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CWA # 357, 4 October 2020

EAST ASIA
Japan- South Korea: Will there be a reset in bilateral relations under the new Japanese PM?

  Harini Madhusudan

Is the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea ready for a reset? Are there new factors today at the regional and international levels, that would make the two countries to look beyond their old problems?

Following the first telephonic interaction between Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korea's President Moon Jae In, since Suga took office, the leaders established the need to reset bilateral ties adding that, the two countries are important neighbours who must work together with the US to deal with the common issues that face the region. 
During the 20 minute discussion, the leaders emphasized on pandemic cooperation, easing of certain travel restrictions between the two countries, and the need to resolve the pending bilateral issues, including the crisis involving forced labourers. The interaction puts the need to try to find a middle-ground for regional stability as a priority. The two leaders also agreed to cooperate on Moon's Korean Peninsula Peace Process concerning the denuclearization of North Korea.

Is the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea ready for a reset? Are there new factors today at the regional and international levels, that would make the two countries to look beyond their old problems?

Neighbours with a complex historical and economic relationship
A Court in South Korea in October 2019, ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, renamed Nippon Steel, to pay 100 million won ($82,000) each to Korean victims of Japanese forced labour during World War II. A similar ruling in November 2018 was made against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Tokyo has consistently refused to honour this ruling citing the 1965 agreement. As a response to the ruling in 2019, Japan restricted exports of essential industrial material to South Korea, hitting the country's tech industry. 

In July 2019, trade tensions began with Japan's decision to place national security restrictions on the export of three critical chemicals for the production of semiconductors. Subsequently, both countries announced the removal of each other from the "white list" of trusted partners. The situation reached a point where an end to the intelligence-sharing pact was considered. 
South Korea and Japan share a complicated history with an animosity that dates back to the eighth century. During the Second World War, Imperial Japan forced people from the Korean island to work as labours in factories and mines; some of them were enlisted as soldiers when Japan was mobilizing for the War. Japan also sent thousands of women from across Asia during the World War, referred to as "comfort women." 

Imperial Japan came to an end in 1945. However, it was only in 1965 that the two countries through a treaty restored diplomatic ties after which the Japanese provided more than $800m (£620m) financial help. The deep-rooted public sentiments remain.

In August 2019, the relations between the two countries worsened when some citizens from South Korea called for boycotting Japanese goods. The strong sentiments expressed by the people led to the governments announcing further restrictions against each other. In South Korea, there is a strong sentiment, that Japan shows no remorse over its wartime aggression or mistreatment of the comfort women.

The two economies, however, are dependent on each other, specifically in the technology industries that are a crucial part of their growth. Japan and South Korea depend on each other for semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing devices, flat panel display manufacturing devices, fine chemical materials, and optical devices. Japan is a dominant producer of those materials which are vital in the making of memory chips and display screens that are key industry supplies to South Korea. Apart from electronic supplies, the two countries have extensive economic interdependence in travel, food and culture, entertainment, clothing and myriad business collaborations. 

Regional Stability and the new PM in Japan
East Asia has been defined by its economic strength while remaining relatively immune from the challenges that the other regions face.  In recent years, however, the BRI and North Korea's missile tests, are new security concerns. 

Both Japan and South Korea, have to look beyond the old issues and chart a new path. South Korea doubts the sincerity of Japan's apology for its wartime actions, while the latter claims the apologies and compensations have been made where they were due. Hence the challenge of the new leadership in Japan and for Moon Jae In, would be use the opportunity of the times to carve better relations in the region and face the imbalance of the US-China rivalry, and work towards a security framework against the threat from North Korea's missile program. 
When Yoshihide Suga took office, the popular opinion placed him as someone who would not alter the status quo. Known as the right-hand man of Shinzo Abe, Suga has had extensive experience and access to vital information that a chief secretary would have. Also, the timing of the change in leadership does not allow much space to explore possibilities. 
The immediate challenge for Suga would be to give positive results and get them quickly. 

In this context, solving a complicated rivalry with South Korea would be extremely important. Hence, the phone call between the two should be seen as more than just a courtesy.  Suga would be forced by the regional environment to deviate from an earlier strategy and find a middle-ground with South Korea. 


About the author

Harini Madhusudan is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru

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