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Putting Japan–Korea Relations into Perspective: Lessons from the Pyeongchang Olympics

Asaba Yūki [Profile]


As the North Korean delegation returns triumphant from its “charm offensive” in Pyeongchang, Tokyo and Seoul should be thinking about stepping up their own public-diplomacy game with the goal of uniting to counter the growing North Korean threat.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang was a testimony to the enduring importance of South Korea to Japan’s security. It had been rumored that Abe would snub Seoul’s invitation after the government of President Moon Jae-in appeared to renege on a 2015 bilateral agreement declaring the “comfort women” issue “finally and irreversibly” resolved. But cooler heads prevailed. Now as in the past, “The Republic of Korea is Japan’s most important neighbor that shares strategic interests with Japan.”(*1) At an official reception in Pyeongchang, Abe posed with President Moon and US Vice President Mike Pence in a symbolic affirmation of the Japan-US-Korea security partnership.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and US Vice President Mike Pence pose for photographers during a reception marking the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 9, 2018. (© Jiji)

A Deepening Chill

Pyeongchang notwithstanding, a certain listlessness has pervaded the Abe administration’s South Korea diplomacy of late. In his annual policy speech to the Diet in January, the prime minister made only a terse and vague reference to Japan–South Korea relations, promising to “build on the international agreements between our two nations and on our mutual trust,” from “a future-oriented perspective.” He made no mention of Japan’s shared strategic interests with South Korea, as in the two previous years. Abe seems far more enthusiastic about “stepping up high-level visits between Tokyo and Beijing” and rebuilding the Japan-China “strategic partnership.”

For decades, strategic concerns have bound Japan and South Korea in a cooperative relationship despite historically rooted tensions and animosities. But those ties have frayed as the awareness of shared strategic interests (not to mention basic values) has dissipated. Unless our governments move quickly to reinforce those bonds, the consequences could be dire.

It is strange to recall the fanfare and lofty sentiments that prevailed 20 years ago, when Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung declared the dawn of a new “partnership towards the twenty-first century,” built on “such universal principles as freedom, democracy, and the market economy.” Today we find ourselves mired in mutual suspicion, each questioning whether the other can be trusted as a partner. In Japan, popular attitudes toward South Korea have shifted dramatically in recent years, causing the government to steer a narrow diplomatic course for fear of provoking a nationalist backlash at home. Of course, each country must pursue its own strategic interests, and there will always be points of divergence. But a sound foreign policy calls not merely for wise conflict management but also for active efforts to expand the scope of cooperation on the basis of shared interests and values.

When it comes to security, Japan and South Korea continue to be of critical importance to each another. A conflict on the Korean Peninsula could pose an existential threat to Japan. At the same time, the Japan-US Security Treaty and American F-35 stealth fighter jets deployed on the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture are vital to the defense of South Korea. Under the circumstances, our leaders must summon the political will to redefine Japan–South Korea relations in a security context—specifically, the Japan-US-Korea security triangle. They must take active steps to mold opinion at home and abroad and convince the public of the importance of the Japan–South Korea relationship at a time when its significance is no longer self-evident to all.

Moon’s Impulsive Overtures

Desperate for a peaceful backdrop to the Pyeongchang Olympics, Seoul has shown itself overly eager to engage with Pyongyang, and the North has taken full advantage of Moon’s weakness with its “charm offensive.” The coup de grace was Pyongyang’s proposal, conveyed by special envoy Kim Yo-jong (sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) for an inter-Korean summit meeting, to which President Moon quickly agreed in principle (later clarifying that it would hinge on the reopening of talks between Pyongyang and Washington). Even in South Korea, many fretted that Moon was losing sight of the important issues. Criticism mounted when it was learned that Moon never once raised the nuclear issue despite sitting with North Korean officials for hours over the course of three days.

Of course, Moon acknowledges that the two Koreas are past the point of “dialogue for its own sake.” He has said that the ultimate purpose of talks with the North is denuclearization. But talks do not have the same weight as negotiations. Washington’s position is that it will enter into full-fledged negotiations with Pyongyang only if the North takes measurable steps toward dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Under the circumstances, the South needs to be wary of weakening Washington’s bargaining position. Before setting off for Pyongyang, he should be sending special envoys to the United States (and to Japan) for close consultations to keep the three security partners on the same page and make it clear that no options—including the threat of military action—are off the table. If the “trump card” is removed from play at the outset, the game is up, and any chance of changing North Korea’s strategic calculation and behavior once and for all could vanish.

For the same reason, it is vital to maintain “maximum pressure” on all sides through consistent implementation of tough sanctions against the North. Unfortunately, just when those sanctions were finally beginning to bite, South Korea decided to make exceptions in order to facilitate the North’s participation in the Olympics. This makes it difficult for the UN Security Council and like-minded countries to call out China or Russia to enforce the existing sanctions, and to take further actions for preventing the circumvention of sanctions through ship-to-ship transfers and other loopholes.

Dialogue is pointless without continuous pressure backed by hard power. Will the United States and South Korea promptly hold the joint exercises they postponed for the duration of the Olympics? Or will Pyongyang induce Seoul to delay them further as a condition for an inter-Korean summit? President Moon is approaching the moment of truth, when he will be forced to decide which comes first—the obligations of allies or the bonds of ethnicity.

(*1) ^ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diplomatic Bluebook 2017.

  • [2018.03.01]

Professor, Faculty of International Studies and Regional Development, University of Niigata Prefecture; Adjunct Professor, University of North Korean Studies (Seoul). Specialist in comparative politics and international relations, focusing on South Korean politics and Japan–South Korea relations. Born in 1976 in Osaka. Graduated from Ritsumeikan University and received his PhD in political science from Seoul National University. Coauthor of Sengo Nikkan kankei shi (A Contemporary History of Japan–South Korea Relations since World War II), Japanese and Korean Politics: Alone and Apart from Each Other, and other works.

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