Commentary: The uncomfortable North Korea wedge between Japan and South Korea


SYDNEY: Japans relationship with South Korea is not amicable at the best of times. Yet in recent months it has entered a rapidly descending diplomatic spiral of unprecedented depth and scope.

Mounting bilateral friction over the intractable historical problems is steadily bleeding into the economic and security realms of the relationship.



The result is a bilateral trade war with potential repercussions for the global supply chain of high-tech devices.

READ: Commentary: How a century-old dispute between Japan and South Korea threatens the global supply of smartphones


On the surface, it appears that a series of contentious developments in their longstanding history problems drove Tokyo and Seoul to this crisis point.



South Korean President Moon Jae-in reneged on a diplomatic accord in 2018 that was purported to irreversibly settle the “comfort women” issue.

The South Korean judiciary is also growing increasingly incessant in demanding Japanese companies pay damages to the Koreans mobilised for wartime labour.

These bilateral developments are doubtlessly playing a central role in the deterioration of Tokyo–Seoul relations. Yet there are broader strategic parameters to this dispute that have also shaped the contours of diplomatic friction, and these are largely being overlooked.


In short, there has been a major divergence in Seoul and Tokyos strategic views toward North Korea.

This began to develop in January 2018 when Seoul embarked on a rapprochement with Pyongyang, while Tokyos policy on North Korea remained fundamentally unchanged.

Seoul and Tokyo are involved in a bitter trade row stemming from a long-running dispute over Japan's use of forced labour during its colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. (Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je)

This strategic divergence, which has continued to deepen with time, undermined the ability of Japan and South Korea to cooperate in the security realm. By extension, it also reduced their diplomatic incentives to manage their history problems.


North Koreas belligerence throughout 2017 encouraged Seoul and Tokyo to contain their diplomatic problems. As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rapidly advanced his nuclear programme, his missiles were frequently traversing Japanese airspace.

Continental United States also came under threat with Kims successful launch of an inter-continental ballistic missile.

These events provoked a rhetorical war between Kim and US President Donald Trump that threatened to escalate to a de facto war. Indeed, media reports emanating from the United States indicated that Trump was seriously considering a preventive attack — a "bloody-nose" strike — against North Korea.

This precarious security environment provided strong incentives for Seoul and Tokyo to cooperate in the defence realm, and their strategic outlooks on North Korea were aligned closely.

Both sides were in favour of strong sanctions, intelligence sharing and trilateral military exercises with the United States. Defence cooperation necessitated keeping their ever-present history problems in check, as collaboration in this sphere has always been tenuous.

Against this backdrop, Moon expressed opposition to the 2015 “comfort women” agreement but remained ambiguous as to whether or not he would dissolve it.

Yet when North Korea initiated an about-turn in January 2018, the strategic views of Seoul and Tokyo quickly began to diverge.

Kim extended an olive branch to Moon in his 2018 New Years address, suggesting that the two Koreas jointly compete in the Winter Olympics.

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Kim Jong Un reached out to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in time for the Winter Olympics and they held a historic summit in April 2018. (Photo: AFP/Korea Summit Press Pool)

Moon seized upon this this conciliatory gesture, ushering in an inter-Korean rapprochement and a round of regional summitry. To ensure that the diplomatic door remained open to Kim, Moon was reluctant to provoke him, meaning that trilateral exercises with Japan became problematic.


Yet from Tokyos point of view, little had changed with regard to North Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not prepared to risk political suicide by following suit with his South Korean and US counterparts.

The issue of Japanese abductees takes precedence over the North Korean nuclear threat in Japan, and Abes domestic political success is explained in part by his hardline stance toward Pyongyang on the question. Consequently, Tokyo became sidelined from the regional summitry.

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Amid this growing strategic divergence, Moon unilaterally dissolved the "comfort women" accord in November 2018. In the same month, Tokyo announced that it would appeal to the International Court of Justice over a South Korean court ruling concerning forced labourers.

Relations took a further downturn in January 2019, when the two governments disputed whether a South Korean Navy destroyer had locked its targeting radar on a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft.


This downward spiral in Tokyo–Seoul relations is being compounded by their mutual US ally