Japan-South Korea ties thawing, but ′no full rapprochement′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 22.06.2015
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Japan-South Korea ties thawing, but 'no full rapprochement'

In an effort to improve bilateral ties, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea met for the first time in four years. Analyst James Brown talks to DW about the reasons behind the rapprochement.

Japan and South Korea celebrated their 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations on Monday, June 22. The foreign ministers of both countries, South Korea's Yun Byung-Se and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, also met for talks over the weekend in a bid to reinvigorate the strained bilateral relationship. The meeting between the two officials was the first of such kind in four years.

Ties between the two East Asian nations have been afflicted in the recent past by disagreements over history and conflicting territorial claims. On Monday, however, Japan's PM Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye reiterated their commitment to better relations. Both sides also agreed to hold regular foreign minister-level talks to boost their partnership.

In a DW interview, James D.J. Brown, a Japan expert at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, talks about the significance of the meeting in Tokyo, the current state of ties between Seoul and Tokyo and why he believes relations still face a host of long-term challenges, especially as public opinion in both countries is becoming ever more antagonistic.

DW: How important was this foreign minister meeting in terms of enhancing bilateral relations?

James D.J.Brown: The visit of South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to Tokyo is particularly significant because of its timing. It comes on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations. This agreement normalized bilateral ties between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that this trip follows a period of almost unprecedented bad relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The two countries have substantial economic ties and are both deeply concerned by the threat posed by North Korea.

James D. Brown Temple University Japan Campus

Brown: 'The visit of South Korean foreign minister follows a period of almost unprecedented bad relations between Seoul and Tokyo'

They also share the status of being democracies and major US allies. And yet, despite these factors, relations have seriously deteriorated in recent years and this current meeting is, in fact, the first time in four years that a South Korean foreign minister has visited Japan.

What was the outcome of the meeting?

It seems that four main things came out of the meeting. First, the foreign ministers agreed that the countries' leaders should hold a bilateral summit "at an appropriate time." This is significant because, since Prime Minister Abe and President Park assumed office in 2012 and 2013 respectively, they have yet to hold an official one-on-one meeting.

Second, both sides discussed working towards a new trilateral summit of the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and China. Meetings in this format were held annually from 2008 but were suspended after 2012 due to the deterioration in Tokyo's relations with both Seoul and Beijing. The hope now is that these trilateral summits can be resumed with the first of these being held before the end of 2015.

Third, it was decided that Japan and South Korea would cooperate to support each other's application for historical sites to be listed on UNESCO's World Heritage list. This might seem of only cultural significance but it is actually the most important of the foreign ministers' agreements. This is because Seoul had previously expressed opposition to Japan's proposed inclusion of Meiji-era industrial sites on the UNESCO list.

While Japan values these locations for being among the first examples of industrialization outside the West, South Korea had complained that the sites include areas where Korean forced labor had been used between 1910 and 1945. This opposition now appears to have been removed. In a quid pro quo, Japan will support a South Korean application to have UNESCO recognition extended to historic sites related to the ancient kingdom of Baekje.

Fourth, the foreign ministers are said to have discussed the issue of "comfort women." This is the term used to refer to women from Korea, China, and elsewhere who were compelled to work in Japanese military brothels during the 1930s and 40s. The Japanese and Korean sides made a commitment to continue discussions on this sensitive historical dispute at the director-general level.

Finally, quite apart from the foreign ministers' meeting, it is worth noting that the countries' leaders also made efforts to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. While the leaders themselves did not meet, Prime Minister Abe agreed to attend an event in Tokyo organized by the embassy of the Republic of Korea, whilst President Park took part in a Seoul event arranged by the Japanese embassy. This was clearly a symbolic step towards improving relations further.

Südkorea Inseln Dokdo

'The territorial dispute pertaining to the islands known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan is one of the main problems in the bilateral relationship'

What are the main factors driving Japan and South Korea closer together?

In answering this question it is first necessary to point out that current developments do not represent a full rapprochement in relations. It is rather the case that the Korean-Japanese relationship has been unusually hostile during the last three years and that it now seems to be returning to the mean.

It is difficult to be precise about why the improvement is happening at this time but what is certain is that the change has been made possible by a shift in Seoul's behavior. While Prime Minister Abe has consistently been in favor of holding a bilateral summit with President Park, until now the Korean side has been opposed.

Part of the explanation for the modification in Korean policy is likely to be the influence of the United States. This is because Washington is eager to encourage closer cooperation between its two key allies in East Asia. US pressure in this direction has, however, been fairly consistent over the past few years, yet it had not previously secured a significant breakthrough.

As such, this cannot be the only explanation. Another factor is likely to be economic. With economic growth rates declining, concern is spreading about the strength of the Korean economy. These worries may have spurred the Korean leadership to give new priority to relations with Japan - an economy that, despite its persistent weaknesses, remains the world's third largest.

What role is China's assertive stance in the region playing in the rapprochement of Japan and South Korea?

While countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines have been encouraged to seek closer relations with Japan due to the perceived threat of China, the situation with South Korea is significantly different. Despite relying upon the United States for its security, South Korea has increasingly good relations with the People's Republic of China.

There are relatively few problems in their political relationship and they have strong economic ties. In particular, China is South Korea's primary trading partner and the countries signed a free trade agreement in 2014. Seoul also moved quickly to sign up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Chinese-led financial institution that was shunned by the United States and Japan.

Despite these burgeoning ties with China, South Korea generally seeks to maintain balanced relations within the region. This being so, Seoul may have calculated that, after an extended period of moving closer to China, it was time to rejuvenate relations with Japan.

It is also worth highlighting that since November 2014 China itself has looked to bring about a slight warming in ties with Japan. In this sense, it could be said that, by maintaining its hard-line stance, South Korea was becoming somewhat of an outlier in its dealings with Japan.

What are still the main contentious issues between South Korea and Japan?

One of the main problems in the bilateral relationship is the countries' territorial dispute. This pertains to the islands known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan. Administered by Korea, the islands are also claimed by Japan. While insignificant in terms of landmass, this territorial issue has enormous symbolic importance.

In particular, the taking of Dokdo/Takeshima by Japan in 1905 is seen in Korea as marking the beginning of Japan's period of imperial rule. The entire Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan five years later, in 1910. As such, Tokyo's continued claim to sovereignty over the islands is viewed as an indication of the persistence of an unrepentant colonial-era attitude within Japan.

The second major issue is that of the so-called "comfort women," who were forcibly recruited to provide sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army. Although the Japanese government issued a statement in 1993 formally acknowledging the involvement of the Japanese military in the exploitation of these women, the Korean side believes that Japan needs to go further in offering apologies and compensation. Above all, they reject the Japanese government's claim that all issues related to this topic were settled when relations were normalized in 1965.

What are the main reasons for the deterioration of ties in the past decades?

On the Korean side, the adoption of a harder line towards Japan actually owes much to democratization. Prior to the first free elections in 1987, Korean leaders were able to ignore larger public opinion and pursue a relatively conciliatory policy towards Japan.

This was deemed necessary to develop the Korean economy and such thinking helps explain Seoul's then willingness to agree to the terms of the 1965 treaty which normalized relations. Since democratization, however, Korea's Japan policy has been consistently constrained by the hostility of much of the Korean public. This has meant that Korean governments have often found it necessary to create greater distance in the relationship with Japan than they would ideally like.

Südkorea Japan 50. Jubiläum der Normalisierung der Verhältnise

South Korean President Park took part in an event arranged by the Japanese embassy in Seoul to mark the countries' 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties

By contrast, within Japan the issue is not so much public opinion as the actions of the political elite. Above all, the decision of Japanese leaders to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine provokes outrage in Korea. This Shinto shrine honors the souls of all those who died in the service of Imperial Japan, including those of 14 class-A war criminals.

Further serious tensions are created by those in Japan, including Prime Minister Abe, who have appeared to raise doubts about the evidence of the coercive role of the Japanese authorities in the "comfort women" system.

How do you see bilateral ties developing in short and mid-term?

In the short-term, relations between Korea and Japan have the opportunity to improve further. There is the danger that disruption will be caused in mid-August when Prime Minister Abe will make a statement on the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.

This statement is unlikely to go as far as many in Korea hope and could therefore lead to some frictions. After this, however, there should be the chance for better ties to resume, especially if it is indeed possible for a bilateral summit, as well as trilateral summit with China, to be held in the near future.

Longer term, however, it is difficult to be positive about Korean-Japanese relations. The territorial dispute and the "comfort women" issue remain serious problems and there is little prospect of finding resolution.

More worrying still, public opinion in both countries is becoming ever more antagonistic. In such circumstances, it will be extremely difficult for the positive trend in bilateral relations to be maintained for any extensive length of time.

James D.J. Brown is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus.