East Asia Compass

Insulating Cooperation from Contestation: The Japan-South Korea Dispute

21 Aug, 2019    ·   5613

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra writes on the future of the bilateral relationship against a background of entrenched historical baggage

On 2 August 2019, the Japanese cabinet decided to remove South Korea from its ‘whitelist’. This restricts the export of critical Japanese products to South Korea, and will hurt the latter economically. The decision was apparently motivated as punishment for Japan, based on the October 2018 court ruling in South Korea that Japanese companies responsible for recruiting ‘forced labour’ from Korea must compensate their victims, which has contributed to the historic bilateral crisis between the two countries.

To be sure, Japan-South Korea relations have always been in contestation, even after normalisation of relations in 1965. Japan apologised to South Korea for its colonial exploitation, and offered financial compensation; this was followed by the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. Although this smoothed out relations at the state level, public opinion continued to be divided. Large protests and demonstrations against normalisation took place across South Korea, even though the country was ruled at the time by an authoritarian, President Park Chung-hee.

With common allies – such as the US – and common adversaries – such Japan and South Korea – it was believed then, even at the popular level, that relations would gradually improve. Japan considers its economic assistance as instrumental for South Korea's economic success. Japan also believes that its multiple expressions of regret for Korea's colonial suffering must bring that chapter to a close. In a similar approach, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent an apology to South Korean ‘comfort women’ (women who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese military during war time), and in 2015, promised to provide one billion yen (approximately US$ 8.3 million) as financial assistance. The agreement on the issue of ‘comfort women’ was noted to have been "finally and irreversibly" concluded.

The problem with the Japanese approach is that it assumes economic compensation and a formal apology as sufficient to heal deep-seated psychological wounds. These are admittedly important, but in a situation such as this, must also be accompanied by a sense of compassion and remorse. If compensation and apology are offered mechanically, in a way that is perhaps quite visibly intended to primarily remove obstacles in the bilateral relationship, they will not address public opinion in South Korea adequately. The South Korean government may well accept these moves in view of economic and strategic reasons, but the popular Japanese image will not change.

South Koreans take exception to official Japanese visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which contains the remains of 'war criminals'. Japan's revisions of school textbooks with regard to its wartime atrocities are also viewed negatively. Japan's official position on the issue of 'comfort women' and 'forced labour' is that these crimes were committed by Japan's military and business owners, thus distancing the government from these acts. Additionally, there are still territorial disputes between the two countries. Undoubtedly, South Korean leaders  also politicise the issue for domestic benefit. However, all of these translate, at least to the South Korean public, as a lack of sincerity in word and deed.

Japan and South Korea however have been able to devise a mechanism to keep their economic, cultural, and security equation insulated from historical baggage. They cooperate in mutually beneficial sectors, which is expected to have a positive spillover in the future on the historical background. Bilateral trade relations, educational exchanges, and tourism have increased exponentially. In 1997, both countries became part of a trilateral cooperation group along with the US, and in 2016, signed an agreement to share military intelligence on North Korea.

Unfortunately, the separation of domains of contestation and cooperation has been breached this time around. By removing South Korea from its ‘whitelist’, Japan has targeted South Korea economically. South Korea has also taken similar retaliatory measures. There is also speculation that the military intelligence-sharing agreement could be annulled as a result.

The onus in this scenario is tilted towards Japan, given that the ruling on ‘forced labour’ was taken by the South Korean judiciary, which the government had no say in. South Korea proposed a joint fund as compensation for victims, which Japan did not accept. Should both countries escalate the issue, it will lead to a historic diplomatic blunder that will be detrimental not just for bilateral relations, but also for regional stability.

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies (SIS), JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.