Moon Jae-in’s “Two-track” Japan Policy: Prospects for Success

President Moon Jae-in and his new government, launched immediately after the election results on May 9, 2017, is taking a “two-track” strategy towards Japan. For example, Moon Hee-sang, deputy chair of the National Assembly and former chair of the Japan-South Korea Dietmen’s League, who headed the special envoy team to Japan, mentioned on his way back home that the “comfort woman” issue, though very important, would not jeopardize the importance of the South Korea-Japan relationship in general. The “two-track” approach means that the administration will separate its handling of the “comfort woman” and other history-related issues from non-history matters such as economic and security issues. The general response to this policy seems to be positive, especially from experts on South Korea-Japan relations, mostly because it is a more realistic stance for making progress on the “comfort woman” issue than to renegotiate it entirely, which was stressed by Moon as a candidate and by other candidates during the election campaign. The “two-track” approach improves the prospects for finding common ground with Japan on some of South Korea’s high priority national interests.

Implementing the “two-track” Japan policy is not likely to be easy, nor does it guarantee a resolution of the “comfort woman” issue. It is not yet known how the victims and their support groups—which continue to maintain their position—will evaluate the “two-track” strategy. Further, there is no indication that the Japanese government under Prime Minister Abe will respond positively, agreeing to reexamining the process. Yet, one reason that the new government appears optimistic for the future of South Korea-Japan relationship, including the “comfort woman” issue, is the sympathy it has shown to the victims and, thus, the positive relationship it enjoys with them. This is an essential first step in handling and solving the issue.

However, as many know, the “two-track” strategy is not at all a new one. As the difficulties with President Park Geun-hye’s earlier approach to Japan mounted and demands from President Barack Obama intensified, the Park administration shifted to a “two-track” approach. But this was not sufficient to alleviate the criticism coming from some of the victims and their supporters. It showed not only the importance of forging confidence between the government and the victims, but that the “comfort woman” issue is inherently difficult, when we consider the seemingly insurmountable differences of opinion between the Japanese government and the victims.

In South Korea-Japan relationship, there are other important issues that need to be settled, but they are particularly difficult to manage when entangled with the history-related issues such as the “comfort women” problem. GSOMIA between South Korea and Japan is one example. Though both share the need to cooperate in the face of increasing threat from North Korea, their agreement on the sharing military information had to wait several years to be signed, after the South Korean side pulled back. In fact, this issue still continues to stir controversy in South Korea, as many draw links to history-related issues, which tend to rekindle accusations that Japan is poised to resume a path of militarization.

Given the challenges facing South Korea-Japan relations, this article considers conditions for making Moon’s “two-track” Japan policy successful. First, it examines the environment surrounding the bilateral relationship, including the domestic situations in Japan and South Korea as well as relevant developments in international politics. Second, it suggests ways to overcome the obstacles arising from these varied factors.

The Uncertainty of the International and Regional Environment

The word most suitable to describe the present international and regional environment affecting the South Korea-Japan relations is “uncertainty.” As generally agreed upon, the rise of China and the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities are the main causes of this uncertainty. The major reason that many neighboring countries of China are disturbed by its rise as a global power is that it has accompanied Chinese efforts to change the existing order in the region and to impose its preferred direction. China’s construction of military facilities in the South China Sea area is a prominent example. Despite strong protests from its Southeast Asian neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam, China continues to demonstrate assertive behavior in the South China Sea, where it claims both territorial sovereignty and the right to constrain others’ access to the area.

China is also in dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and regularly dispatches vessels to the islands. China’s claim over the islands became much stronger after 2011, once it had surpassed Japan in GDP, suggesting that as its economy grows, it is more inclined to throw its weight around. There are many explanations for why the Senkaku conflict has recently intensified and why China approaches the issue so aggressively, but it is certain that China is not hesitant to flex its power in order to change the existing order.

China’s criticism over the deployment of THAAD on the South Korean soil is another example of how a rising China is trying to exert power over its neighbors. Seoul’s explanation that it is for defense against a North Korean missile attack and its radar would not be directed towards China has, so far, not worked to alleviate China’s concerns. At the same time, China has failed to show sincerity in complying with South Korea’s demand to pressure North Korea to give up its development of nuclear and missile weapons and open dialogue with the South, as witnessed in China’s limited response to the North’s 5th nuclear test in early 2016.

However limited China’s persuasive power with North Korea may be, even if Beijing implemented sanctions fully and agreed to expand them as others have sought, this does not excuse China’s paltry response as it criticizes and retaliates against Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD. It reveals that the North’s nuclear and missile development are not perceived as a threat in China, which may mean that China’s aim is not only to protest against the deployment of THAAD, but also to oblige the South to follow its directions and, ultimately, split away from its ally and China’s true threat, the United States.

North Korea’s development of nuclear and missile capabilities has a long history of more than a quarter century. The level of its threat has increased, and now it extends to the United States, as well as to South Korea and Japan. The real problem is that there is no effective means to sanction and stop North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s commitment to the development of nuclear and missile capabilities, as demonstrated by persistent tests, is evidence that the sanctions have not deterred the regime from pursuing nuclearization.

The increasing threats from a rising China and a nuclear North Korea influence the security environment of both South Korea and Japan, but cannot be said to affect the South Korea-Japan relationship directly. Japan’s “nationalist” responses to these threats, however, affect the bilateral relationship, since they aim to change postwar Japan’s policy in security and education. Though there is a common threat from both China and North Korea, the uniqueness of their history prevents South Korean and Japan to prioritize and cooperate against these common threats.

Another factor likely to influence the South Korea-Japan relationship is the way US foreign policy seems to be headed under President Trump. The extent of conflict between South Korea and Japan in 2013-15 was so severe that President Obama decided that he had to intervene. But President Trump, championing his slogan “America First,” focuses on bilateral ties to Asian and other countries and is not expected to care much about conflicts among its partners, including between South Korea and Japan.

Fluctuating Bilateral Situation

The fluctuating state of bilateral relations is mainly caused by three factors. First, Japan is taking nationalist approaches to adapt to its changing regional environment. Especially under Prime Minister Abe, Japan has upgraded its defense posture in response to the worsening security environment due to the threats from North Korea and China. The introduction of collective self-defense operations and Abe’s plans for constitutional revision are representative of such Japanese nationalism. Though Abe has described these responses as a “pro-active pacifist” approach, there is not much doubt that their basic characteristic is “nationalist,” especially due to the following two aspects.

First, though many explanations for the need to revise the “peace” constitution of postwar Japan have been offered, many in South Korea suspect that the main reason for Abe and the LDP is not something Japan produced, but one given by the Occupation regime. This is why Abe’s goal in constitutional revision may not be aimed at altering Article 9 (the “peace” clause), but just to revise the constitution without touching this article. This makes sense if we realize that for security matters the meaning of the constitution has already been greatly altered by legal changes such as the introduction of the right of collective self-defense.

Second, Abe’s pursuit of “pro-active pacifism” in foreign and security arenas has been accompanied by various domestic moves to realize his nationalist policy. He tried to change the “Kono” statement, which admitted Japan’s involvement in forcefully recruiting comfort women. Eventually, he had to retreat due to criticism from many parts of the world including the United States. Though he has not personally visited the Yasukuni Shrine since 2013, he has not failed to offer tokens of his respect. Furthermore, under him, nationalist contents have been added to textbooks—for instance, insisting that Dokdo is Japanese territory. The most recent concern is the cabinet decision to allow the prewar imperial rescript on education to be used in schools. Some harsh critics argue that Abe’s ultimate goal is to revive the prewar system.

Such nationalist approaches negatively influence the South Korea-Japan relationship. As seen in the mushrooming of the “netto-uyoku” (rightist networks), they can lead Japanese people to have a negative perception of South Korea or, at least, to distance themselves from South Korea. This, in turn, aggravates South Koreans’ perceptions of Japan. Japan’s nationalist responses are now recognized as a long-term trend, bound to survive after Abe. There could be some differences in degree, but as seen in the DJP government under Prime Minister Noda, the strengthening of Japan’s defense posture will persist even without an LDP government. While perceptions in the United States and elsewhere treat the strengthened defense of Japan as a realist response to rising danger in the region and not an indicator of historical revisionism or rampant nationalism, South Koreans are more prone to connect Abe’s moves to a revival of nationalism in Japan.

The Perception Gap between Korea and Japan on Threats and Responses

Besides history-related issues such as the “comfort women,” one of the major reasons that the
South Korea-Japan relationship has been fluctuating in recent years is that there is a perception gap between South Korea and Japan on the threats and the means needed to respond to them. The results of various public opinion polls in Japan on the relationship with China generally show that the Japanese regard China and North Korea as the most threatening countries. For example, the survey conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun in January 2013, revealed that 79% of the respondents picked China as the most threatening country to Japan and 77% chose North Korea as the second most threatening country.1 The same survey showed that 88% of the Japanese respondents replied negatively to the question of whether they trust China, including 50% that checked “not at all,” and 38%, “not much.” The public opinion survey conducted by the Cabinet Office of Japan on foreign relations suggests that this kind of lack of confidence towards China accelerated around 2003 when the issue of Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine provoked China’s strong criticism and subsequent conflicts in bilateral relations. Again, many South Koreans disagree with the general view that Japan’s increasing distrust of China largely followed from China’s unprovoked and excessively assertive behavior.

The negative perceptions of the Japanese toward North Korea are likewise evident in recent public opinion surveys. For example, 81% of the respondents to Yomiuri Shimbun’s survey in September 2016 demanded that the government strengthen its sanctions against North Korea following its 5th nuclear test.2 In its 2017 survey, Yomiuri also found that 64% of the Japanese respondents positively evaluated Trump’s strong stance against North Korea,3 and that 93% see North Korea’s development of nuclear and missile capabilities as a threat—60% characterizing the threat as “great” and 33% as “somewhat” of a threat.

A survey of South Koreans shows different results. The East Asian Institute reported in 2013 that only 9.3% of Korean respondents replied that the South Korea-Japan relationship is more important than the South Korea-China relationship, while at least 13.9% of the Japanese respondents regarded the Japan-South Korea relationship as more important than the Japan-China one.4 There was a notable difference between the South Koreans and the Japanese in terms of their views of each other relative to China: only 13.5% of the South Korean respondents felt friendlier towards Japan than China, while 36.2% of the Japanese felt closer towards South Korea than China.

It may be unremarkable to find that both populations view China as more important than the other country since China is much bigger in both economic and security spheres, compared to either of the two. The aforementioned 2013 survey of Yomiuri Shimbun, which compared the results from the Japanese and American respondents, also showed a perception gap, in which American respondents ranked China as the third most important US military threat (58%), after the Middle East (74%) and North Korea (72%). The Japanese view of China as a threat is much stronger.

The perception gap between South Korea and Japan also influences each country’s preferred method of dealing with the North Korean threat. While most Japanese respondents regard North Korea as a threat and prefer stronger measures against it, the Asan Institute indicated in one of its 2017 reports that the percentage of the South Korean respondents in favor of applying stronger sanctions against North Korea fell from 50.6% in February 2016 to 42.2% of September 2016, reflecting concerns that stronger measures would step up the North’s provocations.
Another perception gap regards the two countries’ perceived need for each other, which appears at least partly responsible for the oft-reemerging conflicts between them. Gallup Korea in 2014 found that only 30% of the Korean respondents think that improvement in the North Korea-Japan relationship would be helpful to South Korea, while as many as 55% respondents think it would not be helpful.5 In addition, 79% of respondents regard the reinforcement of Japanese military capabilities as threatening, whereas only 8% see it as helpful.

Distrust is one of the likeliest reasons that more respondents do not believe a closer South Korea-Japan cooperation is needed in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat (48% do not agree, 40% do). Many more factors can be cited for the diminishing sense of mutual necessity besides distrust. South Korea’s economic growth and the accompanied sense of increased self-esteem are two examples. Increased self-esteem does not help to see that South Korea needs Japan more than the other way around for economic as well as security reasons. Gallup Korea in 2014 showed that 75% of the South Korean respondents agree that the South Korea-Japan relationship should get better; only 9% see the present stalemate as acceptable while another 12% see a worse state as bearable.6 However, this does fully capture the range of reasons for why South Korea needs Japan.

Table 1. Level of Friendliness as perceived by the Japanese (%)

(Source: Cabinet Office of Japan; the upper column for 2016 shows the level of friendliness and the lower column indicates the level of importance attributed to Japan’s relations with each country)

Similar results can be noticed in Japan. Table 1 above shows the survey results of the Cabinet Office, in which 69.7% (March 2016) and 69.0% (December 2016) of the Japanese respondents acknowledge the necessity of improved South Korea-Japan relations, but the percentage acknowledging this is lower than for the Japan-China relationship, despite the low degree of friendliness felt by the Japanese for China (14.8% and 16.8% in 2014). After 2010, when the level reached more than 60%, friendliness fell dramatically Yet, 33.0% in early 2016 is still more than twice the percentage of 13.5% reported by EAI. This suggests that the need to cooperate with each other should be felt more by the South Korean side.

Suggestions for a Successful “Two-track” Japan Policy

The present South Korea-Japan relationship can be summarized in the following four ways. First, the environment surrounding the relationship is, at best, uncertain, mainly due to China’s offensive turn and North Korea’s insistence on nuclear and missile development. This means that South Korea and Japan, with these common threats, share an interest in cooperation. Second, there are differences in how threatened they feel from these two forces and how they respond to them. The Japanese feel more threatened and more prone to respond by rebuilding Japan’s military capabilities against the threats. Third, the differences in perception are somewhat widened as trust and friendliness felt for each other have been weakened. South Koreans feel friendlier towards China, and less compelled to cooperate with Japan or even recognize its necessity. Fourth, the present situation is that South Korea is less considerate than Japan towards each other. Moon and his new government may find it hard to pursue a cooperative relationship, given the domestic opinion. Though both countries recognize the importance of good bilateral relations, South Koreans have reservations about pursuing cooperation in specific areas such as military information sharing.

One reason that the Moon administration adopted a “two-track” Japan policy and expects an improvement in relations is that it has shown sympathy towards the demands of the “comfort women” victims and their support groups, which enable him overcome the difficulties at home. As the history-related issues are very complicated, oversimplification of the challenges is likely to yield unwelcome results. The divergence of positions between the Japanese government and the recalcitrant “comfort women” victims is wide, raising doubt that it can be narrowed. Japan’s positions that it has apologized, that the compensation issue has been settled with the conclusion of the 1965 basic agreement, that there is no evidence for forceful recruitment of comfort women, and, especially, that the December 2015 agreement put this issue to rest, seem to leave no room for compromise. Meanwhile, the “comfort women” victims and their support groups demand that the Japanese government should offer an official apology and pay legal damages as compensation. Since their respective positions are hard to change, it is very difficult to find middle ground. The 2015 agreement has been the object of criticism since the compromise made by South Korean authorities poorly reflected the needs of the victims or and their support groups.

Nonetheless, there is room to find agreement. For instance, even if Abe already stated that he would not write a letter of apology, there is a possibility that the letter can be written since the so-called “Sasaki” idea has already included an apology letter. For South Koreans, it is essential that the Japanese government communicate with the victims with sincerity. This may include discussing with the victims what is possible and what is not. Both sides have to make concessions to reach a new agreement. Therefore, the Korean government has to be honest about what is possible through frequent, and honest communication.

To reduce the threats from China and North Korea, both South Korea and Japan must maintain a steady and strong alliance with the United States and, to that end, a friendly South Korea-Japan relationship. South Korea might want to have a special aide working solely on the South Korea-Japan relationship. To avoid a scene in which South Koreans are provoked by the “comfort women” issue, South Korea might start with a time frame and action plan as part of its “two-track” strategy as a precondition for improved ties to Japan. After all, the first target the Korean government has to face is the domestic group, which eventually can give it strength in negotiations.

South Korea also needs sincere talks with the Japanese side, which currently maintains the position that renegotiation is not an option. It will require patience and fresh ideas to induce Japan to return to the table. This is the present approach of the Moon government, which is conveying South Korea’s public opinion regarding the “comfort women” issue without directly calling for renegotiation.

There may come a time when both countries must acquiesce that their differences cannot be narrowed. Since this would trigger great political turmoil in the relationship, it would be a great challenge for Moon. But considering the precarious situation in the Northeast Asian region, it would not be good for the “comfort women” problem and other history-related issues to overshadow the entire relationship, as special envoy, Moon Hee-sang has rightly mentioned. There is a need to clearly recognize the importance South Korea-Japan relations from the perspective of South Korean national interests. To effectively respond to the threats from China and North Korea, a strong tie with Japan is critical. China’s consistent demand for South Korea to join in criticism against Japan offers evidence of its importance. Japan’s capabilities to gather information about North Korea is another example, which is why GSOMIA has been signed. Most of all, it should be remembered that the strength of the South Korea-US relationship derives partly from a strong South Korea-Japan relationship, as seen in the demands and mediation of the Obama administration.

Economics too attest to Japan’s great importance for South Korea. As the number of Chinese visitors to South Korea fluctuates due to the THAAD controversy, Japanese visitors could be the counterbalance. More importantly, Japan would be a good job market for South Korean youth seeking employment, considering the relatively prosperous economy of Japan and good labor market for talent.

The “two-track” Japan policy requires patience to endure the challenges both at home and abroad. But given the present difficulties South Korea faces in economic and security spheres, the success of this policy is simply essential.

1. Lee Myon-woo, ““The Strengthening of ’Rightist’ Tendency in Japan and its Impacts on Northeast Asia,” The Sejong Institute, no. 3, 2014.

2. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 12, 2016.

3. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2017.

4. “Report on the Comparative Analysis of South Korea and Japan: the 1st Public Opinion Survey for South Koreans and Japanese,” East Asian Institute, no.5, 2013.

5. “Gallup Korea Daily Opinion,” Gallup Korea, no. 3, 2014.

6. Ibid.