South Korean protesters tear up a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Under the new president, scenes like this could become less common. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

SEOUL – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday received a high-powered delegation dispatched by South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has vowed to improve dire bilateral relations.

Unusual for a South Korean politician, Yoon has pledged to upgrade relations with Japan, a nation widely despised in Korea for its colonial rule of the peninsula between 1910 and 1945.  

Tuesday’s meeting at the Japanese prime minister’s official residence reportedly lasted 25 minutes, according to South Korean media reports. A South Korean delegation comprised of politicians, diplomats and academics handed over a letter from Yoon to Kishida at the meeting. The delegation is currently on a five-day trip to Japan.

Kishida voiced hopes, “… for a new starting point in which our two countries would build a future-oriented relationship while also squarely facing the past,” the delegation’s leader, National Assembly Deputy Speaker Chung Jin-suk, told South Korean media.

In a phrase that could prick up ears in Beijing, Kishida also said: “Strategic cooperation between Japan and Korea, and between Japan, the US and Korea has never been as necessary as the rules-based international order is under threat. We cannot delay improving relations with Korea.”

“Most important is restoring trust between our two countries,” Chung, the delegation head said, according to the reports. “We shared our opinion that restoring trust will require reactivating person-to-person exchange, which has been interrupted because of Covid-19, and making institutional improvements toward that end.”

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to foreign reporters in Seoul after winning a bitterly fought election. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

Those baby steps would mean restarting regular flights, halted due to the pandemic.

However, Kishida also raised a critical issue that has long-poisoned bilateral relations.

In 2018, South Korean courts seized assets held there by Japanese companies as compensation for colonial-era forced laborers. That infuriated Japan, which insisted the issue had long ago been solved via a 1965 diplomatic normalization treaty accompanied by a compensation package totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

A fog of opacity hangs over why the 2018 assets have not, four years later, been liquidated and handed over to the victims. One possibility is that political pressure has been bought to bear on the courts not to finalize, for fear of sparking massive Japanese retaliation.

Asia Times has learned from a high-level business source close to both governments that Japan would respond massively if the South Korean courts take that step, with Tokyo likely deploying both commercial and financial leverage.

The divide between 21st century Japan and South Korea is deep and wide.

The two Northeast Asian nations share similar cultures and lifestyles. They are both democratic polities overseeing highly successful capitalist economies that boast world-class brands and manufacturers. Both have separate security alliances with the US.

Despite all this, it would be difficult to point to two neighboring democracies which have such strained relations.

In modern history, Japan colonized Korea in 1910 – an era that ended with Japan’s defeat at the hands of the World War II Allies in 1945. The two opened diplomatic relations in 1965, but are divided over interpretations of colonial-era history and the possession of a duo of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan – which South Korea calls the East Sea.

These various issues have always simmered. But they flared to white heat under two leaders – conservative revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan and liberal populist President Moon Jae-in in South Korea.

Under the two, disputes that had largely been confined within the spheres of street or online politics, academia and diplomacy crossed into the political, security and economic spaces.

Abe left office in 2020. Moon exits on May 9, paving the way for Yoon. So, the chance for a reset beckons.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spent time with the delegation from South Korea. Photo: AFP

Sunnier days ahead?

Yoon is a conservative of the People Power Party. Kishida hails from the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party, but is widely seen as more middle-of-the-road and less nationalistic than either Abe or Abe’s short-lived successor, Yoshihide Suga.

This may be encouraging, for the two sides have much to paper over. Seen through a cold, hard lens, South Korea arguably has more to gain.

According to South Korean trade officials, Seoul seeks to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) free trade zone. Ever since Donald Trump-era Washington backed out of the trade deal, Tokyo has taken the lead as the biggest economy in the bloc. Seoul will need Tokyo’s nod to join.

While the two countries’ economies are both competitive and complimentary, Japan has the upper hand in trade.

According to World Bank data, Japan is South Korea’s fifth-largest trade partner and South Korea is Japan’s third-largest trade partner. However, Japan enjoys a trade surplus. In 2020, statistics show it exported US$42 billion worth of products to South Korea, while South Korea exported $25 billion to Japan. This trend continues through 2022.

While Japan (population: 125.8 million) has GDP worth $5.23 trillion, the GDP of South Korea (population: 51.7 million) is valued at $1.87 trillion.

However, in some ways, South Korea is ahead of Japan. It is widely seen as a nimbler, more innovative economy, and overtook Japan in per capita GDP in 2018.

Beyond trade, Seoul and Tokyo have mission-critical shared interests. While both are US allies, both also do the bulk of their trade with China.

In this area, a shared voice would be of mutual benefit, one expert told Asia Times.

“Both countries do not want to choose sides,” said Haruko Satoh, a Japanese scholar of international relations at the Osaka School of International Public Policy. “If they could coordinate a bit more they could offer a more balanced voice toward the US, as they approach China.”

Satoh added that there are regional infrastructure and public health issues where Japan and South Korea should cooperate. The two sides should “unite in order to jointly navigate the post-Ukraine Biden administration’s clumsy way of handling affairs in Asia.”

Satoh, who oversees the Japanese side of the Korea Foundation project “Peace and Security in Asia: Toward a Meaningful Japan-Korea Partnership,” added that there are regional infrastructure and public health issues where Japan and South Korea could feasibly cooperate.

The influential liberal Japanese newspaper the Asahi editorialized: “Kishida can break the deadlock by attending Yoon’s inauguration.” The paper said that previous Japanese prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Yasuo Fukuda had taken that very step.

However, according to the South Korean delegation in Tokyo, there are no plans for that.

Certainly, a reset is not going to be easy. The Asahi noted that bilateral shuttle diplomacy has been dormant for a decade.

It also pointed to what looked like a Japanese snub. Seoul’s ambassador to Japan, who arrived in the post more than one year ago, has yet to meet the Japanese prime minister or foreign minister.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, there is particularly high emotion invested, which Yoon may not be able to combat.

“If Yoon becomes too soft on Japan, a public outcry will arise,” Moon Chung-in, a former South Korean presidential adviser who now heads the Asan Institute think tank, told Asia Times.

Weakening Yoon’s position is the narrowness of his electoral win – less than 1% of the total vote.

“Campaign rhetoric is one thing, implementation of policies is another,” Moon warned. “He cannot retain his pro-Japanese stance, as he stated in the campaign.”

It is not only public opinion. Yoon faces a hostile National Assembly and may not enjoy full-hearted support from South Korea’s civil service as the administrative city of Sejong voted against him.

The Dokdo Islands, the easternmost islets of the Korean Peninsula. Photo: WikiCommons

The battlegrounds

There are several issues dividing the nations. The two dispute the ownership of the Dokdo (Korean) and Takeshima (Japanese) islets that lie between them. South Korea makes its occupation of the two tiny possessions a massive national issue, and ministries boast models of them in their lobbies and military drills are held to ensure their defensibility.

Japan consistently and officially disputes South Korea’s position.

But the bigger issue is historical remembrance and contrition – or lack thereof. The Japanese believe they have apologized scores of times and paid repeated reparations to Korean victims of the colonial era, notably “comfort women” and forced laborers.

But, this thinking goes, Seoul is never satisfied and continues to demand more and more, while purposely embarrassing Japan in the international arena. There were also allegations that some details of Korea’s colonial-era victimhood are either false or exaggerated.

Koreans believe that Tokyo’s various payments and apologies are either insufficient or insincere and point to a two-faced side to Japanese politics. On the one hand, expressing remorse, while on the other editing atrocities out of history textbooks and signage while also honoring both war dead and war criminals.

They vigorously protest against Japanese revisionism of what they consider historical facts. But under Abe and Moon, these issues moved across their customary firewalls to impact the political, economic and security spheres.

In 2017, Moon unilaterally overturned a 2015 pact on comfort women agreed to between Abe and the South Korean administration that preceded Moon’s.

In 2018, South Korean courts seized Japanese assets to pay wartime forced Korean laborers, which Tokyo insisted breached the 1965 agreement.

The comfort woman statue outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

Tokyo responded, slowing the export of key components needed by South Korea’s flagship chip sector and removing the country’s preferential trade status. Seoul retaliated with the latter step, while furious citizens boycotted Japanese businesses and products.

A Japanese warship was banned from a South Korean naval review for flying an ensign that Koreans said harkened back to World War II. And a South Korean destroyer illuminated a Japanese aircraft with its target radar.

Moon also sought to end an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, but made a last-minute U-turn, almost certainly after US intervention.

In practice, the Japanese raw material “sanctions” proved to be a damp squib and South Korea’s chip sector was not impacted as shipments were slowed, not stopped, while Seoul diversified its sources of the materials.

Amid this poisoned atmosphere, Washington, which seeks to build a united front in the region against Beijing, was hugely frustrated.

So who was responsible for the dire bilateral relations: Abe or Moon?

“Both,” said Satoh. “It takes two to tango.”