Tokyo-Seoul Divisions Present Formation of a United Front Regarding Pyongyang


2012-11-10 by Richard Weitz

In spite of a common threat, South Korea and Japan have struggled to present a united front against that threat.

South Korea and Japan both face a common military threat from North Korea, made evident most recently by the DPRK artillery strike against Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, and Pyongyang’s recurring launch of ballistic missiles over Japanese territory.

In recent years, unlike earlier, their two governments have generally stood in solidarity against this threat, with Tokyo backing the ROK’s hardline following the 2010 provocations and pledging not to resume direct negotiations with Pyongyang until an intra-Korean had been restored, with Pyongyang apologizing for its previous misdeeds.

Japan and South Korea share a commitment to liberal democratic principles and fundamental human rights. They have achieved high levels of wealth based on market economics and innovative high-tech industries. Their cultural products, from Korean pop to Japanese comics, are increasingly admired in the other nation.

Yet, several obstacles have prevented South Korea and Japan from establishing good bilateral relations or pursuing a mutually reinforcing position in the Six-Party Talks.

These issues, such as the Yasukuni Shrine, the Japanese colonization in Korea before and during the Second World War, Japanese military growth and the Dokdo/ Takeshima Island debate all affect the Japanese relationship with South Korea.

Japanese governments have typically pursued a harder line toward North Korea than have ROK administrations.

Most Japanese would probably favor a change in the DPRK regime if it occurred through non-military means. Concerns about North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capacities prevail throughout the country. Japanese officials and public alike remain outraged by the DPRK’s past abductions of Japanese citizens and other illegal North Korean activities in Japan.

The waves of sanctions Japan has adopted regarding the Koreas has meant that, whereas Japan was one of North Korea’s leading trading partners at the end of the Cold War, Tokyo’s economic ties with Seoul have fallen to minimal levels.

In Six Party Talks, South Korea and Japan have agreed on a few core points: the denuclearization of Korean Peninsula, normalization of diplomatic relations among all parties, and affirmation of North Korea’s sovereignty under the condition that the DPRK abandon its nuclear weapons program.

However, it is difficult to consider these shared elements a form of bilateral cooperation between South and Japan, as the entire Six Party process is dedicated to these goals, and it is mostly Washington and China that are directing the discussions.

Differing Priorities with Regard to North Korea

Furthermore, Pyongyang and Seoul have different priorities.

Japanese officials are mainly interested in denuclearization, ending DPRK missile testing, and resolving the abductee issue. In contrast, South Koreans, despite contrasting attitudes between different presidencies, are more focused on their peace, prosperity, and security.

Many South Koreans suspect that Tokyo does not want a unified Korea as it would yet another challenge to Japan’s leading roles in East Asia, which already has been overtaken by China in many respects.  If the Six Party Talks resumes, greater cooperation between South Korea and Japan seems doubtful because of their recent deteriorating relation.

The Dokdo or Takeshima islands are a group of small islets in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) whose sovereignty is contested between Japan and South Korea; however, the islets are currently administered by South Korea. Since the 1950s, Japan has claimed the islands are in its sovereign territory. Every year, since 2005, they have released a recent White Paper claiming as much.

The territorial dispute is a major source of nationalist tensions.

Differing priorities toward North Korea has meant that Tokyo and Seoul have pursued different policies towards North Korea. Credit Image: Bigstock

Many Korean nationals have placed the dispute in the context of their history of occupation, meaning that giving the islands to Japan would be an unthinkable affront to national dignity. South Korean tourists have visited the remote islets and Japanese schoolchildren are instructed that the islands rightfully belong to Japan. Both countries believe the islands are rich in fishing waters and possibly have natural gas and other deposits underneath or nearby.

Another issue that has caused friction involves the naming of the body of water between Korea and Japan. South Korean government claims that the body of water should be named “East Sea” according to historical maps and evidences; however, Japanese government has also produced various evidences to argue for the name “Sea of Japan.”

Japan’s policy towards South Korea ebbs and flows depending on which administrations are in charge in both countries.

For example, the previous ROK government of President Roh Moo-hyun, who was president from 2002 to 2008, had declined to support Japan’s position on the abductee issue. Although the DPRK has apparently kidnapped many more South Korean than Japanese citizens, Roh strove to improve ties with the DPRK and resisted Japanese and American efforts to add conditions to any settlement.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors some 2.5 million of Japan’s fallen soldiers but has remains of several war criminals,o outraged Asian countries that were invaded and occupied by Japan. South Koreans retain bitter memories of Japanese invasion and occupation of their peninsula during the first half of the 20th century and anti-Japanese sentiment has become a part of South Korean nationalism. South Korea’s government at the time refused to have their representatives meet Koizumi’s leaders in Japan. There were no mutual visits between South Korean and Japanese leaders from June 2005 until 2006 when Prime Minister Abe visited South Korea.

Limits to the US Role

The Obama administration has made a major effort to reconcile Tokyo and Seoul. Japanese-South Korean military relations have improved.

In December 8, 2010, Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that Japan could join ROK-US defense exercises as full participants to present a “unified front” for regional peace and stability. Japan sent observers to the February-April 2011 Foal Eagle exercises to watch ROK land and naval operations.

The January 2011 summit between ROK, Japanese defense ministers saw the exchange of bilateral views on the dangers posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and worked out details for a planned pact to exchange military goods and services during peacetime.  The ministers agreed that both countries would undertake information sharing arrangements and military exchanges. South Korea was one of the leading contributors of humanitarian aid to Japan after the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. South Korea’s one-hundred strong search-and-rescue contingent also represented one of the largest international contributions to relief efforts in Japan.

However, long-held historical suspicions and resentments were evident when South Koreans protested the venting of radioactive water into the ocean from the crippled Fukushima power plant.  They also expressed fears about the safety of all Japanese seafood, including those from the unaffected west coast. Less than a month after the accident, Japan released a textbook again laying claim to the Takeshima Islets.On April 7, 2011, ROK Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik suggested that South Korea station troops on the disputed Dokdo Islands to supplement the existing police force.  South Korea is also building an ocean station on the Dokdo Islands.

The United States played a positive role in inducing Japan and the ROK to participate in trilateral naval drills in June 2012.

But the revival of ROK-Japanese tensions over the islands have scuttled attempts to implement planned defense agreements such as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which would permit Seoul and Tokyo to share more intelligence regarding North Korea, and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which would enhance the sharing of military supplies. President Lee, who previously had helped dampen bilateral tensions, unhelpfully escalated the conflict by visiting the disputed

The longstanding historical tensions between the Japanese and Korean peoples over disputes independent of Pyongyang will remain an important part of their relationships. As such, one should not expect Seoul-Tokyo cooperation to reach close amity despite their shared misgivings about North Korea and uncertainty over China and Russia. If Seoul and Tokyo continue to vie for the islands, it will hurt their cooperation and leverage on issues such as North Korean denuclearization.

Unfortunately, there is little Washington or outsiders can do to end such tensions.

At best, U.S. diplomats can help manage them by stressing the importance of these countries’ focusing on their common challenges and discouraging their leaders from engaging in provocative actions, such as visiting controversial shrines or disputed Dokdo islands.