Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Japan and South Korea: a logical but uneasy alignment

Is a compensation deal to right colonial-era wrongs part of a strategic shift towards rapprochement?

Japan–South Korea contestation has a strong domestic ideological colouring (insung yoon/Unsplash)
Japan–South Korea contestation has a strong domestic ideological colouring (insung yoon/Unsplash)

This month, Japan and South Korea struck a deal on the compensation of Korean labour imposed by the Japanese empire during Tokyo’s 1910–45 rule over the Korean Peninsula. The issue has been unresolved since the South Korean courts cleared descendants of those labourers to pursue damages against successor Japanese companies.

The issue inevitably got caught up in the larger, tangled debate between the two countries over the imperial period. South Korea has demanded a level of contrition from Japan that few colonial powers have ever shown to their former possessions. Japan has apologised but often danced around the harsh realities of its colonial policy, with periodic outbursts from rightist civil society that the empire was, in fact, good for Korea because it modernised it.

Politically, this has been a quagmire for decades. Repeated efforts to resolve the historical disputes have failed. Most importantly, a 2015 deal to settle another colonial-era issue – the comfort women – collapsed. That deal had little public support in South Korea, including mixed opinion from surviving comfort women. It was negotiated mostly in secret. This appears to be the case again with the labourer deal. South Korean domestic opposition will likely be high, and it is an open question if this deal will survive into the next South Korean administration.

A changed domestic political alignment made this possible

The Japan–South Korea contestation has a strong domestic ideological colouring, especially in South Korea. Specifically, a tough line on Japan is central to the nationalist ideology of the South Korean left. Analogously, although less centrally, the Japanese right has shown far less willingness to admit what Japan did in Korea. Hence, when Japanese conservatives are in power (as they usually are), and when South Korean progressives are also in power, the relationship is especially acrimonious.

Politically, this has been a quagmire for decades. Repeated efforts to resolve the historical disputes have failed.

This was the case a few years ago. In South Korea, leftist Moon Jae-in was president, and in Japan, conservative Abe Shinzo was prime minister. These two were like oil and water; they did not get along at all. Moon was extraordinarily aggressive towards Japan. He gambled on a major breakthrough with North Korea to give South Korea political space against both Japan and the United States. Abe was a well-known nationalist with little time for South Korean complaints about history, and he was even willing to place export restrictions on Japanese trade with South Korea. The relationship was as cold as it had ever been.

The election of current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and the ascension of Kishida Fumio as Japanese prime minister – in the wake of Abe’s assassination – significantly altered the politics of a breakthrough. Kishida is still a conservative but far less controversial than Abe. Yoon is conservative with little professional political experience. He is an outsider with no history as an elected official. Indeed, he ran for president almost on a lark. But this may make him more willing to take chances as president. He is less steeped in South Korea’s intensely competitive political culture.

Yet Yoon will face pushback. The labourer deal does not require any formal statement of responsibility from Japan or Japanese companies. It creates a fund in South Korea to compensate victims using resources donated by South Korean companies that benefited from the terms of the Japan–South Korea recognition treaty of 1965. Japan has long insisted, against all later South Korean claimants, that the treaty absolves it of any further rhetorical or financial obligations. No amount of South Korean pressure, including overseas lobbying (in the United States particularly), has moved Tokyo from that position. Yoon’s deal likely represents a realism – at least on the South Korean right – that Japan will simply never accept the capacious claims for apologies and compensation sought by maximalists on the South Korean left and in its activist organisations.

But therein lies the problem. If this deal, like the 2015 comfort women deal, only assuages South Korean conservatives – who want a relationship with Japan focused on threats from China and North Korea – then it will fail. South Korea is a deeply divided society, especially on foreign policy. Last year’s presidential election was decided by less than one percentage point. The left and right deeply disagree on approaches to Japan (and North Korea, China, and the United States). If Yoon cannot rally public opinion support – specifically, if he cannot pull over some progressive support for his labourer deal – the next South Korean leftist president will likely abrogate it, just as Moon did to the comfort women deal. Yoon’s deal needs a trans- or super-partisan consensus to survive the next partisan transition of the South Korean presidency (i.e., when progressives take back the presidency), and right now, the deal does not enjoy that widespread public support.

Alliance impacts

Standing on the sidelines of this tangled relationship is the United States. Both sides have tried to leverage US support against the other. South Korea has supported the construction of comfort women memorials in the United States, and Abe used his close relationship with former US President Donald Trump to criticise South Korea as untrustworthy after it exited the comfort women deal.

But the United States has never leaned one way or the other. The South Koreans’ moral argument may have resonance – Second World War veterans groups have also complained that modern Japan ignores the brutality of its war-time prison system – but Japan’s strategic role as the central US alliance anchor in East Asia has always overwhelmed that. If the United States is to maintain a footprint in East Asia, Japan is central. That US alliance is more important than the US relationship with South Korea (or Taiwan, Australia and so on).

The result is a US focus on “trilateralism” – the US term for US–Japan–South Korea cooperation. The South Korean left has long sought to avoid this – hinting at deals with North Korea and China to avoid open alignment with Japan. But with North Korea’s spiraling nuclear and missile programs, plus China’s belligerent turn under President Xi Jinping, the strategic value to South Korea of a rapprochement with Japan is growing fast. Yoon seems to recognise that. The big question is whether South Korea’s next progressive president will too.

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