The Korea-Japan cold war

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The Korea-Japan cold war

These days, there is a wide perception gap and a tone-deafness in relations between Japan and Korea. By tone-deafness, I do not mean that the two sides cannot hear each other. As with musical instruments that are broken, the tone or pitch cannot be restored in the relationship no matter what either side does. For example, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s February 2013 summit in the United States, he gave a speech at CSIS. One of the questions he was asked was how his government would try to improve its rocky relations with Seoul. Abe responded that he had a forward-looking view of Japan-Korea relations and that this was deeply-rooted in his psyche. Abe then referred to his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, who was prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and talked about how he and Park Guen-hye’s father were good friends.

This is a very good example of tone-deafness. Abe, I believe, is fully in favor of strong Seoul-Tokyo ties. The personalized nature of his comment was meant to convey a sense of closeness, almost like family, in how he relates to Korea. But for obvious reasons, the remark did not play well in Korea, where Abe managed to contextualize an already complex relationship within the even more complex domestic politics of South Korea.

On a smaller scale, I recently participated in an academic conference in Seoul. Upon entry to the meeting hall, all participants were greeted by a flat-panel television display carrying a live satellite feed from Dokdo. The American participants chuckled at this in-your-face display of nationalism. Japanese participants silently walked past it. Later on in the conference, a discussion flared up on the subject of whether this was another example of tone-deafness to have such a display at a conference designed to discuss Japan-Korea relations.

It would not be an understatement to say there is a cold war of sorts between the two sides. In the past, when third parties encouraged an improvement in Seoul-Tokyo relations, the suggestion would evoke resistance but also some sense of empathy and understanding. These days, the resistance to acknowledging a responsibility to improve relations is fierce and it is laced with an acute sense of self-righteousness. For example, Abe has done some small, quiet things to lessen friction in relations since taking office, such as not making the so-called Takeshima Day a national holiday, not taking for international arbitration on the islands dispute, and not revising the so-called Kono statement of remorse over the issue of sex slaves used by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Thus, some in Tokyo feel that the ball is now in Seoul’s court to reciprocate, and they’re disappointed that no such effort appears forthcoming.

Korea, by contrast, believes it has put faith in such actions in the past, only to be politically embarrassed by the next history textbook controversy, the next Yasukuni shrine visit, or some doltish statement by a Japanese politician. Seoul expects that relations will suffer if Abe wins the upper house election this summer, which may lead to a revision of the Kono apology or other such actions. Koreans have no inclination to give the Japanese prime minister any credit.

Some of this cold war atmosphere derives from specific issues like Dokdo and the comfort women. But it also derives from the relative positions of the two countries in the region’s international relations. Korea feels like it has risen as a critical regional player as well as global player. Therefore, it has no tolerance for what it perceives as demeaning statements by Japan.

Japan, on the other hand, “is back,” as Abe declared, having emerged from several years of political drift and natural disaster recovery, and wants to focus on economic recovery, not smoothing ruffled feathers of its neighbor.

There are two dangers in the current cold war. First, North Korea’s threats and provocations pose real security concerns for Japan and South Korea. An inability to cooperate, or a willingness to forgo any consideration of cooperation until the summer (after the upper house elections in Japan) makes no sense. The next North Korean provocation will come before then, and will require better security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo. Second, the geopolitics of the current situation could spiral downward. New governments always want to distinguish their policies from previous ones. Both the Park and Abe governments want to continue to strengthen relations with the United States, but also want to pragmatically manage and improve their relations with the new leadership in China.

The danger here is that this dynamic could have the unintended effect of worsening Seoul-Tokyo relations, as my colleague Mike Green has argued. Korea may try to demonstrate a modicum of autonomy from the West in its desire to engage China, not by criticizing the U.S. but by distancing itself from Japan. And Tokyo might do the same, focusing on pragmatic cooperation with China while ignoring Seoul. The irony is that both Japan and South Korea will be dealing with China from a better position if their bilateral (and trilateral relations with the U.S.) are stronger. Policy makers need to be aware of this dynamic.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at CSIS.

by Victor Cha
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