Country Report: South Korea (September 2013)

In a speech delivered on the sixty-eighth anniversary of Liberation Day, Park Geun-hye said, “Japanese politicians need to show courageous leadership to heal wounds from the past to develop the bilateral relationship to a sincere cooperative partnership.” She also urged Japan to take “responsible and sincere” measures for victims of history and together to establish peace and shared prosperity in the Northeast Asia. Crediting Japan with being an indispensible part of the Seoul Process, one of the pillars of her foreign policy, Park has encouraged South Koreans to keep their eyes on how to achieve a breakthrough in the relationship. Yet, events kept intruding, resulting in another round of articles taking a pessimistic tone toward Japan-South Korean ties.

Koreans blamed Japanese politicians for provoking their negative reactions. Although Abe Shinzo did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine himself on August 15, Korean journals criticized him for two reasons. One, for the first time since 1993 the official speech delivered by a prime minister on this occasion did not include any phrase expressing regrets and condolences to the Asian countries Japan had invaded. Two, Abe sent an aide to deliver a tree branch as homage on his behalf. The result was that mounting concerns in Korea over extreme nationalism in Japan were not eased, having been exacerbated not only by a series of insensitive comments and behavior in Abe’s second cabinet, but also by the LDP’s victory in the Upper House elections.

Just five days later when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp, the Korean media made some comparisons. In the conservative paper, Joongang ilbo, an article entitled “immaturity and maturity, starkly different Abe and Merkel,” opined that Japan should learn from Germany how a country whose history has a shameful chapter is reborn to take the lead in a new era and, as a leader, earns respect from both the national and international community. Despite such negative commentaries, there is also worry about the unprecedented, poor state of bilateral relations and its implications for the future. This draws attention, as in analyses below, to how relations degenerated to their current state.

On the left, Hankyoreh argues that the Park administration needs to reconsider preconditions placed on Japan from a strategic point of view. Acknowledging that Japanese attitudes toward historical issues are the fundamental cause of the rocky relationship, it suggests that making changes in these attitudes a condition for improving relations is not ideal, since they may take a long time to resolve while matters of urgency, such as the North Korean threat or the need for cooperation on the environment, energy, or culture, are allowed to fester.

A different perspective is found in Joongang ilbo, which points to a generational transition as the cause of the deterioration. The older generation understood each other, making possible behind-the-scenes discussions that helped to reduce tension. When serious problems arose, these contacts usually found a way to move forward, but on this occasion, even after six months have elapsed since Park’s inauguration, there is no sign of a plan for a summit with Abe. The annual meeting of the joint parliamentary union also is on hold. Former Prime Minister Mori Hoshiro, who served for the past 10 years as its president, visited the Yasukuni Shrine last October, leading to this impasse. The fact that the president or acting president of this union did not attend the opening of the new ROK embassy in Japan last year was further indication of the troubled state of relations. Until a few years ago, prominent parliamentarians functioned as a channel to ease tensions in such circumstances. The article concludes that relations are now fundamentally different from what they have been, as politics is interfering with economics and official relations do not keep pace with private sector ties, putting the burden on politicians to respond to this transition to a new model of relations

Other articles by Bong Youngshik, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute, and Park Cheol Hee, whose article in a Japanese newspaper is covered in the “Country Report: Japan” for this issue, further demonstrate the agonizing search in Korea for a way forward. Bong argues that the two countries are trapped in “mutual abandonment,” as if they do not need to cooperate in order to realize their essential national interests. He also explains that relations with China and the United States are deemed much more important for politics, economics, and security. Park’s Korean article proposes a three-step approach: 1) to have informal talks at multilateral summits; 2) to conduct a more substantial dialogue during the course of the Sino-Japan-ROK summit scheduled for Seoul; and 3) to resume bilateral summits as part of a process of intensified negotiations. Park argues that Koreans have not given Japan sufficient credit, since more than half of the politicians and officials are intent on improving bilateral relations and have made repeated efforts to resolve historical questions, through the Kono statement, the Murayama statement, and the Kan Naoto statement, which did not meet Korea’s standards, but should be recognized as steps forward and not be answered by steps that Japanese conservatives consider unreasonable. If Richard Nixon, the anti-communist, could visit Beijing, then Abe may offer a chance to stabilize the relationship.

One other explanation for the deterioration in ROK-Japan relations is former ambassador to Japan Shin Kak-Soo’s argument that a lack of mutual trust is responsible. He observes that in spite of blossoming cultural ties and economic cooperation, after relations were first primarily government-led, this was not sufficient to build mutual trust. Putting relations in a triangular context, he finds that the Japanese public has formed the impression that Seoul prioritizes Beijing over Tokyo. Although this is not Seoul’s diplomatic strategy and there is no intention of allowing relations with China to crowd out those with Japan, the Korean government should be more cautious about leaving this impression. Past ups and downs have not stopped relations from developing, and Shin sees the current moment as critical for deciding the way forward.

Writings on relations with Japan not only assess why relations deteriorated and raise hopes for progress, they also point to specific steps that should be taken. Lee Won-duk recommends narrowing the areas of contention to historical issues in order to restart a dialogue, setting aside constitutional revision and the right of collective self-defense, matters that either are domestic ones or Japan-US and Japan-China issues. Along the same lines is the argument that it is better to convey strong opposition to Japan than not to talk with it about any issues.

The strongest case for redoubling efforts to improve ties to Japan comes in assertions about the strategic value of better relations. An observer in Joongang ilbo, citing “network theory” and “position power,” argues that power comes from relations with other players. Seoul could be in a better position to serve as a peacemaker in US-North Korea and China-Japan relations if it did not give the impression that it is closer to Beijing. An observer in Chosun ilbo similarly asserted that ROK-Japan relations should be seen as a strategic asset in the quadrangular framework of ROK-US-Japan-China relations. Another observe in Hankyoreh warns that the current approach increases dependency on China and does not take the US stance in favor of normalization in Japan into consideration. Shin Kak-Soo goes further in advocating a roadmap in 2015, 50 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations, toward another half century of relations. As the only OECD countries in the region, Japan and Korea need to play a pivotal role in managing the power transition, adds Shin, citing the parallel to the 1963 Germany-France Elise agreement, which resolved historical issues between the two states and led to European integration.

The other prominent theme of late has been the inter-Korean trust process, into which new life has been breathed by the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Guidelines call for three steps: humanitarian aid regardless of denuclearization; economic cooperation; and “Vision Korea” projects, including large-scale investment in infrastructure. The results are disputed in the media, although public opinion is favorable. Some stress the North’s commitment that the complex will not be affected by political reasons and that it changed its attitude in response to the South’s steadfast posture. Some warn that more serious tests lie ahead, as family reunions and Mt. Kumgang tours are discussed. Kim Geun Sik suggests that North Korea needed to improve relations in order to proceed with negotiations with China and the United States, and Kim Jun-hyung argues that it had little choice since it was internationally contained. Others stress China’s role in pushing the North to show flexibility in order to resume multi-party talks and bilateral ones with the United States. Some who favor engagement want Park to go further, allowing the private sector to engage the North and improving ties separate from or at least parallel to denuclearization. The tone of the discussion on North Korea has changed, encouraging broader debate on foreign policy.

The implications of many of these writings on relations with Japan and North Korea are that South Korea must be concerned about excessive dependency on China or a Chinese strategy that brings North Korea back to multilateral talks. These concerns come at a time when, as Ren Xiao discusses in the Open Forum of this issue of the Asan Forum, China is debating its policy toward North Korea and great power relations. Articles analyze Chinese strategic thinking, including the relevance of its approach to Japan for South Korea and the tightening of Sino-Russian ties, including in the military sphere. Deteriorating Russo-US as well as Sino-Japanese relations over the summer are part of the background for assessing China’s impact on polarization among the great powers. So far, such matters arise obliquely in Korean publications rather than becoming the focus of in-depth scholarship.

Among the small number of academic analyses of China was an article in Korea and World Politics by Cho Young Nam on China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, arguing that not much has changed. Comparing the diplomatic white paper released in September 2011 with the themes at the 18th Party Congress a year later, he suggests some “fine tuning” on four dimensions: 1) broadly defining China’s vital national interests of “sovereignty, safety, and development;” 2) expanding the concept of a “new type of great power relations to powers other than the United States; 3) stating officially China’s pursuit of maritime power; and 4) justifying the expansion of military power through newly adopted expressions. Explaining these changes, Cho points to two factors—a gradual power transition inside China and the hardline policy taken toward China by other countries, including the United States and Japan. If Xi expedites such fine tuning, Cho expects that a new foreign policy would become official either at the 19th or the 20th Party Congress. Another article in Chosun ilbo quoted an expert from Peking University stating that the “new type of great power relations” is actually political propaganda aimed primarily at Japan, not the United States, in line with strategic objectives to force Japan into a corner in the near future. It follows that China is ready to be cooperative with the United States as long as its core interests are not at stake. Finally, an adjustment that attracted Korean attention over the summer was the shift from “war of assistance against the United States” to the “Korean War” in writings celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice. This is in line with the prior Country Report: Korea discussion about changing China-DPRK ties to a normal relationship.