Old disputes keep Japan, South Korea from forging stronger ties
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — There was little fanfare when a dozen retired South Korean air force officers visited Japan’s Air Defense Command Headquarters last month.
The courtesy call — sponsored by an old-boys club for retired Japanese generals — is the sort of thing that U.S. diplomats would like to see happen more often. They’re trying to persuade America’s two closest allies in northern Asia to cooperate and counter a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Unfortunately, sour relations between Japan and South Korea have festered for years over disputed off-shore islands and the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of Korean “comfort women” during World War II.
Last month, Japan’s most-read daily newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, added to the tumult by apologizing for the use of the term “sex slaves” in stories about the women, who were forced to work in brothels frequented by Japanese soldiers during the war.
While the apology is in line with conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to restore pride in Japanese history, it won’t win the Yomiuri Shimbun friends in South Korea, where some of the women have been campaigning for years to get compensation from Japan.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii, said both Japan and South Korea regard their relationship as extremely important, but he’s not optimistic about enhanced cooperation since each country thinks the ball is in the other’s court.
If relations were better, South Korea might be more inclined to act in concert with Japan on regional issues such as the North Korean threat, China’s military build-up and missile defense. As it is, efforts have stalled since the collapse of a joint intelligence-sharing agreement that was approved by Japan but shelved by South Korea amid vocal anti-Japanese opposition in 2012.
Likewise, Professor Hajime Izumi of the School of International Relations at the University of Shizuoka told reporters in Tokyo recently that meaningful trilateral cooperation with the U.S. is off the table.
“For any trilateral cooperation to take place, the most important would be vis-a-vis China and North Korea,” Izumi said. “South Korea cannot accept diplomatic cooperation against these countries with Japan.”
South Korea is only interested in training with the U.S. in relation to North Korea, he said, adding: “When it comes to China, South Korea doesn’t want to do joint drills with anyone.”
The only possibility for trilateral training is when other nations are involved so the participation is diluted, Izumi said.
In July, for example, top generals from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. held talks during the Rim of the Pacific exercises in Hawaii that involved personnel from 22 Pacific militaries, including China.
The lack of recent cooperation between South Korea and Japan is partly due to the evolution of their relationship, Izumi said.
“It used to be that Japan was the big power and Korea was a small nation,” he said. “Japan was advanced while South Korea was developing.”
In those days, Japan felt generous and South Korea had an inferiority complex.
“They would complain and make anti-Japanese comments, but in the end, they would beg Japan to solve the problem,” he said.
Rapid advances in South Korea’s economy and standard of living at a time when Japan’s economy has stagnated and its population is shrinking has put the two nations on the same level, Izumi said.
“Today there is no generosity from Japan, which can’t afford it, and South Korea thinks it doesn’t need Japan anymore,” he said.
Japan is being eclipsed by China, which has become South Korea’s biggest trade partner, he said.
Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye of South Korea signed off on the outlines of a free-trade agreement that is expected to take effect next year. Trade between the two nations was worth $230 billion last year, according to Korean data reported by The Wall Street Journal.
South Koreans also regard China as their most important partner when it comes to efforts to reunify with the North, Izumi said.
South Korea’s tilt toward China worries some in Japan.
“The best way to put the brake on the China tilt is to improve Japan-South Korea relations,” Izumi said, but added that South Korea first wants Japan to accept its interpretation of World War II history, with an emphasis on the Imperial Army’s poor behavior.
Still, there are some signs that South Korea still cares about its relationship with Japan.
South Korea went ahead with annual drills last month to defend the disputed off-shore islands — known as Dokdo by their South Korea administrators and Takeshima by Japan. But South Korea has shelved plans to build a shelter on one of the islands amid concerns that it could add to friction.
Bong Yong-shik of the The Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said the dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima is not in the same league as Japan’s conflict with China over the Senkaku Islands, where there have been numerous clashes between ships and aircraft.
Further, Japan shouldn’t feel slighted by improving South Korean–Chinese relations, he said.
“It’s not a zero-sum gain,” Bong said. “South Korea’s goal is to make as many good friends as possible — the U.S., Japan, China and Russia. It is not Korea choosing one country over another.”
South Korea’s trade with China is bigger than its combined trade with the U.S., Japan, and Russia. Still, South Koreans regard the U.S. as their top security partner and are aware of the limits of their relationship with China, he said.
When Xi spoke in Seoul in July and highlighted Korean and Chinese suffering at Japan’s hands, he was criticized for a selective view of history, which omitted the many times China invaded Korea, Bong said.
“South Korea is not blind,” he said.
South Korea and Japan still have a number of thorny issues to resolve, but the relationship encompasses far more than maritime and historical disputes, Bong said.
“There is no denying that the relationship now is at a low point in history, but this is a growing pain,” he said. “During the Cold War, these issues weren’t talked about because deterring communism was the priority. Now the countries are in a different international environment. This is a long-term process for these countries to come up with fundamental settlements to these issues.”
Stars and Stripes staffer Ashley Rowland contributed to this report.