Getting serious about Japan
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The recent developments in Korea-Japan diplomacy show a serious impasse. Recently appointed Korean Ambassador to Tokyo Kang Chang-il and Japan’s new Ambassador to Seoul, Koichi Aiboshi, haven’t met with foreign ministers of each country, not to mention the national leader. After Yoshihide Suga’s government delayed Kang’s meeting with Japan’s foreign minister and prime minister out of discontent with the comfort women and forced labor issues, Korea reciprocated.
But the Moon Jae-in administration is eager to please Japan. At an international conference in November, President Moon said in opening remarks, “I especially welcome Prime Minister Suga,” pretending to be close. In January, Moon said, “Frankly, I am embarrassed” over a Korean court’s ruling compensating former sex slaves. In a speech on Monday marking the 102nd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, he stressed the need for reconciliation, saying, “Past issues can be resolved if the two sides work together.” The determination Moon demonstrated — “We will never lose to Japan this time” — after Japan retaliated over Korean courts’ ruling on wartime forced labor two years ago was nowhere to be seen.
Upon arriving in Japan, Ambassador Kang said he would get an agrément from “the Japanese emperor.” In the past, Kang asserted that in Korea, we should call him “the king of Japan.” I find it strange that Moon and Kang are not being criticized for “being pro-Japan” in Korea. In 2015, Park Geun-ryeong, former President Park Geun-hye’s sister, was denounced for using the expression “Japanese Emperor” in an interview with a Japanese media outlet.
Since the Moon administration took off, many experts advocated improving relations with Japan. But the latest words and actions of the government get on my nerves rather than giving me relief as they translate into strategic tricks to take advantage of the Tokyo Olympics to promote inter-Korean relations rather than acknowledging the importance of Japan in Korea’s diplomacy. In fact, Moon said in the March 1 speech that the Summer Games could offer opportunities to talk between Korea and Japan, South and North Koreas, North Korea and Japan and North Korea and the United States.
Of course, Moon’s sudden turnaround came from the new U.S. administration’s demand that Seoul and Tokyo address their diplomatic conflict. As a result, the Moon administration is aiming to improve its relations with Japan through Washington’s pressure. Korea’s new Foreign Minister Chung Ui-yong said in the National Assembly that Korea could receive help from America.
Will Washington’s pressure work? I heard from sources in Washington that Biden is annoyed at Japan because Tokyo is not listening to Washington’s demand to improve relations with Korea. In 2015, Japan made the comfort women agreement with Korea through the mediation of then-Vice President Biden. Biden later confessed that he has served as some sort of “a divorce counselor between Korea and Japan.” But Japan’s current Prime Minister Suga, who was the cabinet minister at the time, knows the outcome better than anyone.
Moreover, Japan’s perspective on Korea’s importance to Japan’s security has changed. In the past, Japan regarded Korea as a kind of “breakwater” blocking Japan from North Korea’s threats. The “breakwater theory” advocated by Korea’s former prime minister Lho Shin-young in the 1980s helped the Nakasone government offer a $4-billion-loan. Moon also mentioned the breakwater theory when Korea-Japan relations were aggravated over suspending the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) between Seoul and Tokyo two years ago.
But this theory has faded. In late last year, an article by Richard Lawless, former deputy undersecretary for the Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs in the U.S. Department of Defense, garnered special attention in Japan. He proposed three scenarios on the future of the Korean Peninsula. First, North Korea, a self-declared nuclear power, will be politically subjugated to South Korea. Second, South Korea would break away from the Korea-U.S. alliance and pursue nuclear armament on its own, or third, South and North Koreas would form a loose union. In any case, Lawless concluded, Japan would face nuclear threats from the peninsula and needs intermediate nuclear forces (INF) to fend them off. Lawless’ argument translates into the demand that Japan have its own deterrence capability as the breakwater of Korea will disappear sooner or later.
Today, the atmosphere of describing Korea as “a breakwater” has disappeared in Japan. Instead, voices to block such threats with the Quad group with America, Australia and India are growing. Korea’s old tactic of using Washington’s pressure without understanding that sentiment in Japan won’t work. For the Moon administration, a first step to improving ties with Japan is proposing a solution that Tokyo would consider.