Back To Top

[Hwang’s China and the World] Toward the Korea-Japan relations of vision and coexistence

Historically, Korea and Japan have long been in conflict and contradiction. Since Japan’s colonization of Korea, it has deepened what some observe to be Japan’s sense of superiority over Korea and Korea’s sense of inferiority toward Japan. Japan’s “Lost Decades” –- a period of economic stagnation caused by an asset price bubble collapsing in the 1990s -- and Korea’s rise in national power in the international community brought some tension to bilateral relations. During the Moon Jae-in administration, historically latent anger and debt relief measures were interspersed with legal and social policy responses and confrontations on old historical issues. The new government, which will be inaugurated in May, is emphasizing the improvement of Korea-Japan relations, unlike the existing progressive government. Nevertheless, we see a number of constraints still in place. This week’s panel discussion will attempt to conduct a diagnosis and evaluation of the Moon Jae-in administration’s Korea-Japan relations. It will also examine the goals and constraints that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration will face in trying to establish a new relationship with Japan. It will also present specific solutions and road maps for the process of normalizing Korea-Japan relations. The panel includes distinguished researchers on Japanese international affairs: professor Lee Won-deog from Kookmin University, professor Jo Yang-hyeon from the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, and professor Nam Ki-jeong from the Institute for Japanese Studies at Seoul National University.

Hwang: This is commonly referred to as the worst period for Korea-Japan relations since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1965. Observers are also saying that relations have worsened under the Moon administration.

Lee: I do not completely agree with such statements. In fact, relations between Korea and Japan have worsened structurally since 2012 (before the Moon administration took office). We can say the conflict has intensified and deepened because problems were not resolved. Beyond the governmental dimension, anti-Japanese or anti-Korean sentiments are reaching a climax in both countries. On top of that, communication between national leaders has been cut off, which has continued this situation under an absence of trust. I would add that the interruption in human resource and private exchanges due to COVID-19 are additional obstacles in improving Korea-Japan relations.

Hwang: How do you evaluate the Moon administration’s handling of Korea-Japan relations?

Lee: I would largely divide it into two parts. The first half of the Moon administration’s term (2017-2019) can be assessed as an omnidirectional conflict with Japan. This conflict arose from issues related to politics, history, security, and approaches toward North Korea. Most of all, wartime sexual slavery and forced labor issues were the largest factors of conflict. They triggered an economic hit from Japan’s export regulations, which excluded South Korea from its “whitelist” of countries with preferential trade status. This later escalated into Korea’s “No Japan” movement boycotting Japanese products. In terms of security, there was also mutual distrust that resulted in disputes, such as the 2018 radar lock-on dispute or announcement on the temporary termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). When it came to policies toward North Korea, the Moon administration considered Japan as an obstacle in reaching peace on the Korean Peninsula. Japan regarded the Moon administration as anti-Japan and pro-North Korea as a result. In the latter half of Moon’s term, there were efforts to improve relations with Japan through a two-track approach following US President Biden’s inauguration. However, not much came of this approach. There was no clear consensus on the sexual slavery issue, nor on compensation for forced labor. On the other hand, Japan was likely watching Korea like a teacher “waiting for the homework to be done with his arms crossed,” rather than positively responding to the Moon administration’s efforts.

Nam: I guess it is hard to tell if we can blame worsened Korea-Japan relations on the Moon administration. I can see factors that limited the Moon administration’s diplomacy with Japan. The Moon administration conceptualized national identity as based on constitutional principles, and valued judicial judgement based on the separation of legal, administrative, and judicial powers. It also valued an international norm which focuses on victims. Under the given reality and conditions, at times the Moon administration decided to take a very realistic approach toward Japan, which even disappointed and confused the Moon administration’s supporters. Also, due to the politicization of history, the government paradoxically happened to take the burden of resolving historical issues. This eventually resulted in civil society organizations’ excessive politicization of certain historical issues meeting resistance. The Moon administration’s diplomacy with Japan is within the realm of pragmatic diplomacy to a certain level. As such, if the new administration excludes these strategies it would actually narrow down the spectrum of pragmatic diplomacy. Moreover, if it chooses to accept Japan’s one-track approach, it will face considerable domestic opposition. Moving forward, if the politicization of history gets toned down, the new government must remember the possibility that it might have to deal with massive resistance from civil society organizations.

Hwang: I would like to hear your outlook on further changes in relations with Japan after Yoon Suk-yeol’s inauguration.

Jo: I personally think we should avoid overly positive expectations of Korea-Japan relations under the Yoon administration. Of course, the new administration seems to be concerned with Korea-Japan relations. Cooperation between the US, Korea and Japan has become more significant due to the war in Ukraine and heightened animosity against China and North Korea. The Kishida administration’s leadership is maintaining stability with 50 to 60 percent support domestically. The Japanese public seems to have very low expectations regarding Korea-Japan relations. The Biden administration also is continuously stressing US-Korea-Japan relations. All these factors point to better relations between Korea and Japan. However, Korea’s pro- or anti-Japanese framing and the majority opposition and minority ruling party structure in parliament has a high possibility of constraining the implementation of specific policies toward Japan. Conservatives in Japan with former Prime Minister Abe have created a “historical war” framing which is now acting as a constraining factor on Prime Minister Kishida and Foreign Minister Hayashi in regard to bilateral relations. Since the two countries still have domestic political obstacles, both Korea and Japan should utilize well the momentum of Korea’s new government.

Lee: When we look into President-elect Yoon’s overall pledges and remarks made during his campaign, he mainly emphasizes setting a future oriented and cooperative relationship with Japan – not one buried under historical issues. He has consistently called for negotiating a comprehensive deal that covers all the current major issues of conflict between Korea and Japan. This includes compensation for forced labor, export regulations, interruption of GSOMIA, and so on. He also mentioned his intent to upgrade the Japan–South Korea Joint Declaration of 1998 between Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Moving forward, the Yoon administration’s diplomatic strategies are generally in pursuit of a comprehensive US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance; strengthened US-Korea-Japan security cooperation; gradual participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad); and cooperation on the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. In this sense, I see a high possibility for Korea-Japan relations to naturally turn into a cooperative one.

Hwang: Despite all these optimistic prospects, I guess we can still see restrictive factors from home and abroad.

Lee: Yes. First of all, we can think of Korea-Japan relations within the context of Northeast Asian geopolitics, where strategic competition between the US and China is intensifying. Transitions are taking place with the flow and balance of power. Additionally, as Korea-Japan relations have gone from vertical to horizontal, there is disharmony and maladjustment. Under structural limitations, this new dynamic cannot be easily and naturally overcome even with a new government in Korea. Furthermore, domestically Korea’s opposition party holds the majority of seats in parliament. In addition, civil rights and historical victims’ organizations continue to take a resolute stance against Japan. Thus, if the new administration takes a passive stance to Japan regarding historical issues, these organizations will denounce the new administration’s policies as a humiliation. This will give rise to anti-Japan public sentiment, and the new administration will have to undertake the task of persuading the public otherwise.

Hwang: What would be a specific roadmap for improving and normalizing Korea-Japan relations?

Lee: We need to reopen communication between leaders on both sides through a summit. So far, Korea and Japan have maintained abnormal relations for 11 years without a single summit. Since a meeting is crucial in recovering Korea-Japan relations, we must consider the possibilities of holding a summit close to the time of Yoon’s inauguration. I see either Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to Yoon’s inauguration ceremony or President-elect Yoon’s participation in the Quad summit scheduled in Tokyo at the end of May as likely to happen. The period after Korea’s local elections in June or Japan’s House of Councilors elections in July is also a feasible time. This shuttle diplomacy based on leaders’ restoration of trust and communication is critical. In case a summit of the two leaders is unavailable for some reason, they could start thinking of holding a trilateral summit. The summit can be one of either US- Korea-Japan, or Korea-China-Japan.

Jo: The Yoon administration’s policies toward Japan seem to deal with issues in a comprehensive way. However, negotiations and talks between Korea and Japan can reach a more effective outcome by using multiple gradual approaches, not a package deal. In particular, Korea and Japan must recognize that they must cover both areas of diplomacy and domestic politics at the same time. Accordingly, this approach would take some time. I also agree with the significance of Japan taking cautious moves regarding Korea-Japan relations until the House of councilors election, though the inauguration of Korea’s new government will be a worthy opportunity. From the Kishida administration’s view, President Biden’s visit to Japan will be a necessary opportunity for the election. In this context, I would like to recommend that Japan seek a similar method in improving its relations with Korea. Lastly, I am a bit worried about Japanese politicians who are insisting on very firm hardline policies toward historical and territorial issues.

Nam: The new government is planning on a “Joint Declaration 2.0” through an inclusive approach. However, the declaration back then was achieved through sharing a common goal, which was to build an East Asian community. Both Korea and Japan came to a consensus on planning a vision for peace, as well as solving and moving on from historical problems. That is why former President Kim Dae-jung assessed Japan as having contributed to the development of international society as a peaceful country after World War II when mentioning Japan’s postwar constitution. If the new administration strives to upgrade the Joint Declaration, how it does so will be its critical challenge. If these problems are not seriously dealt with, a final and irreversible crisis may once again strike Korea-Japan relations.

Hwang: It seems that the forced labor issue, the biggest area of conflict between Korea and Japan, must be resolved.

Jo: When it comes to the resolution of the forced labor issue, subrogation in a broad sense stands on extending the Declaration of Waiver of Compensation against Colony, also called the “YS Formula.” When we interpret subrogation within a wide spectrum, it is to require an apology and show of regret from Japan. Also, it is to have the Korean government provide material compensation to victims and the bereaved. Then it has a certain point of intersection with the YS Formula. If the Yoon administration can come up with a measure combining these two alternatives and present them to the people, I think it will be a more persuasive approach.

Lee: I think it is necessary to resolve the issue after the measures to withhold cashing through consultation with victims’ groups are taken. The scope of the conscription issue is quite wide, and I personally believe the cases won in the Supreme Court should be given priority for resolution. This means 50 billion to 300 billion won ($40 million-$242 million) should be paid to approximately 34 to 200 people. The ways to solve this conscription problem are through fundraising and subrogation through legislation. Also, they can be resolved through the International Court of Justice, the Arbitration Commission and the YS Formula. Considering the current situation, subrogation through legislation and the YS Formula might be possible.

Hwang: How about the sexual slavery issue?

Lee: I actually do not think it is the biggest issue at hand in terms of Korea-Japan relations. The essence of resolving the sexual slavery issue is restoring the dignity and honor of the victims through an apology from the Japanese government. To that end, we must solve it with a sexual slavery agreement fully involving both parties. Currently, the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery under the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family provides unpaid compensation to survivors and bereaved families. This compensation comes from a fund which includes 5.4 billion won from the Japanese government and 10.4 billion won from the Korean government’s gender equality funds. This fund also allows the implementation of symbolic projects for historical research, memorials, and future education about the issue. An example would be building and maintaining a historical museum for the victims.

Hwang: What other efforts can be made for better Korea-Japan relations?

Nam: The tenuous disputes today between Korea and Japan trace their roots to the system in 1965. In fact, the principle of compensation was transformed into a form of economic cooperation under the Park Chung-hee regime, which resulted in Korea losing its right to make further compensation claims. Within this context, the Yoon administration is trying to normalize Korea-Japan relations. Following the Moon administration’s oppositional approach, the system back in 1965 lingers as a reminder of conflicts between Korea and Japan. Moreover, as Korea has recently shifted to a “middle power” mentality, progressive cooperation and development in Korea-Japan relations may meet some difficulties. In this respect, I think that the Japanese government should consider these issues cautiously and make active efforts to solve these problems.

Lee: Korea needs to utilize a private-public mix. Those standing between Korea and Japan should be considered from the “1.5 track” perspective. In particular, it is important to take into account the experiences of public-private joint commissions or studies on a new era for Korea-Japan relations. A Korea-Japan public-private institute can find an efficient resolution for further improvement of bilateral relations. Additionally, we may be able to develop the Joint Declaration 2.0 while preparing for the 60th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations between Korea-Japan in 2025.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan. -- Ed.

By Choi He-suk (
Korea Herald Youtube