On March 20, 2019, GWIKS and Sigur Center for Asian Studies co-sponsored a panel discussion with Professor Celeste Arrington, Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, Director Yuki Tatsumi, Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center, Professor Mike M. Mochizuki, Japan-U.S. Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and Professor Ji-Young Lee, C.W.Lim and Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at American University’s School of International Service, on “Japan-South Korea Relations in Crisis: Prospects for Reconciliation and Security Cooperation in East Asia”.
Moderated by Professor Jisoo M. Kim, Director of the Institute for Korean Studies at GW, the panels initiated their discussion with Professor Arrington’s remark on South Korean Supreme Court’s order in October 2018 against Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal to compensate plaintiffs. In November 2018, a similar ruling for two batches of plaintiffs came out. In both of these complicated and multi-faceted legal disputes, South Korean Supreme Court requested compensations for those who were forced into physical labor and sexual slavery. Japanese sources are referring to the claimants as wartime labors instead of forced labor. The underpaid or unpaid labors have been subject of legal disputes for over two decades and since the 2012 ruling, more than five South Korean courts have agreed with the rulings that 1965 basic treaty between Japan and South Korea did not erase individual’s rights to claim compensation. However, the 2018 ruling was based on a new layer of logic that the entire Japanese colonial rule period was illegal. In addition, South Korean Truth Commission regarding forced mobilization of workers has documented that some 300 Japanese firms were involved in the disputed labor and more than 200,000 Korean workers were mobilized workers. These legal processes have much more political and socio-political implications than mere victory in court and have ignited political complications between the Japanese and South Korean governments.
Director Tatsumi began her remarks by mentioning the fire control radar lock-on incident in December 2018. Japanese Ministry of Defense issued an announcement that South Korean Navy destroyer directed its fire-control radar at Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force’s surveillance aircraft. Both Japanese government and South Korean Navy presented conflicting claims about the incident, blaming each other. The Japanese government claimed that the aircraft attempted to communicate with the vessel using three different radio frequencies but received no response. The South Korean Navy responded that the destroyer was in waters for humanitarian rescue mission and that the Japanese aircraft was flying at a dangerously low altitude. Despite efforts to resolve the issue at working levels, both sides have not yet reached a consensus. Director Tatsumi highlighted that the reason this incident that escalated to near warfare between Japan and South Korea and has not yet been resolved pertains to the current dysfunctional state of Japan-South Korea relations and reveals how grave the conflict between the two nations is. The underlining sectors of Japan-South Korea relations are: business community and defense. She revealed concern about the prospects of the Japan-South Korea relations, since both of the sectors have been damaged,
Professor Mochizuki argued that Japan-South Korea relations is not locked in a permanent state of historical animosity as he drew on public opinion poll data that suggests gradual improvement on South Korean perspective on Japan over the past years. The percentage of South Koreans who have a negative impression on Japan has declined from 76% to 50% and the percentage of South Koreans who have positive impression of Japan has increased from 12% to 28%. According to one Japanese research, 77% of the Japanese do not trust South Korea. However, since 1998 Obuchi-Kim Summit and joint declaration, there has been gradual improvement in affinity of Japan toward South Korea and over 60% of Japanese had favorable feelings toward South Korea. Along with social and cultural exchanges, efforts of political leaders on both sides contributed in the de-escalation of harsh feelings toward each other. Professor Mochizuki claimed that it is the persistent criticism on historical issues that leads to the negative impression toward South Korea in the eyes of the Japanese. He believes that this is because the dominant narrative in Japanese colonial past is the conservative narrative and that unless this narrative changes, the conflict between the two nations cannot be resolved.
Professor Lee listed three major drivers in South Korea-Japan relations that may explain the high level of tension between the two nations: South Korea’s hesitancy on its China policy, weakened link of North Korea’s propagation and policy coordination that previously brought the two nations together, and collapsed earlier agreements on historical issues. Current South Korean government’s prioritization inter-Korean reconciliation has not only jeopardized South Korea-U.S. relations, but South Korea-Japan relations as well. She claimed that South Korea’s strategic hold toward rising China does not naturally converge with that of Japan. Despite China having historically been the sole power until the 20th century, Japan and Korea had never formed an alliance to contest China. Even to this day, South Korea is geographically and politically (regarding reconciliation with North Korea and reunification) more vulnerable to China compared to Japan, and thus in a harder position to form alliance against China. South Korea and Japan, while having been constantly disagreeing on numerous terms, have always been a common approach toward North Korea: strong deterrence. However, with the two U.S.-North Korea summits conducted recently and current Moon Jae-in administration striving to reconcile inter-Korean relations, this link of mutual antagonization toward North Korea is weakened. Professor Lee claimed that the currently South Korean government has little incentives to improve relations with Japan.