Author: Taku Tamaki, Loughborough University
Japan and South Korea seem locked in an incessant exchange of invective. In January 2022, the Japan Council for Cultural Affairs recommended that the former gold mine on Sado Island, now a museum, be designated as a World Heritage Site. But when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave the green light, South Korea responded with protests.
Seoul remains outraged at Tokyo’s lack of recognition of Korean forced laborers during World War II, including at the Sado gold mine. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi responded by calling South Korea’s claims “unacceptable”.
Since taking office in October 2021, Kishida has called his foreign policy vision “realistic diplomacy for a new era”. This includes a commitment to “resolutely and fully protect the lives and livelihoods of the Japanese people”. And, over the years, the Japanese government appears to have abandoned South Korea’s outgoing progressive Moon Jae-in administration.
Japan is gearing up for an upper house election in July, and the growing rift between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, will likely mean that improving bilateral relations is low on the list of concerns. Kishida’s priorities.
South Korea, too, is preparing for a presidential election in March 2022. The first televised debate touched on the THAAD missile defense system, with candidates divided over South Korea’s strategic imperatives and the prospect of a rising tensions with China. Victory in South Korea by a conservative, rather than another progressive, will likely make it easier for Kishida to attempt some form of reconciliation, as the North Korean threat potentially provides a common platform.
With new administrations in both states, it’s tempting to wonder if the often acrimonious relationship between the two neighbors is now ripe for a “reset.”
New leaders in Japan and South Korea have helped improve relations in the past. When Yasuhiro Nakasone took office in 1982, he chose South Korea as his first official visit abroad. The short-lived rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul in late 1998 was also a byproduct of the new leadership. It should also be remembered that when Shinzo Abe assumed the post of Prime Minister for the second time in 2012, he pledged to improve relations with China and South Korea.
The past few years have been particularly tumultuous for Tokyo and Seoul. The Japanese government removed South Korea from a “white list” of export controls in September 2019 amid growing tensions over comfort women and forced labor. The withdrawal precipitated a South Korean boycott of Japanese goods, hurting automobile and beer sales. While South Korea’s threat to withdraw from the general security of military information agreement was averted at the very last minute in November 2019, a foul aftertaste persists between Tokyo and Seoul.
Kishida’s first phone conversation with Moon in October 2020 did not inspire confidence, with the Japanese prime minister saying the ongoing dispute over comfort women and forced laborers was putting Japan–Relations with South Korea in an “extremely difficult position”. Kishida added that Tokyo expected Seoul to respond “appropriately” to international pledges and abide by international law – a reference to South Korea’s stated intention to cancel the comfort women deal. of December 2015 and to demand the restitution of former forced labourers.
A “reset” of bilateral relations remains a distant prospect. As the recurring exchange of invective shows, the fundamental dynamic between Japan and South Korea is still a “clash of realities”. Conflicting perceptions in Tokyo and Seoul have led both sides to blame the other for deteriorating relations.
Japan sees South Korea as obsessed with discrediting Tokyo by constantly referring to Japan’s past misdeeds. But South Korea perceives an unrepentant Japanese government seeking to whitewash the past and trivialize South Korean claims of suffering under Japanese rule. Such conflicting realities lock Tokyo and Seoul into an endless round of mutual finger-pointing.
Speaking to business leaders, diplomats and think tanks in January 2022, Kishida reiterated the three pillars of his foreign policy vision and stressed the importance for Japan to assert itself in the ” resolution of geopolitical tensions”. Notable by its absence was any reference to South Korea. On the contrary, Kishida’s assurance could worsen the bilateral relationship.
The clash of realities means mutual finger pointing remains the default position, and the kerfuffle over Sado’s goldmine doesn’t bode well. With Kishida’s “realistic diplomacy for a new era” relying on Japanese self-assertion, there is currently no obvious recipe for a “reset” in Japan.–Relations with South Korea.
Taku Tamaki is a lecturer in international relations at Loughborough University.