Diplomatic Strategy Under New Leadership in Japan and South Korea


A change of government is always an excellent opportunity for new domestic and foreign policies. This is true in any time period, and in any country.

But when two countries undergo a change of government at more or less the same time, there is a danger that their respective policies can diverge. This can lead to serious misunderstandings. A certain amount of friction is therefore not uncommon.

This is the situation we are in now with regard to South Korea and Japan. What is the best way to avoid further misunderstandings and friction and ensure that relations remain on an even keel?

The Need for a Calm and Measured Approach

The first thing that requires a cautious approach from both sides concerns the past—or as the South Korean side likes to put it, problems relating to “a correct understanding of history.”

The leaders of both countries need to be absolutely clear that dealing with questions of history as diplomatic issues is in itself a question of “historical understanding.” This makes it vital to proceed in a calm and measured fashion in considering the rights and wrongs of addressing attitudes to history as an issue between the two nations. A prudent approach is essential. If political leaders allow their emotions to cloud the discussion, they will only end up making the friction worse than it already is.

Historical problems need to be addressed as part and parcel of discussions on the present situation and the outlook for the future. Otherwise, there is little merit in policy terms in striving for a shared understanding of history.

To achieve this, both countries need to ensure that these issues are kept apart from domestic politics. This means that there can be no more reckless remarks from Japanese politicians. The starting point for discussions should be the Murayama Danwa, which clearly expresses Japan’s stance in terms of its apology and remorse for the war.

The South Korean side needs to exercise prudence too. If they are going to treat the comfort women controversy and other issues of historical understanding as diplomatic problems to be addressed on an official level, they need to give careful consideration to the question of where and when the discussions should be held, and who is the right person to engage with the Japanese side.

The Importance of a Multilateral, Mutually Beneficial Strategic Partnership

Even with such efforts, however, it will be difficult for Japan and South Korea to overcome the historical problems completely. People have suggested all kinds of positive ideas, from “future-oriented thinking” to cultural exchanges between young people. The essential thing in the medium-term, however, is a shared diplomatic strategy in East Asia—or at the very least, a situation in which both countries have a deep understanding of each other’s strategy.

In this context, it is essential for both countries to work with the United States to come up with a unified strategy on North Korea. But matters do not stop there: deeper discussions on a medium-term outlook and strategy for the East Asia region as a whole are vital for the future security of the region. There is a need for deeper “third track” policy dialogue (involving business leaders and other nongovernmental entities), particularly on the question of how to deal with an emerging China.

More work also needs to be done on strategy discussions on the medium-term outlook for the Korean Peninsula (up to and including eventual reunification). In addition to Japan and South Korea, this forum should also include the United States and Australia. A three-party forum with Japan, China, and South Korea is another option that needs to be considered.

In concrete terms, what actions can be taken in concert with this dialogue? The number one priority must be an economic partnership agreement. Other topics requiring urgent attention are oil reserves, new energy development, the development of ocean resources (including sea farms and fisheries development), food security measures, and disaster prevention (including nuclear energy safety). There needs to be high-level policy coordination on all of these issues. Injecting new impetus into ministerial meetings between Japan and South Korea would be a good first step in the right direction.

If Japan and South Korea can build a multilateral, mutually beneficial strategic partnership, there is a good chance that they can overcome the problems of the past and deal with the Takeshima issue from a strategic perspective.

A More Diversified Diplomatic Approach

Next—and this is related to the subject of economic cooperation—Japan needs to do more to widen the scope of East Asian diplomacy. Although the government may be the primary actor in diplomatic affairs, it should not be the only one. With the understanding of the South Korean side, Japan should take the initiative in pushing forward involvement by other nongovernmental actors. Organizations that have a role to play include nongovernmental organizations, nonprofit organizations, citizens’ groups, and intellectuals and prominent public figures from both countries. Policy dialogue involving a wider range of participants along these lines should take place not just between Japan and South Korea, but across the wider East Asian region. Diversifying diplomacy in this way will help to avoid unnecessary politicization of the issues, and minimize the impact on international relations.

On social issues too, interaction and cooperation between citizens’ groups and nonprofit organizations from the two countries will make it easier to introduce a more international perspective to the discussion of issues like the environment, welfare, gender, education, and multiculturalism.

None of these things, however, can be realized without an appropriate level of understanding and respect between the new governments of the two countries. For this, a sense of trust is vital between the political leaders. It would be no exaggeration to say that one cause of the recent friction between Japan and its East Asian neighbors has been distrust between their national political leaders. The sooner a summit takes place between Japan and South Korea, the better.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 25, 2012.)

diplomacy Japan China politics South Korea Takeshima