Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.02.27

Japan-South Korea talks fail to inspire hope of breakthrough

Both sides express different takes on wartime labor talk progress

the Japan Times on February 6th, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy Korean Peninsula

Senior diplomats from Japan and South Korea "made limited progress" in wartime labor talks was the gist of a Kyodo news report The Japan Times ran at the end of January.

The article was based on remarks made by Seo Min-jung, director-general of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau, after she met her Japanese counterpart, Takehiro Funakoshi, in Seoul recently.

She reportedly said “further discussion would be needed to secure a ‘sincere response’ from” Japan and "The main point of the sincere response is an apology and contribution" from the Japanese companies concerned, adding that “there is still a gap in opinions between the two nations over the issue” of the CWKs (former civilian workers from the Korean Peninsula.)

Following the meeting, Japan’s Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement saying that the two directors-general “had a frank exchange of views on overall Japan-Korea relations, including the issue of former Korean Peninsula civilian workers" and “reaffirmed their agreement to continue communication to resolve pending issues and to return Japan-Korea relations to a sound level."

The difference in tone between the two foreign ministries may suggest that Japan has remained cool and calm while South Korea seems to be slightly more hasty. While I believe there will be an eventual reconciliation between Japan and South Korea, I am still uncertain about the success in the negotiations and hardly feel "cautiously optimistic" at this point.

I am not in a position to be fully briefed on the details of the recent bilateral negotiations. If I had known the details, I would not have written this column. What I can write about, based on unclassified information and to the extent within my security clearance obligation, are my personal reasons for why I am less than optimistic about Japan-South Korea relations.

The biggest obstacle is that Japan-South Korea relations are 90% about domestic politics and hardly adhere to the norms of diplomacy. Looking back on the history since 1945, there have been many cases where what was diplomatically or strategically correct was not necessarily politically viable or sustainable due to the nature of South Korean domestic politics.

As a result, some important diplomatic achievements in regard to Japan-South Korea relations did not last. For this reason, successive South Korean administrations that were not stable domestically felt pressure to move the so-called goal posts. Unfortunately, this trend has become more pronounced since the 1990s when South Korea became a full-fledged democracy.

The Moon Jae-in administration is a perfect example that demonstrates this hypothesis. (But I do not wish to go into detail here on how the Moon administration worsened Japan-Korea relations.) In contrast, the current administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol is doing fairly well and in fact doing much better than many in Tokyo might have anticipated.

It is quite encouraging to see that the new conservative president of the Republic of Korea has adopted the right policy of prioritizing the security of South Korea. To the best of my knowledge, he seems to be well aware of the importance of both the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

President Yoon’s policy vis-a-vis Japan is an extension of this policy and I believe that the Yoon administration's enthusiasm for improving Japan-South Korea relations is genuine. At the very least, the administration is not wrong in the direction it is taking. This point is accurately understood by Japanese officials and the public and there is no misunderstanding in Tokyo.

Nevertheless, the reason why I am still less than "cautiously optimistic" is the excessively cautious attitude of the Yoon administration. Yes, Seoul must persuade domestic opposition forces to move forward but Japan, having experienced the goal posts being moved several times in the past, has reason to be skeptical. I sincerely hope that Seoul can overcome the domestic political obstacles that are holding it back.

Few Japanese politicians have placed as much importance on good relations with South Korea as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but President Moon managed to infuriate this friend of Seoul. Economic measures taken by Abe in 2019 against South Korea were a clear indication of that disappointment. Now both Japan and South Korea may have lost an important “consensus builder” in Japanese politics.

So what can the United States do? Not much. Yes, Washington reportedly played a constructive role in helping Tokyo and Seoul reach an agreement in 2015 on the issue of "comfort women," a euphemism used to describe women and girls who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. This time, however, things are different. On the Japanese side, at least, there may be no atmosphere or feeling for welcoming the support, whether implicitly or explicitly, provided by the United States.

There are two reasons for this. First, since the issue at stake is essentially bilateral in nature, Japan and South Korea must address this directly. Secondly, because this issue is directly related to the fundamental rights and obligations of the Japan-South Korea 1965 Basic Treaty, there is limited room for compromise through mediation by a third country.

What is the proper response? South Korea’s Foreign Ministry hinted that Japan’s “sincere response” must consist of “an apology and contribution" from the Japanese companies concerned. At least the latter is a nonstarter and, moreover, what Seoul means by a “sincere response” to the CWKs is not clear and is open to interpretation. It may be that domestic politics is preventing clarification or it may have been made intentionally vague.

It is also unclear whether this concept of “sincere response” is quantitative or qualitative. Efforts by the Yoon administration to somehow find a compromise are always welcome, but the two foreign ministries, unfortunately, don’t seem to be finalizing an overall scenario that many in Tokyo can get on board.

A former Japanese ambassador to Seoul recently wrote an optimistic essay arguing that an agreement may be reached during a Japan-South Korea summit meeting to be held as early as in February given Yoon's strong will to push ahead and that anti-Japanese sentiment in Korean public opinion has toned down.

The hope is that he is right — though I cannot be as optimistic as he is. In diplomatic negotiations, the devil is always in the details. It is especially so in Japan-South Korea relations. While welcoming Yoon’s positive moves in the right direction, the government in Tokyo is holding its breath and keeping its fingers crossed to see what kind of details Seoul may come up with before the Hiroshima Group of Seven summit in May.