North Korea threat forces South Korea and Japan to resume coordination
South Korea-Japan relations appear to be thawing as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe met in China earlier in the week for a trilateral summit. This marks the end of a 15-month hiatus in formal dialogue. That period was marked by the two sides trading charges over the forced labour issue and trade. It will be recalled that from autumn last year South Korean courts have issued a series of rulings against Japanese companies relating to forced labour extracted from Koreans before and during World War II. For example, on October 30 last year the South Korean Supreme Court confirmed previously existing judgments which ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation to pay compensation to Korean plaintiffs.
This irked the Japanese side which insists that all claims were settled as per the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea. That agreement provided that Japan shall supply to the Republic of Korea $300 million in grants and extend loans up to $200 million and that problems concerning property, rights and interests of the two parties and their nationals are settled completely and finally.
Then in July this year, Japan tightened the approval process for shipment of photoresists, hydrogen fluoride and fluorinated polyimide – all materials required in the manufacturing of semiconductors, smartphones and television screens – to South Korea. This was widely seen as retaliation for the Korean court rulings and plunged bilateral ties to their lowest point in years, hitting trade, tourism and even security cooperation. In fact, Seoul came close to ending a military intelligence sharing pact seen to be useful in countering North Korea’s military threat.
But it is the very same North Korean threat that appears to be softening positions between Seoul and Tokyo. The China meet between Moon and Abe focussed on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. This is particularly relevant after Pyongyang issued an end-of-the-year deadline for the US to soften its stance on stalled nuclear talks. In fact, the Stalinist regime has ominously hinted at a ‘Christmas gift’ for the US which many took to be a possible intercontinental ballistic missile test. Plus, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN earlier this month declared that denuclearisation was off the table and that talks with the US were no longer needed. All of this appears to have reminded Seoul and Tokyo of the need to cooperate to counter the North Korean threat. In the run-up to the Moon-Abe meet, Japan partially eased the trade restrictions it had imposed by allowing bulk permit for one company to ship photoresist to its business partner in South Korea.
Meanwhile, South Korean lawmakers submitted a bill last week to solicit donations from Korean and Japanese firms, as well as the public, to secure funds to be used as compensation for the forced labour cases. That the donations were to be voluntary was aimed at allaying Japanese concerns that its firms would be forced to pay the compensation money – Tokyo, however, has rejected this proposal. But there is no escaping the fact that South Korea and Japan have to cooperate and cannot let tensions in their relationship fester. Apart from the North Korea issue, South Korea and Japan have significant economic, tourism and people-to-people interdependencies that just cannot be wished away. Therefore, there is no option for the two countries but to collaborate.
It is also true that Moon, at some level, was fanning anti-Japan sentiments to get domestic support for his North Korea policy and divert attention from a slowing South Korean economy. On the other hand, Abe too has positioned himself as a strong, nationalist leader who isn’t afraid to take bold measures on the foreign policy front. These prevailing political sentiments in Seoul and Tokyo were furthering the tensions between the two sides. But there are limits to political populism in both South Korea and Japan. And the reality of the North Korean issue appears to have reminded the leaders of that.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.