Time for Tokyo and Seoul to lay a foundation that takes relations in a positive direction

After Fumio Kishida took office as the new prime minister of Japan on Oct. 4, South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a congratulatory letter highlighting the two countries’ shared values and calling for cooperation, and his administration then gave climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic as examples of global issues to work together on.

Kishida did not match this enthusiasm: At his inaugural policy speech, he instead reaffirmed a hard-line position on improving relations that requires Seoul to change its stance on the issues at the core of the two countries’ diplomatic impasse.

While the political winds do not portend improved relations in the short-term, Kishida shouldn’t write off Moon’s suggestion to improve cooperation on nontraditional security issues. Now is the time for Japan and South Korea to lay the groundwork for a new direction in Japan-South Korea relations following South Korea’s March 2022 presidential election, and cooperation on COVID-19 and climate change can be part of that.

While Japan-South Korea relations go through cycles of ups and downs related to their respective interpretations of history and related issues — including territorial disputes, the portrayal of the colonial era in textbooks and the treatment of those harmed during Japan’s colonial rule — the current downturn may be the worst since the two countries normalized relations in 1965.

In late 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate forced laborers and their families for labor performed during World War II. When the companies refused to comply, Korean courts seized some of their Korean assets and prepared to liquidate them to provide the mandated compensation.

This dispute crossed into the security realm when a South Korean naval vessel locked its radar on a Japanese military aircraft in December 2018 and the economic realm when the Abe administration enacted export restrictions against South Korea in the summer of 2019.

The Japanese government maintains that the issue of colonial-era reparations was resolved with the 1965 normalization agreement between the countries. The South Korean government, however, argues that it cannot interfere in the rulings of the country’s independent judicial branch and that war crimes were not covered in the normalization agreement.

Relations remain stagnant today. Kishida believes that the ball is in South Korea’s court for taking steps towards improving ties, and the Moon administration is calling for dialogue. While both countries have expressed some interest in improving ties, this stalemate will not be resolved without a concerted effort and a willingness to take on political risk by national leaders. However, there are few political incentives in both countries to proactively improve relations.

Despite the leadership change in Japan, the domestic climate remains challenging for the prime minister to spend political capital on improving ties with South Korea. Political elites and the general Japanese populace are experiencing Korea fatigue: There are concerns that South Korea continues to move the goal posts on resolving historical issues and that the Moon administration isn’t a reliable negotiating partner. Plus, the Moon administration is due to end in May 2022. Any attempt to address core concerns in the bilateral relationship now would also be sacrificing leverage that could be saved for negotiations with the next South Korean administration.

While Moon is eager to re-engage with Japan, it is also challenging for him to make serious progress with only eight months left in his term. His recent overtures towards Japan can be seen as an attempt to soften South Korea’s position on the issue. However, trying to reach some sort of agreement now also risks said agreement becoming politicized in the South Korean presidential election, threatening its sustainability.

The last major diplomatic deal reached between the two countries, the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, became so politically toxic that presidential candidates in the 2017 South Korean election across the spectrum said it should be renegotiated. Fears of politicization likely temper Japanese desire to reach an agreement in the near-term as well. While in the past, the U.S. has attempted to foster dialogue through trilateral channels, in the current climate Washington’s desire for improved relations alone is insufficient to restore trust between its two allies.

Given the challenges of substantially improving relations in the near term on the issues that are at the core of the disagreements between the countries, what can be done? The Japanese and Korean governments can use the time before the next South Korean presidential election to prepare for some sort of “reset” in their relationship. They should prioritize creating a narrative off-ramp from current tensions, a new diplomatic script that builds political space on both sides for restoring ties.

For example, if Kishida follows in Suga’s footsteps and demands concessions as a prerequisite to meeting with the South Korea president, it will limit the next Korean administration’s political space to improve relations. Being more rhetorically generous to South Korea, on the other hand, would expand their political space. Increasing cooperation on the so-called “global issues” Moon suggested — COVID-19 response and climate change — is another place to start.

High-profile collaboration on these issues would build upon conversations Japan and South Korea are already having in trilateral settings with the U.S. In April 2021, the three countries’ national security advisers “discussed the value of working together to address other leading challenges, including COVID-19, working to prevent future pandemics, combating climate change.”

At a trilateral deputy secretary-level meeting in July 2021, the three countries “committed to deepening trilateral cooperation to address the global challenges of the 21st century, including the climate crisis, pandemic response and economic resilience and recovery.” Similar conversations continued at a ministerial-level trilateral in September 2021, and at the most recent foreign minister bilateral both countries expressed hope for improved relations so that they could cooperate across a wide range of areas.

Pushing for cooperation now would flip that script and potentially lay the foundation for improved relations in the future. COVID-19 and climate change are also less politically charged than issues related to differing interpretations of history and the 1965 normalization agreement — with that, cooperation will likely generate less backlash than engagement that touches upon those hot-button issues and will be easier to insulate in the event of future downturns in relations.

The benefit of high-profile cooperation in these areas is manifold. It is a net good for the world for two wealthy countries with strong research and development capabilities to collaborate on these issues. Cooperation in these areas could also serve as confidence-building measures that leaders could later point to when both governments are interested in more comprehensively improving ties.

The Kishida administration and next Korean administration might not be immediately ready to address the deep-seated issues in the relationship, but when the two countries are ready, having examples of trustworthy behavior from the other party will be invaluable. Furthermore, publicizing this cooperation would also be a means of gauging public sentiments and socializing cooperation with the public. This collaboration could also take place in a trilateral context to reduce political risk, and would also expand upon the cooperation each country is doing in the context of its bilateral alliance with the U.S.

This of course, all depends on Tokyo and Seoul being sincerely interested in improving ties while navigating considerable political constraints. For this cooperation to succeed, leaders in both countries need to be bought in to using confidence-building measures to develop trust in the near term that can be leveraged in the long term.

If, however, the two governments and their leaders are serious, they should consider this time before a new Korean administration takes power as a valuable opportunity to lay a foundation for future improvements in the bilateral relationship while contributing to the global public good.

Abby Bard is the Asia policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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Author: Shirley