What is the future of Japan-Korea Relations?

September 29, 2022

Historical issues now a struggle over identity; aiming for a better future by creating a common one

First to speak in Session 2 was Keio University Professor Emeritus Masao Okonogi, who laid out the background for the coming discussion from a Japanese perspective. He stated that over the past ten years, Japan and South Korea have been continued to be at the mercy of the "trap of historical issues." Okonogi expressed his opinion that discussions over these issues do not result in investigations of historical truths, but have in fact devolved into a struggle over national pride and identity. As long as that is true, he said, the conflict between the two countries about historical issues will not be resolved even if the facts are brought to the fore. At the same time, Okonogi has sensed "something strange" in the stances of both countries, pointing to signs of change.

"More than anything else, changes in the strategic environment enveloping both countries have made it more difficult for them to continue arguing," he said.

He also pointed to the speech by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on August 15, the country's National Liberation Day, which shows hope for the future.

"We will be able to solve the historical problems that exist between our two countries when Korea-Japan relations move toward a common future and a common mission for our era, based on our shared universal values," Yoon said.

Okonogi concluded by saying that while Japan and South Korea have been engaged in an identity-based struggle, they share a number of values: common ideals of freedom and democracy, both are allies of the US, and both are trapped in the middle of the US-China conflict. For a better future, Okonogi believes that the two countries could follow an approach already successfully implemented elsewhere by, "creating a common identity for their relationship in the same way as Germany and France."

Showing Japan how Korea is changing even as people believe that "Japan = Cold, Korea = Hot" ? sharing broader perspectives to improve the relationship

Former Republic of Korea Ambassador to Japan Shin Gak-su took the podium to present a South Korean perspective of the issues at hand. Shin also noted that signs of improvement in the relationship are visible, there is an imbalance in enthusiasm in the two countries, which Shin characterizes as "cold" in Japan and "hot" in South Korea. He called on Japanese participants to take a closer look at how things are changing in South Korea, and stated that the situation the countries find themselves in requires them to share a broader perspective by changing the framing of issues being addressed: from past to future, from bilateral to multilateral, from emotion to reason, and from conflict to cooperation. He also pointed out the importance of non-governmental actors such as younger citizens and other members of civil society.

Shin pointed to some specific measures that could be taken to rebuild trust, such as by resuming visa-free entry procedures, expanding interpersonal exchanges, and increasing cooperation in economic efforts, but stated that historical reconciliation should be continued using a process decoupled from the political side.

Bonding over shared status as maritime nations; diplomacy's role is to resolve the forced labor issue in accordance with international law

Waseda University Professor Shinsuke Sugiyama has served as Japan's Ambassador to the United States and the government's Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, and he provided a sharp response to Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo's question of whether Japan and South Korea relations have a future.

"Of course, they do. It would be impossible for them to choose otherwise. The very question 'do they have a future' is an unreasonable one," Sugiyama said. He proposed that the base for the future relationship between the two countries could be found in both operating as "maritime nations."

"Japan and the US already have that status, and South Korea should work to become a maritime nation in the future," Sugiyama said, suggesting that this would lead to stronger cooperation between Japan, the US, and South Korea.

Sugiyama also addressed the decision made by South Korea's Supreme Court about the 2018 forced labor lawsuit. More than the question of compensation, he questioned the court's conclusion asserting the illegality of Japan's colonial rule without a basis in international law, stating that "it is the role of diplomats to find wise solutions through international laws."

"That being said, both countries efforts are lagging," he added.

Many issues in common; transforming the relationship qualitatively by tackling simpler issues gradually

Noh Woong-rae is a Democratic Party Member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, and he expressed his opinion that Japan-US-South Korea cooperative efforts to denuclearize North Korea are progressing, but in order to promote further cooperation, it is essential to improve bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan. The Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration signed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and President Kim Dae-jung presented a comprehensive vision for the future relationship between the two countries, and Noh believes it necessary to return to the spirit of that agreement by finding commonalities.

"South Korea and Japan face many common issues, from North Korea's nuclear weapons to climate change, to their COVID-19 responses, and to needing to find measures to deal with declining populations," he said. Noh believes that gradually working up from simpler issues is the answer.

"We should be bringing this feud to an end little by little," Noh argued. "The days when one side's misfortune made the other side happy are over. As our economic relationship becomes more equal, it is now time to transform our relationship in a qualitative way."

With the opening remarks concluded, the discussion was begun.

Japanese distrust remains, but a response to the Yoon administration's initiatives should be made

Kentaro Sonoura, a Member of the House of Representatives and former State Minister for Foreign Affairs, spoke about distrust on the Japanese side.

"People don't trust that if an agreement is made with South Korea, it won't be overturned when a new government takes over, as occurred with the Comfort Women Agreement," he explained. "That doesn't mean it's good for things to stay this way. Before focusing on the bilateral relationship, I think we should try to restore trust using multilateral options like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF)."

In response to the statement about Japanese distrust, a number of attendees from South Korea stated that it is also necessary for Japan to make concessions.

Seoul National University Professor Shim Kyu-sun pointed out that the clash of national pride has turned the historical issues into future issues, making it more difficult to find a solution. At the same time, Shim believes that there is a gap in how critical the two governments see this problem. The South Korean government continues to work to improve relations even while public sentiment is against Japan, and Shim would like to see a similar change in attitude on the part of Japan.

Regarding the historical issues, Noh Woong-rae responded to Shinsuke Sugiyama's opening remarks by stating that South Korea respects not only international law, but also universal values, with human rights above all. Noh continued by suggesting that if the situation is no longer resolvable by South Korea alone, Japan should soften its stance to help find a solution.

Seoul National University Professor Lee Jong-hwan agreed, stating that South Korea cannot handle this issue alone. Lee expressed worry that if the stubborn attitude towards the Yoon administration continues, there may be a repeat of what happened during the time of President Lee Myung-bak, whose administration was initially friendly towards Japan only to become anti-Japanese at the end. Lee warned that the risk of this is particularly high now, as the current South Korean government has few personnel with extensive knowledge of Japan.

Shin Gak-su pointed out that Japan's recognition of the historical issues has not been consistent, and argued that a unilateral application of justice is not appropriate just because one thinks that the other side isn't keeping its promises. Shin added that future relations between the two countries will become even more difficult if a solution can't be found during the Yoon administration, before expressing his hope that Japan will respond to South Korea's initiatives.

Former Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Russia Wi Sung-rak described the joint South Korean government and private sector council that is discussing solutions to the issue of former forced laborers. Wi explained that the council has no real power or public support, and making it function properly will require bipartisan political and public support, which will take time. Wi asked the Japanese participants for their understanding of the situation.

Professor Hideki Okuzono of the Graduate School of International Relations at the University of Shizuoka recalled that the Moon Jae-in administration, which rose from the political change born out of the so-called "Candlelight Demonstrations," seemed to have no desire to go against the flow to improve Japan-South Korea relations. Okuzono actually has hopes for the Yoon administration, which is free from similar political restraints. Analyzing Yoon's National Liberation Day speech, he praised President Yoon for not viewing the historical perspective through "anti-Japanese lenses," and for positioning Japan on the "same side" as South Korea as liberal democracy faces a crisis around the world. Okuzono added that South Korea should avoid taking an uncompromising approach towards the Japanese government, and instead begin working towards building an environment in which the relationship can improve.

Yasuyo Sakata is a Professor in the Faculty of Global Liberal Arts at Kanda University of International Studies, and he too had high praise for President Yoon's National Liberation Day speech, in which Yoon said, "In the past, we had to unshackle ourselves from the political control imposed upon us by Imperial Japan so that we could regain and defend our freedom. Today, Japan is our partner as we face common threats that challenge the freedom of global citizens."

Sakata argued that Japan should take that speech very seriously. He also noted that the public opinion polls showed an increase in the number of people in both countries who see the other as "a democratic country" with regards to the poll question dealing with government and social systems in the other country.

"We have come to a shared understanding. We should work with the Yoon administration to create a "Obuchi-Kim 2.0" and build a more mature relationship as developed countries," Sakata said.

The Quad is extremely inclusive, and the concept should be shared with South Korea

The discussions included a number of remarks about concrete means of cooperation, and one exchange touched upon the new four-country cooperative framework between Japan, the US, Australia, and India known as the Quad.

Korea National Defense University Professor Park Young-Joon agreed with Shinsuke Sugiyama's opening remarks that South Korea should aim to become a maritime nation, but pointed out that Japan does not seem enthusiastic about including South Korea in the Quad, and noted that a recent proposal in Japan for a "Western Pacific Union" also did not include South Korea. Park wondered whether South Korea is being neglected in both Japan's national security strategy and its annual defense white paper.

In response, both Sonoura and Sugiyama pointed to the Quad's vision for a "free and open Indo-Pacific." The framework is highly inclusive, which means that if South Korea were to meet the conditions, it would not be excluded.

Keio University Faculty of Law Professor Junya Nishino also recognized that South Korea is a part of strategy-making for the region, and that the Quad concept is one that can be easily shared.

Younger people with fewer mental reservations will play a key role

Opinion polls have shown that younger people in both countries have a positive impression of each other, and during the discussions, it was suggested that the opinions of those younger people would be key to improving Japan-South Korea relations in the future.

Keio University Faculty of Law Professor Emeritus Yoshihide Soeya drew the conclusion that a "lack of motivation" is why cooperation between the countries has not yet progressed despite the variety of options available. He did however note that he has high expectations.

"Cooperation should move forward without a fuss and without regard for any bad feelings remaining between the two countries. It is there that younger people, who have fewer mental reservations, will play a key role," he said.

Bringing the discussion to a close, Sohn Yul agreed that historical issues have turned into a struggle of national pride and identity, and stated further that the two governments need to clearly distinguish between discussions meant to rebuild trust and discussions on historical issues. Sohn also agreed with the statement that it shouldn't be only one side that is taking the initiative to improve the relationship.

Sohn pointed out that a longer-term perspective is needed as, even if the issues surrounding the forced laborers were to be resolved, the South Korea-Japan relationship will not immediately advance to a new stage. Sohn stated that this is why he has high hopes for the younger generations before he brought the session to a close.

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