Country Report: South Korea (November 2013)

Japan and the ROK-US-Japan triangle preoccupied the Korean media through the early autumn. Criticism of the Abe administration only intensified, but it came amid growing concern about whether further deterioration in ROK-Japan relations was advisable and, even more, how to respond to increasing military ties between Japan and the United States. There was no sign that Korean criticisms were altering the way Japanese officials and Diet members were dealing with historical issues. One commentary noted that the number of Shrine visits of Diet members from the group that visits the Yasukuni Shrine together had doubled or tripled (168 in April and 102 in August) compared to the 50-80 member visits in the past.

When Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se urged his Japanese counterpart Kishida Fumio to resolve historical issues including the “sex slaves” issue, Kishida responded by criticizing a District Court* ruling that Japanese firms owe compensation to forced Korean labor. When the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs uploaded a video arguing that Dokdo (Senkaku) is Japanese territory, more criticism targeted the Abe administration. Yet, the focus directly on history issues was overshadowed by increasingly strident criticism of new military thinking in Japan. News regarding US consent to Japan’s military expansion or the right to collective self-defense added to the tension. One observer warned, “Japan’s military build-up without apologies for its history” is going to change the regional security order.

The 2+2 meeting of US and Japanese officials stirred considerable commentary. Song Ju-myung expressed opposition to the idea of rushing into a summit meeting after this 2+2 meeting, arguing that Korea needs to set a new comprehensive diplomatic strategy first to deal with the current situation. Linking military issues to historical memory, Song insisted that Korea-Japan relations face “structural conflict” due, above all, to the rise of conservative nationalists in Japan, who, under Abe, would rearm Japan and not change its historical stance. His argument that it is not the right time to hasten a meeting seems to rule out a summit for a long time ahead.

Park Cheol-Hee approves of a summit, advocating an informal meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit. He is wary of the wrong impression a delay would give to the Japanese public that Korea is ignoring it, a reminder of President Park’s August 15 speech in support of separating Japanese politicians from the public, and warning that the delay would empower hardliners in both countries. Park Cheol-Hee insisted that it is not a shameful action but a sign of diplomatic skill to prepare for a summit meeting with a neighboring country under the shadow of deteriorating relations. After no bilateral summit materialized at the October regional gatherings and the degree of US support for Japan on self-defense became clear, Park Cheol-Hee argued that Korea needs to broaden its diplomatic horizons with Japan from bilateral issues to Northeast Asia. Calling Korea’s policy toward Japan “strategic patience,” he foresees that the current stalemate will last for a long time. Making things more difficult, he observes, is that increasing numbers of people on each side believe that their country is innocent in the current deterioration of relations.

After the 2+2 dialogue, triangular themes rose to the forefront in October. Looking on the bright side, Park Cheol-Hee argued that the fact Defense Secretary Hagel did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine but an alternative site without a problematic image shows that the United States is on Korea’s side on the history issue. He adds that the United States has no choice, given its fiscal crisis, but to welcome an increase in Japan’s defense budget, and that pro-Chinese comments in Korean media, made from anti-Japanese sentiments, would cast doubt on Korean credibility in the United States as well as in Japan. For Park, a summit with Japan would allow each to deliver a clear message to the other and would serve the goal of trustpolitik in the region.

Park Cheol-Hee suggested a possible credibility issue with the US that a delayed summit meeting would cause. Thus, he didn’t argue that South Korean diplomatic credibility has been damaged but that it might be, provided that Korea keeps delaying the meeting under circumstances of increasing pro-China comments made from anti-Japanese sentiment in the country. Park Cheol-Hee also says that it is better to have the bilateral summit meeting sooner rather than later as it prevents such a risk and current US support on the history issue gives a strategic upper hand in talks.

Jang Daljoong also approves of a bilateral summit, warning that with a rising China and a right-leaning Japan, a cold war may resume in East Asia. Observing that historical issues were trumped by security concerns in the Cold War era when Japan was willing to coexist with neighboring countries, even making compromises on historical issues, he also recalls that the Japanese war generation felt guilty and had the confidence to show tolerance based on Japan’s advanced modernization. However, Jang argues, postwar generations do not have war memories and have lost this tolerance as South Korea and China have developed rapidly. In the current mood of grasping for pride after short-term economic success, conservative nationalism has become the political mainstream. Yet, Jang concludes that a summit could be productive if both sides avoid provoking the other, and it could capitalize on high approval ratings for Park Geun-hye and Abe Shinzo to keep nationalism in check before it becomes uncontrollable in mutual sentiments. He also mentions that now security concerns cannot prevent worsening relations because South Korean ties with China are closer.

New approaches have recently been suggested to deal with a new regional order caused by the US stance “prioritizing Japan” in the region: 1) a government-led approach; 2) a private sector-led approach; and 3) a multilateral cooperation mechanism. These approaches put ROK-Japan relations in a broader context.

A columnist from Joongang Ilbo highlights that Japan has had and will have a bigger presence in Washington than Korea has, concluding that it is because the United States values Japan’s “future,” whereas Korea is concerned about its past. He opines that the current situation is problematic for Korea because it would have to choose between China and the United States. Another article in the same paper noted that Korea’s diplomatic position is “sandwiched” between China and the United States, and Japan is cooperating with the latter through missile defense and the TPP, which are both to contain China. With China critical of such moves, the author argues that a new cold war is poised to begin and Korea needs to deal with pressure from the two world powers. Jin Changsoo asserts that “US approval [of Japan’s moves] signals a change to the current security structure in East Asia aiming at creating a network to counterbalance China,” adding that it will pressure Korea to join the missile defense program, and “Korea has to decide how to respond to US-led change in the regional order.” The author also expresses concern that increasing tension between Japan and China will take the spotlight away from the North Korean nuclear issue, adding that US positioning of 2-3 drones in Japan for the first time next January will expedite the arms race between Beijing and Tokyo. Korea’s diplomatic strategy should aim at deterring the emergence of a new cold war in the region and at taking the lead in inter-Korean negotiations.

A Chosun Ilbo observer argues that the Park administration needs to make a practical deal with Japan to maintain balance between China and Japan, while cooperating with the United States. Revising Japanese politicians’ historical stance is beyond Korea’s capability because Washington is in favor of Japan’s military expansion, the world chooses to keep silent on the issue, and Abe records a high favorability rating. Thus, the observer proposes to let Japan decide about domestic issues, such as its right to self-defense and the Yasukuni Shrine, but to take the lead on bilateral negotiations, such as Dokdo (Senkaku) and the comfort women issue. There were two arguments: 1) The bilateral relationship is important to Seoul in economic, industrial, and technical cooperation aspects, and 2) Seoul needs to come up with a new strategy to cooperate with the US prioritizing Japan in East Asia. The author concludes that such a balance in diplomacy is required to deal with newly posed security concerns in Korea. Acknowledging a brutal reality that South Korea lacks the capability to secure itself on its own, the author opines that such a balance in diplomacy is not a surrendering gesture but a pragmatic one. This is justified by arguments that Korea’s political and economic position is totally different from in the colonial era and that anxiety over possible repetition of history is unnecessary. This is justified by arguments that Korea’s political and economic position is totally different from in the colonial era and that anxiety over possible repetition of history is unnecessary.

There are also suggestions to facilitate private sector exchanges and multilateral cooperation, in light of the “adverse effect or counterproductivity of public apologies,” as noted in Jennifer Lind’s Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. The backlash caused by an apology has been much bigger in Japan than Germany. The case of France in dealing with historical issues with Germany shows the value of: 1) vital exchanges in the private sector; and 2) multilateral organizations to hold Germany in check. It follows that policy towards Japan should be refocused on change in civil society, abandoning a policy of only requesting apologies. As a multilateral cooperation mechanism, the author, writing in Joongang Ilbo, strongly suggests the CJK FTA to increase the interdependence of the three countries.

A Hankyoreh observer also stresses cooperation with Japanese civil society. The author acknowledges the worrisome nature of Japan having over 30 tons of plutonium that can be used to make nuclear warheads, being able to fire ICBMs with minor technical improvement, and spending more than the UK and France on defense. However, the author perceives Japan to be taking steps to be merely “a normal state,” not to be “a military state.” Given the reality that Korea has no diplomatic leverage to stop these trends, he stresses the necessity of building a national consensus on policy towards Japan, as a normal state. The author asks Seoul to revise current conditional policy of only confronting Japan, while cooperating with communities to strengthen pacifism as the only way to stop the militarism of some politicians.

Another observer criticizes US policy in the region for triggering conflicts, arguing that only multilateral security architecture including China will resolve problems. Reminding readers that the first Armitage report of 2000 and the RAND Institute report in June 2001 show that the collective self-defense discussion was started and led by the United States and is a short-sighted trigger for an arms race in the region, the author asks if China deserves to be treated like the USSR in the Cold War era. Given that it is economically cooperative and interdependent, he questions the rationality of labeling it “a common enemy” to reinforce the US-Japan alliance. In these circumstances Park’s trustpolitik is the only option because Seoul is under the security umbrella of Washington, learns cutting edge technologies from Tokyo, and achieves economic security through trade with Beijing.

Lee Sook-Jong’s policy paper in EAI nonpyong on how to develop trustpolitik in the East Asia region points out that Park’s approach lacks specifics and suggests choosing one focal point, such as resolving maritime territorial disputes. Lee argues that cooperation on soft issues in the region rarely results in spillover; thus, it is necessary to target ground zero in current conflicts, history disputes, and maritime territorial issues. Lee proposes targeting the latter, as it cannot be naturally resolved in the long run through generational change, as in the case of the former issue, and because it poses the greatest threat to trigger a war. While some contend that Korea is not able to take the initiative for multilateral talks—claiming Korea is too weak for international powers, such as Japan and China, to accept its leadership, and on issues directly linked to national security, cooperation is impossible—Lee’s rebuttals are; it can proceed if this is not seen as threatening to China or Japan and its favorability is higher than that of Japan in China, or vice versa; and the issue is multi-dimensional to include issues that facilitate multilateral cooperation easily, such as use of maritime resources. The author concludes that cooperation on soft issues in one sector develops trust to enable cooperation on hard issues in the same sector, such as territorial disputes. Reminding that trust among political leaders is critical to build a regional institution, Lee urges Park to show trust leadership to bring about empathy and willingness to cooperate. Lee reiterates that leadership is the essence differentiating her trustpolitik from former trust-building attempts. This is seen as the way to build trust, and Park needs to show leadership toward that end.

The US-led missile defense system aroused debate over whether it is indispensable to the Korea-US-Japan trilateral alliance, together with Japan’s right of self-defense. Strong opposition to joining the former was raised by the left, as by an observer in Hangyoreh, who also expressed shock over the US stance on the latter. The author urged the Korean government to convey a clear message to the United States and Japan that Seoul will never approve Japan’s rearmament until Tokyo revises its historical stance and this will limit trilateral security cooperation, adding that containing China is not a viable option as cooperation with China is needed on the issue of North Korea, economic development, and shared prosperity in the region. Another observer argues that China will reinforce its military alliance with the DPRK as soon as the ROK joins any network that contains China, resulting in increased security threats. Why reinforce the ROK-US alliance when a ROK-US-Japan trilateral alliance means a new cold war in the region? Hangyoreh finds that US missile defense cannot destroy the DPRK’s missiles before they land in Seoul, so why join in the MD program?

Fear of overdependence on the ROK-US alliance is raised at both extremes. Hangoyreh sees a contradiction in the Korean government’s desire for the United States to have longer-term OPCON while also conveying the message to the US government that Seoul wants the right to be consulted on whether Japan can have the right to act in collective self-defense. Kyunghyang argues that overdependence on the US alliance narrows Korea’s diplomatic options and that the military alliance should be downsized. On the right, Joongang Ilbo stresses the need for expediting the building of Korea’s missile defense system, arguing that the ROK-US alliance cannot fix every security issue.

Another theme drawing close attention is whether Korea should join TPP. Huh Yun lists reasons to do so: 1) It will have an opportunity to project its own voice in the negotiations, which are considered to be, largely, a US-Japan FTA; 2) unified rules of origin would increase Korean companies’ ability to advance intra-regional production networks; 3) TPP negotiations will upgrade bilateral agreements with ASEAN and the United States; and 4) it will reinforce relations with allies to effectively counterbalance China. Jung Chul offers the following reasons as well: 1) The specifics of TPP negotiations are closed to non-participants; 2) late-participants have to accept the deal without modification (5-6 parts out of 29 have reached an agreement and most remaining parts are close to the final stage); and 3) the number of participants is likely to increase, leading to higher costs as new membership needs approval from all member countries.

In contrast, Jung Inkyo lists three reasons for more caution: 1) TPP will lead to renegotiation of the KORUS FTA, i.e. Washington will try to revise arrangements on beef, rice, the service sector, and non-trade barriers; and Seoul will have its own list; 2) the Korea-China FTA would pose a huge risk as opening the agricultural sector will be a major issue next year, only made more complex if revision of the KORUS FTA is under way; and 3) TPP means a new FTA with Japan, whose stance would not change even in the framework of TPP as market opening is subject to bilateral negotiations. The author concludes that joining the TPP after Korea and China reach agreement to an FTA and on tariffs on rice would not be too late.

*Corrected: The decision was made by a district court, not the Korean Supreme Court as in the earlier version. The latter’s decision is to be made this year.