Of all the story lines that will be on display at the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka on June 28–29, few are as important or challenging as efforts to turn around steadily declining Japan–South Korea diplomatic ties. These two U.S. allies are cornerstones of Washington’s foreign policy strategy in Asia and vital to successfully addressing regional issues, yet Japan–South Korea relations could deteriorate further over seemingly irreconcilable historical disagreements if all three governments do not take proactive, sustained steps to help mitigate the bilateral differences.

Despite hope that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in would meet on the G20 sidelines to discuss a more constructive path forward, a brief photo op now seems more likely. Still, U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with both leaders separately on this trip, and some U.S. foreign policy analysts have advocated for more assertive efforts to help Tokyo and Seoul bridge their divide. Washington should recognize, however, that Japan–South Korean reconciliation is a long-term endeavor with a short-term need to focus primarily on managing and minimizing current disagreements.

James L. Schoff
Schoff is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program. His research focuses on U.S.-Japan relations and regional engagement, Japanese technology innovation, and regional trade and security dynamics.
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Deteriorating Japan–South Korea Relations

Experienced U.S. officials understand many of Japan and South Korea’s mutual grievances, which range from unresolved territorial and trade disputes to disagreements over their 1965 normalization treaty and a 2015 “comfort women” settlement that tried to address the thousands of Korean women victimized by Japan’s wartime prostitution scheme. In just the past year, a rare military incident compounded tensions after South Korean courts awarded Japanese compensation to victims and family members affected by Japan’s colonial-era forced labor policies. These developments have put considerable strain on bilateral ties.

Deteriorating Japan–South Korea relations manifest in many ways, such as Seoul canceling the permit for a new Japanese embassy building or recent public opinion polls showing record-high levels of mutual distrust. But real trouble could begin if South Korean courts seize Japanese assets to pay the forced labor plaintiffs. The current cases comprise 962 plaintiffs, but the South Korean government has identified up to 150,000 more individuals who may be eligible to press similar charges. The Japanese government asserts that all claims were settled by the 1965 treaty, and it has prohibited Japanese companies from making payments. Japan is seeking formal dispute resolution talks with South Korea, but Seoul has yet to agree. Moreover, Tokyo has vowed to retaliate against South Korean business interests in Japan if Seoul starts enforcing its court decisions by seizing Japanese assets.

Anti-Japanese Sentiment in South Korea and the Legacy of Colonial-Era Collaborators

While high-profile issues like the comfort women agreement and forced labor settlements have been covered extensively by the media, an often overlooked factor in bilateral tensions is how anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is inextricably linked to Korean nationalism. The nexus for this dynamic is the legacy of pro-Japanese collaborators (chinilpa) during Japan’s colonial rule in Korea from 1910 to 1945. Moon has put this squarely on his domestic political agenda. Understanding how Moon’s efforts to address the legacy of Japan’s colonization of Korea also implicate the United States and connect to his goal of peaceful unification with North Korea is key to improving the long-term outlook of bilateral relations. 

A closer look reveals that this issue has shaped the fault lines of Korean domestic politics—indeed, it touches upon the very bedrock of legitimacy for the modern Korean nation. There is an ongoing debate fueled by progressives over the true origins of the Republic of Korea—namely, whether it stems from the government established by Rhee Syngman in 1948 under the protection of the United States (and separate from North Korea) or from the Provisional Government established in 1919 under exile in Shanghai (which included representatives from the entire peninsula). For its part, North Korea was formed in 1948 under the orchestration of the Soviet Union and does not specifically trace its roots to 1919. Pyongyang underscored this point when it dismissed, earlier this year, an invitation to participate in a joint North Korean–South Korean commemoration of the March 1 independence movement’s 100-year anniversary.

Despite this perception gap, Moon continues to appeal to an image of Korean unity from 1919, emphasizing in his March 1 speech that “one hundred years ago today, we were united as one” and “there was no South and North Korea.” Moon blames Japan for sowing the seeds of division by labeling Korean independence activists as “thought offenders” and “Reds,” whether they were actual communists or not. “Ideological stigmas were tools used by Japanese imperialists to drive a wedge between us,” Moon said. “Even after liberation,” he continued, “they served as tools to impede efforts to remove the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators.” For Moon, “wiping out the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators is a long-overdue undertaking” for the nation—and a crucial way to foster national unification.

“Still now in our society, the word ‘Reds’ is being used as a tool to vilify and attack political rivals,” Moon declared on March 1. For the South Korean president and his supporters, the demonization of North Koreans and anyone that would pursue a generous compromise with them is also a legacy of pro-Japanese collaborators, who first employed the trope to protect themselves from persecution after 1948—some argue with help from the United States—and later to enhance their political power in South Korea. “The 38th parallel drawn through our minds,” said Moon, evoking the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea, “will disappear altogether once the ideological hostility that caused internal rifts are removed.”  

Moon has been careful to emphasize that he does not intend to “instigate divisiveness” or “create issues for diplomatic conflicts with a neighboring country”—he wants to wipe out these vestiges of pro-Japanese collaboration “in a forward-looking manner.” But there are inherent challenges to this pursuit. The Moon administration’s effort to foster Korean nationalism by rehabilitating North Koreans in the South Korean psyche requires, to some extent, convincing the nation that North Korea was wrongfully accused. In this case, the blame for false accusation falls explicitly on Japan (and its Korean collaborators) and implicitly on the United States, which promoted employing alleged collaborators in the South Korean bureaucracy and private sector to bulwark the country against communism. Moon’s credo of progressive nationalism is at times so deferential to North Korea that it supersedes all other values, including freedom, human rights, and democratic principles—further exacerbating political polarization in Korea and straining Seoul’s policy coordination with Washington and Tokyo.

Paul K. Lee
Paul K. Lee is a James C. Gaither junior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program.

Some in South Korea look to North Korea’s radical elimination of Japanese colonial influence as a model for dealing with collaborators in the South, and the Moon administration’s anti-chinilpa policies in South Korea have gone beyond the rhetoric of his liberal predecessors. Moon has condoned subtle but significant projects to eliminate leftover traces of Japanese colonial influence in Korean language and culture, like Seoul’s $4 million plan to cut down 500,000 allegedly Japanese larch trees in Taebaek National Park and replace them with indigenous Korean trees. Additionally, the Gyeonggi Provincial Assembly has proposed an ordinance that would highlight the stigma of colonial collaboration by requiring schools in the province to explicitly label goods that were made by a so-called war criminal company―one of 284 manufacturers listed as Japanese collaborator firms or companies that benefited from investments by these firms.

Public opinion polls in South Korea demonstrate broad support for the anti-Japanese sentiment behind these policies. In a Gallup poll ahead of the March 1 Movement’s 100-year anniversary, 80 percent of respondents said that “vestiges of Japanese imperialism have not been eliminated properly,” largely because many high-ranking political officials and business executives are believed to be the descendants of collaborators. Respondents also blamed the state’s failure to seize pro-Japanese collaborators’ assets and the lingering Japanese colonial influence on Korean language and culture. Notably, while only 19 percent of respondents said they hold positive feelings toward Japan, the fact that a majority of those were in their twenties and thirties offers some hope for the future if proactive measures are taken in both countries.

Bridging the Divide

Over the decades, there have been times when leadership on both sides made progress toward addressing these issues. For example, the South Korean government banned Japanese cultural imports until the late 1990s, when successful diplomacy under then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and then Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi gradually allowed Japanese manga, music, and movies to enter the country. But Kim’s successor, president Roh Moo-hyun, resumed anti-chinilpa policies and established a special Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators’ Property in the mid-2000’s, nationalizing over $100 million of property from people identified as the descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators. But given the pervasiveness of Japanese economic and social influence over thirty-five years of colonization, it is difficult to even determine who should and should not be considered a pro-Japanese collaborator. Even Moon Jae-in came under scrutiny in the lead-up to the 2017 South Korean presidential election, because his father had worked as a public servant in colonial Korea.

For their part, Japanese political leaders have done little to bridge the divide in Japan–South Korea relations. Japan’s reassessment of past apologies in 2014 and textbook revisions that exclude non-Japanese viewpoints on territorial disputes have exacerbated the situation. The Japanese government’s desire to “finally and irreversibly” resolve its past abuse of Koreans through negotiated documents ignores the need for empathy and the desire for injustices to be recognized and responsibility accepted. Beyond one-off written apologies, Japan should promote educational efforts to highlight differing views about the past and support demonstrations of contrition at all levels of Japanese society. Akihito, Japan’s emperor emeritus, understood this and tried to set a positive example during his reign. But his message was often muddied by the political right in Japan, and grassroots efforts at reconciliation have lacked sufficient scale.

What Can Washington Do?

In order to be an effective facilitator of better Japan–South Korea relations, the United States must first recognize the limits of any quick-fix approach to these historical disputes. Appealing to common strategic interests or trying to leverage its role in the trilateral alliance to achieve a superficial détente will not address the underlying issues. These emotional scars require a long-term, reciprocal commitment to reconciliation by the Japanese and South Koreans themselves.

The U.S. government has consistently wielded its power to convene trilateral dialogues, diplomatic initiatives, and military exercises. This approach can help sustain Japan–South Korea cooperation and provide venues to build personal connections without either side losing face. Washington should step up these activities and consider reviving a series of trilateral vice foreign ministerial meetings, which took place from 2015 to 2017, to coordinate policy on various global and regional foreign policy issues. There is no shortage of potential crises and common interests to consider.

In addition, U.S. officials can encourage South Korea to comply with Moon’s stated desire to focus on building bilateral relationships and avoid diplomatic conflicts with neighbors. This should include accepting Japan’s offer to resolve the forced labor legal controversy through bilateral consultations. One possible solution is to replace backward-looking compensation demands with forward-looking education programs that would deepen Japanese understanding of how Koreans were affected by imperial policies. A former high-ranking South Korean diplomat has advocated creating a civilian committee to explore some similar options.

Washington can also encourage the Japanese leadership to support domestic grassroots efforts to promote greater empathy toward Korea’s colonial experience and develop programs to foster reconciliation. Trump has an opportunity this week to privately convey to Abe and Moon some tangible steps each can take to stem the decline in Japan–South Korea relations and work toward a more constructive future. But even if Trump misses this particular diplomatic window, it is not too late for all three leaders to take steps toward repairing frayed Japan–South Korea ties. Their success will be critical to achieving long-term reconciliation, stability, and prosperity in East Asia.

Paul K. Lee is a James C. Gaither junior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program.