Author: Daniel Sneider, Stanford University
The election of former prosecutor general Yoon Suk-yeol as president of South Korea creates an opportunity to break the impasse in South Korea–Japan relations. President-elect Yoon criticised the downturn in bilateral relations and pledged to ‘rethink’ the relationship based on ‘the strategic importance of normalising ties with Tokyo’. On 10 March 2022, Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida both expressed a desire to improve ties.
The potential for a thaw in relations has raised hopes in Washington where the Biden administration has been pushing for Tokyo and Seoul to embrace trilateral coordination. Ahead of the South Korean vote, senior Biden officials expressed cautious optimism that a conservative victory might make this task easier.
A breakthrough in relations cannot be premised on the belief that issues of historical wartime justice can be simply ignored. The Japanese government made this mistake with previous conservative governments in South Korea. Historical memory and justice issues remain deeply embedded in the creation of national identity in both countries. True reconciliation requires confronting the past.
There was significant progress toward this end in 2015. The statement issued by then prime minister Shinzo Abe on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the December 2015 agreement on ’comfort women’ seemed to be a breakthrough. The United States played an important role in facilitating that progress.
Still, flaws remained in the 2015 agreement. While there was extensive consultation with South Korean victims, the agreement was made without the formal consent of the organisation representing the ‘comfort women’. The Japanese government wrongly insisted that the South Koreans had agreed to remove a statue memorialising the victims across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and have continued to lobby globally against any continued commemoration of this tragic history.
On the South Korean side, the Moon Jae-in administration made the unfortunate decision to dismember the fund created by the December 2015 agreement. South Korean courts issued rulings demanding compensation for forced labourers from Japanese companies, challenging the previous understanding that this issue was settled in the 1965 treaty normalising relations. Another court decision ruled that the 2015 agreement did not offer sufficient compensation to the women.
On the Japanese side, retaliatory measures were adopted with export controls. Japan has threatened further steps if the assets of Japanese companies are seized to enforce the court ruling.
Any movement forward on historical issues must begin with reversing the steps taken to undermine past progress. This is essential to restore trust and create a foundation to make progress on bilateral relations.
For Japan, this begins with an unambiguous reaffirmation by Prime Minister Kishida of all the previous prime ministerial and cabinet statements on historical issues. Japan should also lift export controls on South Korea. On the South Korean side, President-elect Yoon should embrace the legal authority of the 1965 treaty restoring diplomatic ties, including the associated Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation.
Yoon needs to restore the legitimacy of the December 2015 comfort women agreement as the basis for any future actions on this issue, including acknowledging the apologies issued by former prime minister Abe and re-establishing the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation created with Japanese funding. South Korean courts have opened the door to this as the most recent rulings supported the ongoing validity of both the 1965 treaty and the 2015 agreement, countering the earlier rulings.
To cut through the diplomatic challenges, there should be one new overarching agreement between the two countries. This agreement should create a Foundation for Responsibility and Reconciliation, modelled on the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future set up in Germany in 2000 to make payments to former forced labourers.
The new foundation could absorb the role of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation in providing payments to all forced labourers, including those coerced into sexual servitude. It would be funded by the Japanese government and by Japanese corporations. South Korean civil society organisations representing the victims should participate in such an arrangement. The South Korean government should agree that this permanently settles claims on the assets of Japanese companies, considering their contribution to this new foundation to constitute a settlement of those claims.
The barriers to such an arrangement are rooted in domestic politics. Both governments are in delicate political situations. President-elect Yoon faces significant challenges in establishing his new administration. Prime Minister Kishida is hemmed in by a strong right-wing presence in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that opposes such a move and faces an election to the upper house of Japan’s parliament in July 2022. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is occupied with the strategic crisis in Ukraine and its global implications.
But it is precisely the Ukraine situation and China’s de facto support for Russian aggression that should motivate all three governments to give priority to engineering a breakthrough that will not only lead to reconciliation but cement the foundation for a true trilateral partnership.
Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer of International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University.
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