Japan and South Korea are not in a good term in recent months. The relationship soured over a number of issues that two sides see and interpret differently. The latest diplomatic standoff started when South Korea’s top court ordered number Japanese companies to pay compensation to a group of Koreans who filed a case claiming they had been forced to work for the companies during World War II and were subjected to abuse and maltreatment. In addition, the unsolved issue of the so called comfort women, Korean girls who were forced to provide sexual service to Japanese soldiers during the period of Japanese occupation of the Peninsula, remained a contentious issue between the two neighbors even before the start of the wartime labor lawsuits.
Japan has always been saying that both the issues have been resolved when two countries agreed to normalize diplomatic relationship in 1965, the claim that Seoul disagrees. Moreover, Japan also claims that a treaty signed between the two countries in 2015 has solved the comfort women issue permanently and in an irreversible way. Here too, the South Korean authorities are saying that the hurriedly signed agreement by the previous administration did not take into account the position of the victims and as a result, the treaty does not stand as a valid one. The current South Korean government is since then insisting that Japan abide by the rule of law and take appropriate measure to address all the pending issues. Annoyed over South Korea’s persistence, the Japanese government in June this year had taken an unexpected move to impose strict restrictions of export of high-tech products to South Korea, saying that such products might be diverted for military use. Since then the two sides are in a diplomatic battle that in times turns quite undiplomatic.
Responding to Japan’s hard line position over export restriction, South Korea announced in August that the country would opt out of a trilateral security treaty after its term expires in November. The treaty signed between Japan, South Korea and the United States focuses on exchange of intelligence information between the three countries over North Korea and is supposed to be automatically renewed in case none of the three expresses desire to leave. Since the announcement of Seoul’s intension to leave the treaty, the tussle between Japan and South Korea had taken a new shape with the United States getting involved in the process of salvaging the intelligence information sharing treaty that Washington sees crucial in the context of North Korea’s unending rhetoric accompanied by test fire of ballistic missiles. The deadline for the expiry of the treaty was November 23, the day when foreign ministers of G 20 member states were scheduled to start their series of meetings in the Japanese city of Nagoya.
Being a member of G 20, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha was also expected to have arrived Nagoya in time to join the formal dinner on November 22, symbolizing the kick start of the two-day gathering. However, there was no announcement of her arrival until the very last moment and she had taken the flight only after the South Korean presidential office made an announcement that Seoul decided to reverse the earlier decision and intend to stay on with the treaty under the condition that it retained the right of withdrawing at any time. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was thus salvaged at the last moment and South Korean foreign minister arrived Nagoya late on November 22, missing the official dinner event.
As soon as things seemed to have been calming down on the both sides of the dividing line, new controversy had arisen over claim and counter claim of victory. Soon after the South Korean government made the official announcement of not to leave the treaty, both Japanese official circles and country’s media started hinting that South Korea caved in to US pressure and that the decision marked a diplomatic victory for Japan. The South Korean side promptly disagreed and made clear that the claim of diplomatic victory was intentional distortion of the content of an agreement regarding Tokyo’s control on export to South Korea.
Although no announcement came from either side about a second agreement over Japanese export control, the ongoing debate made it clear that South Korea’s change of heart over GSOMIA was not a unilateral move that Seoul had to take under intense US pressure. Japan also had to make commitment regarding a quick review of its earlier export restriction decision.
It is interesting to note that South Korea’s announcement last Friday of country’s suspension of the decision to end the military information pact was accompanied by a second announcement saying that Seoul was also suspending procedures for a complaint it filed with the World Trade Organization against Japan’s tighter export control. The trade off for the second announcement was for Japan to make commitment over reconsidering export restrictions.
However, announcement from the presidential office of South Korea cleared much of the misunderstanding and South Korean foreign minister was able to hold a bilateral talk in Nagoya with her Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Kang was cautious as she said, “we bought time for intense discussions, but there’s not much time left for us”; hinting that both sides are now willing to negotiate the pending trade dispute. Motegi also hinted that he would be holding frank discussions and exchange candid views on the matter of laborers from Korean Peninsula and other bilateral issues. The two foreign ministers also agreed to arrange a summit between their leaders next month.
Whether it can be defined as a new start in bilateral relations between the two neighbors is difficult to say right at this stage. However, South Korea’s last-minute decision to stay with the treaty as well as the undisclosed parts related to Tokyo’s standing on trade restrictions give a clear hint that much of the hardship has been cleared and the planned summit next month between the leaders of two countries might make further breakthrough.
(Tokyo, November 25, 2019)