What were Japan's military strengths and weaknesses

Japan-South Korea relations plummeting

Japan-South Korean relations have hit rock bottom since they normalized in 1965. The relationship is so tense that at the end of June Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō refused to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in for bilateral talks at the G20 summit in Osaka. Tokyo's decision on July 1 to restrict the export of three materials to South Korea also caused a stir. These are chemical products that are required for the manufacture of smartphone displays and semiconductors and for which Japan dominates the world market. In addition, Tokyo decided on August 2 to remove the neighboring country from its "white list" of preferred countries that are largely exempt from so-called catch-all export controls for sensitive goods. Japan justified these steps with knowledge that South Korea had supplied materials, which are also required for weapons production, to third countries without a permit. In addition, there have been no bilateral talks on export controls since 2016.

The real reason for the tightened export controls is likely to be the displeasure of the Japanese government about the position of South Korea in the dispute over the compensation of former Korean forced laborers. Tokyo wants to get Seoul to give in. In a statement on the tightening of trade controls, Prime Minister Abe himself addressed the issue of forced labor: Since South Korea does not adhere to international agreements in solving this problem, Tokyo must assume that it will also make its commitments with regard to the trade in sensitive goods break. South Korea announced that it is having Tokyo's export controls checked by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and that Japan will also be removed from its list of preferred trading partners who enjoy preferential treatment in trade.

However, the bilateral relationship was already marked by tensions under the last two South Korean governments under Park Geun-hye and Lee Myun-bak. For example, the Park administration had no summits with Tokyo for almost three years. Japanese and Korean experts and scholars are at a loss when asked how to stop the current downward spiral in relationships.

In the past, too, Japan and Korea argued over the interpretation of their shared history. Reconciliation is made more difficult by the fact that the national identities of both countries are sometimes marked by explicit resentment. Japan is the main negative point of reference in South Korea's modern self-image, and anti-Japanese attitudes are therefore an integral part of South Korean nationalism. In contrast, the Japanese right-wing nationalists in particular regard their country as a proud nation that is too often criticized for its past by Korea in particular.

Both countries have often argued about their views on history. But in recent years mutual distrust has grown to an unknown extent. Although both states are key US allies and key democracies in Northeast Asia, government officials and independent observers on both sides increasingly doubt that the other country is guided by similar values ​​and strategic goals. Current domestic and regional developments also put a strain on the relationship.

Escalating dispute and growing distrust

Two issues have dominated the Japanese-Korean controversy in recent months: the issue of compensation for former Korean slave laborers who were recruited under Japanese colonial rule, and a military incident in December 2018.

The conflict over compensation issues is particularly serious. It was triggered by the rulings of the Korean Supreme Court in October and November 2018, which oblige the Japanese companies Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay individual damages to former slave laborers. There are currently further legal proceedings against Japanese companies, which affect a total of around 1,000 former forced laborers. Tokyo, on the other hand, maintains that when the Basic Treaty was signed in 1965, an agreement to regulate claims for damages was concluded. According to this, Japan provided economic aid in the amount of 300 million dollars and provided construction loans in the amount of 200 million dollars, while South Korea, in return, regarded claims from the colonial era as settled. According to the Japanese understanding, the agreement encompassed claims from both the state and the private sector. The subject of forced labor was explicitly discussed in the negotiations and, up to the court rulings in 2018, Seoul had also taken the view that the corresponding claims had been satisfied with the agreement.

The Supreme Court of South Korea now argues that the 1965 treaty only regulated intergovernmental, not individual claims. This view is in line with a trend in international law in recent decades towards improved individual legal protection and greater consideration of human rights. The Korean plaintiffs are currently on trial with the aim of having the assets of the convicted Japanese companies confiscated in Korea in order to finance compensation payments. Japan protested against this practice and asked Korea to agree to arbitration under the 1965 treaty. The Moon government has not responded to this proposal or made any move to stop the seizure of the assets.

From Tokyo's point of view, Seoul is breaking with the 1965 treaty and thereby undermining the legal basis of bilateral relations. The government in Seoul, on the other hand, argued that the rulings did not fundamentally call into question the 1965 treaty, but only concerned its scope. She appeals to Japan as a democracy to show respect for the division of powers in Korea. Tokyo is considering taking the dispute to the international court, which would require Seoul's approval. Japanese and Korean scientists doubt that Seoul would be ready for this. Korean researchers and journalists point out, among other things, that given their old age, the victims could no longer be expected to have a long international process. Independent Japanese experts, on the other hand, believe Korea will refuse to refer the case because it would set a precedent. This in turn could put Seoul under pressure to have the territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Dokdo and Takeshima Islands also resolved by an international court.

In the absence of any other leverage, Japan has now opted for more stringent export controls and thus - similar to the USA, China and other countries - used trade policy instruments to achieve diplomatic goals, an approach that has met with international criticism. This criticism may be justified; But Tokyo's measures also show how powerless it feels against current Korean politics. The move is well received by the Japanese population - it was certainly not inconvenient for the Abe government before the upper house elections on July 21. However, it is questionable whether the economic pressure will induce Seoul to give in. It is more likely that the Korean public will continue to turn against Japan and that the fronts will harden on both sides.

The two countries led a second bitter dispute over a maritime incident that occurred on December 20, 2018 within Japan's exclusive economic zone. According to Japanese information, a South Korean warship, which was busy with the sea rescue of a North Korean ship, pointed its fire control radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft, which was observing the process. Seoul rejected the allegation and in return accused the Japanese plane of approaching the Korean ship on a threatening flight path and at low altitude. The defense ministries of both countries tried to substantiate their view of the incident with videos.

The question of guilt cannot be clarified on the basis of public sources. Above all, the incident underlines the extent of mutual distrust. Instead of discussing what was happening at the working level and - regardless of the question of guilt - reaching an agreement on how such incidents can be prevented in the future, Japanese and South Korean representatives accused themselves of lying. There was speculation on both sides about reasons why the other side might be interested in such an incident. Korean journalists and scholars argued that the Abe government provoked the incident in order to increase pressure on Seoul in the forced labor dispute and to increase popular approval ratings. Japanese researchers, on the other hand, speculated that the South Korean ship had not carried out any sea rescue, but was in fact engaged in illegal activities that the Japanese side was not supposed to discover. For example, the Moon government, which is looking for better relations with North Korea, may have wanted to deliver funds to the North.

Social and domestic political developments

Current social and domestic political tensions make it more difficult for both sides to negotiate compromises in historical disputes. In principle, there has been a generation change in the political elites of both countries over the past few years. In Japan, politicians who were born in the post-war period are now setting the tone. How they deal with the past is, to a much lesser extent, shaped by personal war and post-war experiences and direct feelings of guilt. They expect Korea to pursue a more pragmatic policy that looks to the future rather than backwards. In addition, nationalist tendencies among Japanese politicians have increased. Abe himself is a very controversial figure in Korea; he is considered a revisionist who glossed over the atrocities of the colonial power Japan and wanted to restore the island nation's military to its former strength.

On the Korean side, politics is increasingly influenced by the so-called "386 generation". This generation, which was born in the 1960s and was part of the democracy movement at universities in the 1980s, is very critical of Korean post-war history and the period of dictatorship. The processing of events from that time - including the normalization treaty with Japan - is a central concern for her. This is especially true of representatives of the progressive camp such as President Moon, who himself was imprisoned in the 1980s for participating in protests. While the desire for clarification and reappraisal has grown in Korea, the new generation of Japanese elites, who represent more nationalistic attitudes than their predecessors, are looking more towards the future.

Domestically, South Korea continues to struggle with the aftermath of the scandal over the previous government under Park Geun-hye. Park, who was removed from office in March 2017 after allegations of corruption, has been criticized in Korea for her opaque style of government. She made decisions without involving advisors and cabinet members or considering public opinion. Between October 2016 and March 2017 there were mass protests against Park, the so-called "Candle Light Protests", in which over a million Koreans took to the streets in Seoul alone. A key promise made by President Moon Jae-in, who was newly elected in May 2017, was therefore transparent government practice. The new leadership will pursue a policy that is not involved in "bad business" and above all is driven "by the people" and not a government for "particular interests and elites", as stated in the five-year government program of August 2017. For the Moon government, which wants to regain the citizens' trust in politics, broad public approval is therefore of great importance.

Park's policy on issues affecting Japanese-Korean history was also criticized. Park apparently interfered with the judiciary and persuaded then Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae to postpone the sentencing of the forced labor trials in order to avoid diplomatic difficulties with Tokyo. With his reference to the separation of powers and his refusal to prevent the imminent confiscation of Japanese assets, President Moon is now positioning himself against political interference with the judiciary. If he were to ignore the judgments, this could trigger a constitutional crisis.

Park was also publicly criticized for the agreement that her government negotiated with Japan in 2015 in the dispute over the so-called "comfort women" who were forced into prostitution in Japanese military camps during the Second World War. Tokyo had pledged to pay one billion yen (about 7.6 million euros at the time) to a South Korean foundation for the victims, and the foreign minister had made a speech apologizing for the suffering. In addition, both sides had agreed to end the dispute "definitively and irrevocably". Although the majority of the surviving victims accepted payments from the foundation (namely 34 of the 46 women still alive), displeasure with the settlement grew among the Korean public. According to a survey from July 2017, which the think tanks Genron NPO and East Asia Institute commissioned, around 56 percent of Koreans said that they »disagree« with the agreement. 75 percent of those questioned were also of the opinion that the comfort women dispute was "not settled".

Moon, who during the election campaign had spoken out in favor of resuming negotiations on the matter of forced prostitution, commissioned a commission of experts to investigate the process of drawing up the agreement after he took office. In December 2017, it came to the conclusion that the Park government had conducted the negotiations in secret and without the participation of victims. Moon decided to continue to respect the agreement formally (for example in the way that Seoul does not criticize Tokyo in multilateral forums because of the "comfort women" issue), but at the same time he dissolved the "Reconciliation and Healing" foundation, which as central pillar for the implementation of the 2015 agreement. In addition, the Moon government provided funds in July 2018 to replace the Japanese payments made, even if it remains unclear what should be done with the Japanese funds, because Tokyo does not want to take them back.

There are other reasons for the Moon government's tough stance on Japan. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) exert a strong influence on politics in South Korea, above all the so-called Korean Council (short for Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan). This organization, which was founded in 1990 to represent the interests of former "comfort women", is regarded as a veto player in all attempts to find a balance in this controversy with Japan. She is also said to have mobilized public opposition to the 2015 deal. In December 2011, the Korean Council erected a statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to commemorate the fate of the »comfort women«. Tokyo sees this act as a breach of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, according to which the host country is obliged to protect the dignity of consular missions abroad. The Korean Council has since erected more statues, including abroad. As of 2017, other NGOs have also erected similar memorials to commemorate the victims of forced labor. In May 2018, activists tried to erect a slave labor statue in front of the Japanese consulate general in Busan city, but this was prevented by a large police presence.

Domestic political calculations may also play into the anti-Japanese stance of the Moon government. The political divide between liberal and conservative parties that characterizes Korea (known as the South-South division, nam-nam cold) has deepened in recent years. In the face of falling public approval rates, Moon depends on the cooperation of the opposition to advance important projects, such as the reform of the electoral system or his North Korea agenda. With the confrontational line towards Japan, it is currently easy for the Korean parties to show solidarity and thus bridge the political divide. After a meeting with five party leaders on July 18, Moon announced that Seoul's reaction to Japan's tightened export controls would be formulated in non-partisan cooperation.

With the dissolution of the “Reconciliation and Healing” foundation, the Moon government de facto suspended the agreement on the “comfort women” dispute and thus broke an intergovernmental agreement. In recent years there had already been a growing number of voices in Japan criticizing the fact that Japanese gestures of reconciliation towards Korea fell into a "bottomless pit" and were never accepted as sufficient. The representatives of this position feel confirmed by the policy of the Moon government. This also changes Japan's domestic political discourse on Korea. While right-wing nationalist actors have only marginally heard their views in the past, anti-Korean opinions, including calls for a "break in relations" (dankō) with Korea, have now met with a great response from the public.

Some observers express the hope that Japan-South Korean relations will recover when Abe and Moon leave office. However, it is unclear to what extent their successors would be prepared to provide new impetus. It is likely that the next Korean president will also belong to the progressive camp. The conservative parties, which traditionally place more value on security cooperation with Japan, have been weakened after the Park Geun-hye scandal. In addition, they too would hardly be able to oppose the court rulings in the case of the former forced laborers. On the Japanese side, Prime Minister Abe has already taken a high domestic political risk with the "comfort women" agreement. After the failure of this agreement, according to popular belief among Japanese scientists, politicians can no longer afford to make further concessions to Korea. The fronts have hardened on the Japanese and Korean sides.

Strategic distrust

Different strategic perspectives on the region put an additional strain on bilateral relations. The common concern to deter North Korea has always been an important and sufficient reason for the security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo in the past. But the Moon and Abe governments view each other's dealings with North Korea with great suspicion. For Moon, improving relations with Pyongyang is a foreign policy priority. The Prime Minister met North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un for three summit talks in 2018. The Abe government, on the other hand, insists on a strict policy of sanctions against North Korea and is watching South Korea's advances with great concern. Tokyo fears Seoul could make concessions to Pyongyang that run counter to Japanese security interests. On the other hand, Seoul sees Tokyo's tough stance on Pyongyang as an obstacle to its rapprochement policy. How contradicting the assessments of the two countries are is clear from their white papers: While the Japanese white paper of August 2018 describes the North Korean missile and nuclear programs as an "unprecedented serious and immediate threat," Seoul deleted in its white paper, which was published in January Published in 2019, describing North Korea as an "enemy".

Both sides also took different approaches when dealing with China. Tensions related to this were particularly evident during the reign of Park Geun-hye. Park intended to drive a wedge between North Korea and China by working to improve relations with Beijing. Tokyo, which perceives the expansion of Chinese influence in the region as a threat, saw this course of the South Korean leadership as a shift in the direction of China. Scientists and government officials in Japan feared that Seoul could accept China as the leading regional power instead of the US. The park government, in turn, rejected Tokyo's hard line towards Beijing as being ineffective. China is important to Seoul not only because of its influence on North Korea, but also as an economic partner. Bilateral trade with the Middle Kingdom offers South Korea great opportunities, but it also brings with it dependencies and corresponding vulnerabilities.

Since around 2017, the Japanese and Korean perceptions of China have converged again somewhat. After the Sino-Korean dispute over the deployment of American missile defense systems (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD) in Korea in 2016/17, Seoul's attitude towards Beijing has become more critical. The Japanese view of China, on the other hand, has improved somewhat. Both sides have tried to stabilize their relationship over the past three years. Nonetheless, there are still concerns in Tokyo that China will dominate the region and Seoul will accept this. Seoul and Tokyo's different approaches to Beijing could easily lead to tensions again in the future.

Changed economic dependencies

Changed economic dependencies are also a reason why historical disputes between Tokyo and Seoul are escalating more than in the past. Half a century ago one of the poorest countries in the world, South Korea rose to become the twelfth largest economic power. As a developed economy with diversified trade relationships, South Korea is no longer nearly as dependent on Japanese money and technology as it was two decades ago. Japan's share of South Korean foreign trade has been falling steadily since the mid-1970s. It shrank from around 18 to 8 percent between 1993 and 2018 alone. As of 2009, China's share of trade is even greater than that of Japan and the US combined. In 2018, this was just under 24 percent. At the same time, almost a quarter of South Korea's FDI goes to China, but only 2 percent to Japan. For Korea, Japan's relative weight has fallen significantly, while China is now the most important economic partner.

Nevertheless, there is still a high level of dependence of Korea on Japan in individual areas, for example in the case of the three materials mentioned above, which are now subject to stricter export controls. In the technology sector, Korea imports key components from Japan. Japanese machines and systems are also in demand.

In view of its remarkable economic rise and the corresponding increase in self-confidence, however, it is not surprising that Seoul is more tenacious than in the past with its historically founded demands on Tokyo. The political elites in Japan derive different expectations from the economic upturn in their neighbors: Japan and South Korea, they argue, can now deal with one another on an "equal footing" and Tokyo no longer has to give in constantly when Seoul makes demands. In Korea, however, this stance is seen as confirmation of the charge that revisionist tendencies are spreading in Japan.

When two argue ...

The Japanese-South Korean relations are in a downward spiral that will be difficult to stop. The fronts have hardened. For domestic political reasons, politicians on both sides feel compelled to punish actions of the other party perceived as offensive with appropriate countermeasures, which further increases the tension. They are hardly willing to negotiate compromises because they do not want to be targeted by public criticism.

The relationship is so tense and mistrustful that both sides no longer recognize each other as partners with common values. Since 2015, Japan's diplomatic blue book has refrained from acknowledging that South Korea shares “common fundamental values ​​such as freedom, democracy and respect for human rights”. In its 2018 White Paper, South Korea also deleted the passage that speaks of the common values ​​shared with Japan.

Europe and European politics should also be concerned about the dispute between Japan and South Korea. If the gap of distrust between the two most important democracies in East Asia is so great, it can easily be exploited by China in particular to expand its own position of power in the region and weaken the influence of the USA. Unlike in the past, Washington has so far taken no substantial steps to settle the dispute between its most important allies in Asia.

Even if the heads of government in Tokyo and Seoul change, a lasting improvement in relations is not expected for the time being. Even if Europe does not have much influence, it should make it clear that a better Japanese-Korean relationship is also in its interest. Discussions are currently underway in South Korea about letting the joint agreement on the exchange of military intelligence information about North Korea expire. But the security cooperation with regard to North Korea, which is important to both sides, should not become a political plaything.

To prevent China from using the bilateral dispute to weaken US influence in Asia, Tokyo and Seoul should now endeavor to calm the situation and resist nationalist impulses. Japan has to come to terms with the fact that reconciliation is an ongoing process. This is all the more true with regard to South Korea, which as a young democracy has an increased need to come to terms with its own history. Korea, on the other hand, needs to be aware that reconciliation requires the victims to accept gestures of reconciliation and that - once accepted - these must not be questioned again. Only the nationalist forces on the other side benefit from this.

Recommended reading

Alexandra Sakaki /Gudrun Wacker

China - Japan - South Korea.
Menage à trois with obstacles

SWP Study 4/2017, March 2017, 35 pages.

Alexandra Sakaki /Junya Nishino

»Japan‘s South Korea Predicament«,

in: International Affairs, 94 (July 2018) 4, pp. 735–754.

Dr. Alexandra Sakaki is a scientist in the Asia Research Group. From January to April 2019, she conducted research on bilateral relations in Japan and Korea with a Feodor Lynen Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. During this time she was visiting scholar at the Japanese National Defense Academy and Keio University.

© Science and Politics Foundation, 2019

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doi: 10.18449 / 2019A42