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Japan-ROK Relations

A 2019 survey found that, were conflict to erupt between Pyongyang and Tokyo, the majority of South Koreans would side with their neighbor to the North. The survey, titled The Situation in Northeast Asia and South Koreans Perception, found that 45.5 percent of respondents would support North Korea, while just 15.1 percent would support Japan, while 39.4 were undecided. The survey, which was carried out by a state-sponsored think tank led by research fellow Lee Sang Sin, involved 1,000 participants and was conducted between 2018 and October 2019.

Although neighbors and sharing military alliances with the United States, the direct relationship between Tokyo and Seoul remains delicate. The Korean peninsula was under a brutal Japanese occupation for most of the first half of the 20th century and many in South Korea retain anti-Japanese sentiments. Despite the lingering bitterness from the colonial era, Japan and South Korea developed a symbiotic economic relationship during the Cold War. Japan provided a model for growth and supplied many of the capital goods needed for South Koreas industrialization. Japanese official development assistance, private investment, and important technology transfers to South Korea simultaneously benefited both countries. Anything but smooth, the ROK-Japan relationship relied on the security ensured by the U.S. military to provide stability for economic growth.

The Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty of 1965 was a tumultuous issue for Japan. Left wing organizations opposed normalization because it would bind the ROK and Japan to a triangular relationship centered on the United States. Japanese opposed the implications of a treaty that might get Japan involved in another Korean peninsula conflict, contrary to the nations pacifist constitution. Almost immediately after the normalization treaty was signed on June 22, 1965, the ROK and Japan clashed over Japans relations with Kim Il Sungs regime, namely Japanese exports to the North. An irritated South Korea constantly criticized Japans "two-Koreas" policy, which normalization was supposed to prevent, especially since the treaty acknowledged the ROK as the "sole legal government on the Korean peninsula."

Territorial disputes over the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima/Dokdo) remain an irritant to relations with South Korea, but both sides have expressed a desire to build a Japan-ROK relationship. Article 9 of Japan's constitution is interpreted to bar Japan from entering into security relations with countries other than the United States. Consequently, Japan had no substantive defense relationship with South Korea, and military contacts were infrequent. The Japanese government supported noncommunist South Korea in other ways. It backed United States contingency plans to dispatch United States armed forces in Japan to South Korea in case of a North Korean attack on South Korea. It also acted as an intermediary between South Korea and China. It pressed the Chinese government to open and expand relations with South Korea in the 1980s.

Japan's policies toward the two Koreas reflects the importance this area had for Asian stability, which is seen as essential to Japanese peace and prosperity. Japan is one of four major powers (along with the United States, Russia, and China) that have important security interests on the Korean Peninsula. However, Japan's involvement in political and security issues on the Korean Peninsula is more limited than that of the other three powers. Japan's relations with North Korea and South Korea has a legacy of bitterness stemming from harsh Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945. Polls during the postwar period in Japan and South Korea showed that the people of each nation had a profound dislike of the other country and people.

Japan's trade with South Korea was US$29.1 billion in 1991, with a surplus of nearly US$5.8 billion on the Japanese side. Japanese direct private investment in South Korea totaled US$4.4 billion in 1990. Japanese and South Korean firms often had interdependent relations, which gave Japan advantages in South Korea's growing market. Many South Korean products were based on Japanese design and technology. A surge in imports of South Korean products into Japan in 1990 was partly the result of production by Japanese investors in South Korea.

Many women, including Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinas and others, worked in brothels for Japanese soldiers before and during World War Two. The term 'comfort women' is a euphemism for such women, who are also referred to as 'sex slaves' -- a term which some Japanese researchers say does not reflect reality. As many as 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were forced to serve as comfort women in Japanese brothels during the war. Many were brutalized and imprisoned. Some were killed or died of disease and hunger. Survivors speak of damaged lives. Many were so emotionally scarred they never married and others were so physically battered they could never have children.

There have been growing calls in South Korea for Japan to compensate the families of South Korean women forced to work in brothels as so-called comfort women for Japanese troops during World War Two. Japan's governments have dismissed South Korea's demand that they provide an official apology and compensation, maintaining that the claims issue was legally settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized ties between the 2 countries.

Japan has never offered the women official reparations. The military's practice of sexual enslavement has not been publicized in Japan. References to the women did not appear in Japanese school textbooks until 1994. Japan has acknowledged the atrocity, but has refused to apologize or pay restitution. Protests are held each year in August to commemorate the date in 1991 when the first "comfort woman" came forward to tell her experience. Many others followed her lead.

Japan maintains it settled all claims with South Korea under a postwar treaty signed in 1965, in which Seoul received $800 million in grants and soft loans from Japan. Many Koreans also consider inadequate a 1993 apology from a Japanese government spokesman. In 2005, the Japanese Supreme Court rejected the compensation claims of seven Taiwanese women.

Japan's government and private-sector set up the Asian Women's Fund in 1995 to address the issue. Under the project, Japan sent letters of apology signed by 4 Japanese prime ministers, along with compensation money, to former comfort women. In South Korea, many women refused to accept the apology or the money, arguing that the apology was not official. Seoul has criticized this private Japanese fund, saying the money is insufficient and compensation should come from the Tokyo government. The survivors are in their 70s and 80s, and they still are waiting for Japan to apologize.

Prime Minister Abe made a concerted effort to defuse the comfort women issue prior to his first summit with President bush in 2007. Stung by foreign criticism of his earlier comments distinguishing different "degrees" of coercion used to bring women to comfort stations, Abe assiduously toed the line reaffirming the 1993 Kono statement of apology for Japan's role in World War II sex slavery. Asked by Newsweek's Lally Weymouth whether he honestly believed the Imperial Army had not forced many of the comfort women to provide sexual services, Abe acknowledged Japan's responsibility for infringing human rights and said he looked on Japan's history "with humility." He expressed sympathy to the victims and apologized "as Prime Minister of Japan." He also reaffirmed that the government has no objection to the 1948 decision of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal holding the Imperial Army responsible for forcing women to work as prostitutes.

An unprecedented agreement with Japan allowing the sharing of classified military intelligence data would be the first between Seoul and Tokyo since Japan's occupation of Korea. The two neighbors, long wary of each other, shared increasing defense concerns about North Korea and China. The new agreement would enhance trust and help Seoul with its concerns about Pyongyang because Japan and South Korea could share intelligence on North Korea's programs in pursuit of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. South Korea already has intelligence-sharing agreements or related memoranda of understanding with 24 other countries, including the United States, Russia, Germany, Israel and Pakistan. The agreement with Japan would be one of the most significant. However, it now cannot be signed until after legislative discussion in June 2012. The military information-sharing pact remained on hold as of early August 2012 after Korea's Lee Myung-bak administration encountered an unexpectedly strong backlash to the Cabinet's secretive approval of the deal with the former colonial ruler.

While North Korea remains Seoul's number one concern, especially in light of the asymmetric threat posed by DPRK nuclear weapons, the ROK military strongly desires to better equip itself to deal with "other contingencies." Aside from controversial historical issues, overall relations between Japan and the ROK had improved dramatically sicne the end of the Cold War. Although most Koreans did not view Japan as a security threat today, many Koreans did worry that Japan could once again become a threat because of a "follow-the-herd mentality" that made the Japanese capable "under certain conditions" of changing their intentions toward Korea dramatically. While this is an amorphous basis upon which to construct the ROK's national security strategy, such views are widely held among the Korean people. South Koreans therefore tend to view everything the Japanese government does -- from acquisition of Aegis class destroyers to Prime Minister Abe's comments about the comfort women issue -- through that prism.

Many Koreans understand that the "Japanese threat" had been wildly over-inflated for domestic political reasons. But widespread "Japan bashing" by Korean politicians has created a problem because it has distorted the average citizen's view of reality. Informed Korean elites, have very little concern about Japanese military power. As long as the U.S.-Japan Alliance remained strong, Japan would be in no position to pose a genuine threat to the ROK. Despite occasional "political chest-thumping" on anti-Japanese themes, ever increasing personal, economic, educational and cultural exchanges between Japan and the ROK will far outweigh the political rhetoric.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held their first formal bilateral talks 02 November 2015 to try to resolve a bitter diplomatic standoff over the contentious "comfort women" issue that has divided Washingtons two key military allies in Asia. Since she took office in 2013, Park had refused to meet with Abe until he offered a "sincere apology" and reparations to the thousands of Asian "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery by Japans military. Abe told reporters that he thinks they must not leave obstacles for the next generation, as they are headed toward building future-oriented cooperation.

Japan proposed to South Korea the creation of a new fund to support those referred to as comfort women at the meeting of their foreign ministers. But both sides remained apart over the size of the fund. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited South Korea on 28 December 2015 to meet his counterpart Yun Byung-se.

Japan and South Korea announced they had reached a settlement over a longstanding dispute involving Japan's responsibility for so-called "comfort women," who were forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese military during World War Two. The agreement includes over $8 million in financial restitution from Japan as well as an official apology. The Japanese side demanded that any settlement that is reached should be final and that the issue should never again be revisited.

Before the G20 began, President Moon and Prime Minister Abe met one-on-one 07 July 2017, in the first bilateral summit between the leaders of Seoul and Tokyo since September 2016. Moon proposed holding more frequent meetings with his Japanese counterpart. Abe replied that he hopes to foster a future-oriented relationship with President Moon and will closely cooperate with South Korea, especially on issues regarding North Korea.

Moon also addressed the issue of the controversial agreeement between the two countries on Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II. While Abe insisted that Seoul carry out the agreement, President Moon told him most Koreans are having difficulty accepting the deal, which is an emotional issue, and said Seoul and Tokyo must work together to resolve the situation wisely. President Moon said clearly that this issue should not become a stumbling block to other developments in South Korea and Japan's relations.

In June 2019 the South Korean Supreme Court ordered a couple of Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans victimized through forced labor during Japan's colonial rule in the early 1900s. Rulings by South Korea's Supreme Court in favor of the victims have rocked Seoul-Tokyo relations. The Japanese government insists the ruling placed the issue of wartime Korean laborers outside the scope of the 1965 Japan-Korea agreement on compensation. Experts on Korea-Japan relations say a possible solution could be a foundation funded by the South Korean government as well as corporations from the two countries.

South Korea's POSCO, which was formed from the five-hundred million U.S. dollars Tokyo paid Seoul in compensation, as well as Japan's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have been mentioned as firms that should fund the foundation. However, the Japanese government appeared reluctant, saying it cannot force the companies to provide funds and it might not guarantee a permanent solution to the issue. Meanwhile, right-wing activists in Japan have once again been taking to the streets for anti-Korea protests following the Supreme Court's ruling on the issue in late October 2018.

Tokyo slapped economic restrictions on South Korea as retaliation for Seoul upholding local court rulings to liquidate assets of certain Japanese companies operating in South Korea to compensate the Korean victims of Japan's wartime forced labor. The measures limited South Korea's access to Japanese chemicals that are essential to its electronics industry. Japan's export restrictions on semiconductor and display materials to South Korea began 05 July 2019. Exports to Seoul of high-tech materials used in semiconductor and smartphone production will have to be approved on a contract-by-contract basis.

The materials affected by Japan's new controls are vital components in making chips and display panels. Japanese officials say they revised them on security grounds, and that the move is in line with WTO rules. Tokyo's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, reiterated the claim that the export restrictions are meant not to retaliate against South Korea but only to properly control its exports for national security purposes.

"Foolish and hopeless" is how Bloomberg is describing Japan's actions against South Korea. In an editorial, it said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is abusing trade policy by using it to resolve a political dispute. It said Tokyo is clearly retaliating against South Korea for its top court rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate the Korean victims of wartime forced labor. Bloomberg added that, through the export curbs, Japanese suppliers will lose market share as well as their reputation for reliability and that Tokyo should make the first move in lifting the export controls.

The New York Times criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for "copying" U.S. President Donald Trump in citing "national security" as grounds for curbing the export of high-tech materials to South Korea. The paper reported that Tokyo had alluded to "vague" threats to its security and echoed Seoul's sentiment that the move was politically-motivated.

A July 2019 survey showed that nearly 80 percent of Koreans are reluctant to buy Japanese products and services, as tensions rise between the two neighboring countries. That's according to a poll by Gallup Korea. Only 15 percent of respondents said they were not reluctant with the other five percent declining to answer. Half of the respondents, meanwhile, thought the Korean government was doing a good job handling the trade row. More than a third said it wasn't. In a separate poll by Realmeter, more than 60 percent of Korean adults surveyed said they were boycotting Japanese goods - a steady rise over the past two weeks.

President Moon Jae-in requested President Trump's involvement during their bilateral summit in Seoul in June 2019. This was part of Seoul's move to resolve the issue diplomatically. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned the South Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo, after the South Korean government failed to respond to Japan's call for third-country arbitration to settle the forced labor dispute.

The Japanese Cabinet decided 02 August 2019 to remove South Korea from a list of nations entitled to simplified export-control procedures. Japan's decision represented a second round of tightening export controls for South Korea, following an increase in screening for materials to make semiconductors and display panels.

President Moon described Japan's decision to drop South Korea from its whitelist of trusted importers as a "grave challenge" to the two countries' relations and a "selfish" move that will greatly hamper the global economy. Moon said 03 august 2019 that "It's become obvious that the Japanese government is responsible for having made the situation worse by ignoring the Korean government and the international community's efforts to resolve the issue diplomatically. Accordingly, I unequivocally warn that the Japanese government will be entirely responsible for what unfolds going forward."

The president, while blasting Japan for its actions, at the same time, called on the people of Korea to stand together, united. He said when Koreans believe in the competence of their government and their companies, large and small, with confidence we can overcome this crisis. "If we take the current challenges as an opportunity to make a new economic leap forward, we can triumph over Japan. Our economy can surpass Japan's."

South Korea's finance minister Hong Nam-ki said that South Korea will thoroughly and strongly cope with Japan's latest decision, as it has prepared countermeasures for all possible scenarios. That included removing Japan from its whitelist of 29 trusted trading partners. South Korean Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki said, "As Japan's measures to tighten export controls are totally against the WTO rules, we will accelerate the preparation to take the case to the organization." Hong said Seoul will also remove Japan from its own list of trusted trade partners.

Following a lengthy debate within the presidential National Security Council, the South Korean presidential office said 21 August 2019 that Seoul intended to rescind the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. The pact was due to be automatically renewed on Saturday. "We have determined that it would not serve our national interest to maintain an agreement we signed with the aim of exchanging military information which is sensitive to security", Kim You-geun, a deputy director of the National Security Council, told a news conference.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano said that Tokyo vehemently objected to South Korea's decision to scrap the defence pact. "I have to say the decision to end the pact by the South Korean government is a complete misjudgement of the current regional security environment and it is extremely regrettable", Taro Kono said in a statement.

The agreement had been unpopular in South Korea. As early as in 2012, Lee Myung-bak's government prepared to sign the deal with Japan, but it backed off at the last minute as the domestic opposition grew too strong. When Park Geun-hye gave the green light to the agreement in 2016, nearly 60 percent of Koreans opposed it, among which Moon's Democratic Party was a leading voice. For President Moon, he just undid a move that he and his party once tried to stop but failed.

The agreement certainly helped facilitate intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan, but Yonhap News Agency quoted a senior South Korean official as saying that "South Korea never used Japan's intelligence in analyzing North Korea's missile launches under the current Moon Jae-in administration." As South Korea seeks good relations with both North Korea and China, the agreement, which mainly targets the two nations, has become less attractive in South Korea's policy toolbox.

Japan had weaponized its trade with South Korea in order to redress the historical dispute, Seoul did not hesitate to reciprocate by picking up a fight in the security field. For South Korea, stopping the renewal of GSOMIA not only is less costly than resorting to trade countermeasures, but it can also force the US to intervene as Washington feels the pain caused with Seoul's withdrawal from security cooperation. The unraveling of the GSOMIA marks a new low in Seoul-Tokyo relations.

Since the end of the WWII, the US had painstakingly built a hub-and-spoke alliance system, in which the US alliances with Japan and South Korea constitute the bedrock of US security architecture in Northeast Asia. The alliance system had served US national interests well during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War era, the US continued to reinforce its traditional bilateral alliances and at the same time began to strengthen a horizontal connection between two alliances. As a result of the effort, the US, Japan and Australia introduced trilateral ministerial meetings into their security cooperation. For years, Obama administration had worked to build some trilateral security mechanisms with South Korea and Japan. In addition to the regular three-way policy consultations among themselves, the US government also encouraged Japan and South Korea to share intelligence.

The 2016 GSOMIA not only enabled Seoul and Tokyo to directly exchange sensitive information about North Korea's missile and nuclear weapon program, but also paved the way to upgrade their security cooperation in the future. The demise of the GSOMIA may make their previous work worthless, undermine their capability to track North Korea's development of missile and nuclear weapons and deepen their mutual suspicion that may take years to recover.

Japan decided to partially lift trade restrictions on South Korea's semiconductor components. Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said 20 December 2019 it will remove some of its export restrictions on photoresist, one of the three key materials along with fluorine polyimide and etching gas used to make semiconductors and display panels. Japan had slapped trade curbs on those materials bound for South Korea in July, triggering a trade dispute and deteriorating relations between the two neighbors. South Korea's Blue House said the move can be seen as partial progress, but it added that it does not represent a fundamental solution to solving the issue.

Bilateral relations have worsened over the course of the pandemic in 2020. Japan showed great displeasure over the proposed expansion of the G7 summit which would include South Korea, Australia, India and Russia. A South Korean court announced 04 June 2020 that it will start liquidating the assets of a Japanese firm that ignored rulings in 2018 to compensate the Korean victim's of Japan's wartime forced labor. The district court in Pohang has decided to deliver public notice of the asset seizure because Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal has failed to acknowledge the ruling.

South Korea decided to reopen a complaint filed with the World Trade Organization in 2019 over Tokyo's unilateral export restrictions placed on Korean companies, after a Seoul court ordered Japanese firms to compensate its victims of forced labor during Japan's brutal colonization of Korea in the 1900s. Tokyo's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said 04 June 2020 that Japan will respond to the issue with every option on the table. This could further escalate the trade war.




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