.
History of Japan and South Korea Relations
During South Korea’s authoritarian era, history issues with Japan were handled in a largely state-centric manner. The powerful victims’ redress movements emerged as democratisation progressed. Diplomacy in Seoul became more of a two-level game as they improved their pressure tactics on the South Korean government. These redress movements have discovered, after decades of trial and error, that litigation in South Korean courts is the most powerful pressure tactic at their disposal.
If we look at the history of Japan and South Korea relations over the last ten years, we can see that the main source of friction has been South Korean victim redress movements’ legal victories. These court decisions, which have called into question the 1965 agreement between the two governments, have significantly reduced the range of options available to Japan’s and South Korea’s leaders when it comes to managing the relationship. Leadership transition, leadership style, and party affiliation have all become less important in recent years.
The majority of democratically elected South Korean leaders have pledged to take a “forward-looking approach” to the bilateral relationship. Many Japanese leaders are in the same boat. Former South Korean and Japanese leaders, Kim Dae-jung and Keizo Obuchi, were regarded as visionary leaders for the bilateral relationship. Recognizing the limitations of previous agreements, the two leaders issued a joint declaration in 1998 that outlined a path to a more forward-looking relationship. This approach was more feasible at the time because victim redress movements in South Korea had not yet leveraged the judiciary.
Even so, once the victims began to win lawsuits in Seoul, South Korean leaders’ options in dealing with Japan were largely limited to deciding how and to what extent litigation outcomes against Japan should be enforced. As a result, Japanese leaders focused on how to defend the 1965 treaty, how to deter their South Korean counterparts from enforcing litigation outcomes against them, and how to respond if these outcomes were enforced.
From Tokyo’s perspective, the enforcement of victim litigation victories is linked to progressive party politics in South Korea. However, it is unthinkable that any South Korean leader, whether progressive or conservative, would dismiss or ignore a legal victory by one of Seoul’s colonial victim groups. Even if a South Korean leader decided not to enforce the ruling, they would first raise the issue with Tokyo through diplomatic channels. Based on the previous decade of bilateral interactions, this act would enrage Japanese officials and heighten bilateral tensions.
The pattern of friction that characterizes the two countries’ current relationship makes the common suggestion that mediation by a third-party state would be infeasible. This is due to the fact that their mutual history problems manifest not only bilaterally, but also in South Korea’s state–society relations and the context of its separation of powers.
Prospects for Japan and South Korea relations reboot
When speculating on whether Japan and South Korea relations will soon undergo a reboot, hopes cannot be pinned on a leadership transition. In the short term, the presence or absence of victim redress lawsuits, as well as the outcomes of those lawsuits, will most likely determine the trajectory of their relationship. Bilateral conflict over these victim-centered issues is also becoming more prevalent in the context of UNESCO. Seoul opposes Tokyo’s bid to have World Heritage status bestowed on sites in Japan where Korean colonial-era laborers once worked, especially if that history is not acknowledged at the sites in question.
However, this does not rule out the possibility of leaders playing a role in shaping the bilateral relationship. Moon’s successor, as well as his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, should strive to separate their historical issues from the bilateral relationship’s economic, defense, and cultural spheres. This could be accomplished by removing historical issues from summit agendas and discussing them in a separate diplomatic forum.
When historical problems arise, the two leaders should avoid retaliatory economic, defense, and cultural policies. This would reduce diplomatic fallout and their proclivity to undermine the relationship’s positive aspects.