The South Korean — Japanese Relations: the Argument Continues

P 23.10.2018 U Konstantin Asmolov


Our previous article on the South Korean – Japanese relations was dedicated to the wianbu issue, but the relations between the 2 states have not been limited to that during this year.

On April 9, South Korea appealed the recommendation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to cancel the embargo on seafood import from the Northeastern regions of Japan. Let us remind the reader that, following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (Unit 1 Reactor) in 2011, South Korea imposed an embargo on the imported Japanese seafood for safety reasons; in May 2015, Japan submitted a complaint to the WTO demanding that the embargo be lifted since all the products were subject to the same austere quality control.

On May 9, 2018 Tokyo hosted a trilateral South Korean – Chinese – Japanese summit, the first one since November 2015. It resulted in a special joint statement expressing support of the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, as well as willingness to make a joint effort in ensuring peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Moon Jae-in, the Japanese Premier Shinzō Abe and the Premier of the State Council of China Li Keqiang discussed the issues of furthering their trilateral cooperation, exchanged their opinions on the situation in the world, including the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, Moon Jae-in presented the results of the inter-Korean summit to the participants and voiced Kim Jong-un’s standpoint on the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean special services and on improving the Pyongyang – Tokyo relations for Shinzō Abe. Thus, Moon Jae-in became the first South Korean leader to visit Japan over the past 6.5 years.

Meanwhile, the parties made a special joint statement expressing support of the Panmunjom Declaration and calling for a US – North Korean summit. At the same time, Moon Jae-in and Shinzō Abe held a bilateral meeting where they agreed to cooperate closely on the North Korean nuclear issue and the issue of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean special services.

On August 23, the South Korean Ministry of Defense decided to extend the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan for another year, given the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. The document stipulates providing information on the nuclear and missile programs of Pyongyang collected by the Japanese reconnaissance satellites to South Korea in exchange for the information on the North Korean missiles gathered by the South Korean armed forces.

On September 21, Shinzō Abe was reelected Chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and maintained his position as the Japanese Prime Minister. The South Korean mass media commented on it emphasizing that Abe was willing to amend the Japanese Constitution (preserve the ban on Japan’s waging wars, but legalize the existence of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, JSDF) so that “should a provocation occur on the part of Pyongyang, the Japan Self-Defense Forces would be able to intervene in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.” Thus, “Shinzō Abe’s reelection can increase and expedite the country’s military buildup, misrepresent historical facts and exacerbate possible conflicts with the 2 Koreas and China.”

On September 25, 2018 under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session, a South Korean – Japanese summit was held, which was apparently dedicated to the attempts to resolve the issues caused by South Korea de facto denouncing the 2015 Agreement on the comfort women, and which the parties succeeded in half. Moon Jae-in announced the closure of the Foundation, which the Japanese money had been credited to, but stated he would neither rescind the Agreement nor insist on new negotiations.

However, that does not mean that there is any progress in the relations between the 2 states. There is a number of regular topics for inefficient discussion. In response to vexing actions by one party, the other summons its counterpart’s diplomats and communicates its categorical protest to them. The author touched upon these critical issues on numerous occasions and now presents another digest of how Japan and South Korea encountered the stumbling blocks described further in 2018.

The Issue of Japan’s Historical Responsibility

On April 18, the Osaka District Court rejected yet again the 4th lawsuit of 197 family members of the Koreans who had suffered from the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 demanding compensation and ruled that the plaintiffs had forfeited their right to compensation by the statute of limitation, which is 20 years. The plaintiffs demanded that their forebears be included in the list of the subjects of the Japanese Atomic Bomb Survivors’ Assistance Law.

According to the data provided by the Korea Atomic Bomb Victims Association, 70,000 Koreans suffered during the Hiroshima Bombing (killed and injured). Many of them had been brought to the Hiroshima ammunition factory and other facilities where they were forced to work. The US nuclear bomb killed circa 35,000 people, 5,000 remained in Japan and 30,000 returned to Korea.

On April 20, the Japanese MPs visited the Shinto Yasukuni Shrine where, let us remind the reader, tablets with the names of 2.5 m Japanese killed during various wars are kept, including those war criminals who were executed after WWII.

On June 27, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee yet again called for Japan to promulgate the instances of using forced labor of the Koreans during WWII at its industrial facilities. It had to do with the fact that, in 2015, 7 of these facilities including the Hashima Island Mine and the Nagasaki Wharf (which are memorials of the Meiji Restoration) were formally approved as the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Naturally, Seoul denounced Tokyo’s actions since 60,000 Koreans in total had worked at the facilities. According to the official statistics of the South Korean Government, in 1943 – 1945, 500 – 800 Koreans were working at the mine at a time, 112 people died of accidents, illnesses and starvation.

In this relation, the UNESCO called on Tokyo to ensure a better presentation of the history of these facilities: the Japanese party promised to take the appropriate steps including establishing an information center commemorating the victims. However, the report presented in November 2017 for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee did not contain the term ‘forced labor.’

Meanwhile, another pretext for complaining is underway, which is currently being pushed by North Korea (the statement made by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 1 and a number of other media articles), but South Korea is beginning to participate actively. Namely, the Korean pogroms of 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake, when the allegations that the Koreans were engaging in looting and sabotage caused a series of violence that the authorities connived at. According to the North Korean data, the military, the police and the self-defense troops (de facto criminals) murdered over 23,000 Koreans. As usual, “the Japanese authorities must acknowledge their responsibility for the murders, make an apology and pay compensation to the victims as soon as possible.”

Finally, the demand of a number of Korean nongovernmental organizations that the Japanese cease to revere the Koreans who fell in action for the Japanese Emperor during WWII and that their graves be removed from the Yasukuni Shrine. From their point of view, there could have been no instances of Koreans volunteering to join the Japanese Army (let alone enlisting as kamikazes). Everybody knows that the Korean people were suffering under the Japanese yoke!

The Dispute over the Liancourt Rocks

On March 1, in the aforementioned speech, Moon Jae-in critized Japan for activating its territorial claims on the islands of Liancourt Rocks (also known as Takeshima, Dokdo or Tokto) in the Sea of Japan. He stated these islands were an original Korean territory that had been occupied during the Japanese invasion to Korea. By denying the fact, Japan acts as an aggressor once again.

In response, on March 30, the Japanese Government published new mandatory guidelines for the authors of high school textbooks that define the principal content of the curriculum. According to them, schoolchildren need to be brought up with an idea that the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan belong to Japan. In particular, it is recommended that every Japanese school conduct classes on the territorial allegiance of the Liancourt Rocks. Apart from the Liancourt Rocks, the islands of Senkaku / Diaoyu disputed by China will be presented as original Japanese territories.

The South Korean authorities protested yet again, however, the recommendations concerning the territorial allegiance of the Liancourt Rocks had already been mandated by the 2014 guidelines and 19 textbooks of 24 approved for high schools include statements that the Liancourt Rocks are original Japanese territories.

On May 15, the South Korean Government expressed its protest against Japan in connection with the publication of the Diplomatic Bluebook contending that the Liancourt Rocks had been Japanese territories historically and in accordance with international law. It was noted that this was an expression of willingness to start an international lawsuit regarding this issue. The Diplomatic Bluebook also touched upon the issue of the name of the Sea of Japan. It contends that the ‘Sea of Japan’ is the only internationally accepted term for the water area in question. Concerning the significance of South Korea for Japan, the phrase “the most significant neighboring state sharing the Japanese strategic interests” was eliminated from the book. Furthermore, Tokyo demanded that Seoul perform its duty according to the agreements concerning the sexual slavery issue.

On June 18 – 20, the South Korean Navy, Marines, Air Forces and naval militia carried out exercise in the defense of the Liancourt Rocks. The maneuvers involved 6 battleships including a destroyer with a displacement of 3,200 tons, a P-3C surveillance plane, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, F-15K jet fighters and a naval militia squadron patrolling the water area of the Sea of Japan. During the maneuvers, the Marines trained in landing on the islands in order to repulse an attack by a designated enemy.

Tokyo expressed a protest and demanded that the maneuvers be cancelled. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs used diplomatic channels to inform the South Korean authorities that military exercise was unacceptable on the disputed territories.

On July 17, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced the introduction of the new guidelines for high school textbooks sooner than originally planned: in 2019 instead of 2022. The document emphasizes the need for teaching schoolchildren that the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan belong to Japan. The Japanese MEXT also published new guidelines for teachers pointing out that the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan and the Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean allegedly belong to Japan as its sovereign territories that are currently occupied by South Korea and Russia respectively.

The Annual White Paper approved by the Japanese Cabinet of Ministers on August 28 2018, had the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan marked as Japanese again stating that the territorial disputes over the original Japanese Northern territories and the Takeshima Islands (as the Liancourt Rocks are called in Japan) had not been resolved yet. In response, a representative of the Japanese Embassy to Seoul was summoned to the South Korean Foreign Office and given an expression of a categorical protest.

Meanwhile, a video clip made by the South Korean Foreign Office about the Liancourt Rocks and containing many historical records confirming that South Korea is the sovereign owner of the islands was seen over 10 m times.

The Rising Sun Flag Scandal

The most recent attempt to play against Japan took place ad hoc while preparations for holding the International Naval Parade on October 10 – 14 near the Jeju Island were underway. The event was to see the participation of ships from 15 countries including Japan, and suddenly the South Korean Foreign Office demanded that Japan refrain from using the so-called Rising Sun Flag which had been the official flag of the Japanese land forces since 1870, and later the flag of the JSDF Navy. Although no one had paid any attention to the flag for 70 years (during which there even were joint maneuvers), it suddenly turned out that the image of the flag that Japan used while fighting in WWII hurt the feelings of the Koreans as it symbolized the colonial past. According to the South Korean mass media, “as it was the flag under which the occupation of Korea and other Asian countries took place, it is considered a symbol of the Japanese militarism and colonial aggression and its use is abusive.” And although, according to naval law, no one can prohibit any naval forces from sailing under their flag, South Korea suggested that the parade participants only raise their national flags, preferably alongside the South Korean one.

After first the South Korean military and then the Foreign Office “communicated their call on Japan to consider the feelings of the South Korean people”, on September 28, the Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera rejected the suggestion and emphasized that the JSDF Navy ships had to raise this flag according to the current legislation. Furthermore, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits to use this flag on battleships as a sign of state allegiance.

In response, the South Korean public began to collect signatures for the petition suggesting forbidding Japanese ships to enter if they are sailing under this flag and calling for designating the South Korean Navy ship Tokto, named after the disputed islands, the review host (so that the Japanese ship would have to salute the South Korean ship with such a symbolic name).

However, the Japanese were quicker and made a decision to withdraw from participating in the event in Tokyo on October 5. The South Korean mass media treated it as a victory: allegedly, “Tokyo preferred to refrain from causing an international scandal in the situation when there is an issue of closing the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation for supporting the sexual slavery victims and there is an ongoing investigation of the instances of forced labor in Korea during the colonial yoke of the Japanese militarists.”

As we can see, the Moon Jae-in Administration, which is largely nationalist, continues to play against Japan for the internal policy issues; and even though Japan’s standpoint is often unrealistic, accusing Tokyo, and no one else, of provocation and misrepresenting historical facts would be wrong. Seoul is trying hard to find pretexts for new conflicts in order to redirect the attention of the public from the existing economic issues to the fact that “the Japanese are unwilling to apologize yet again.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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