The South Korea – Japan Rift Has Just Widened

Seoul has announced the termination of an intelligent sharing pact with Japan in the midst of a protected series of disputes between two countries. Korea and Japan’s history is filled with hostility although in the second half of the 20th century each state began to bury much hostility and suspicion in exchange for a pragmatic pro-US policy which for a while drove the former adversaries together.

Prior to this, Japan placed trade restrictions on exports to South Korea in what many regard as a retaliatory move in the aftermath of South Korea’s highest court ordering the Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate the relatives of Koreans forced into slave labour during Japan’s long occupation of the Korean peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has held firm against Japan through the recent period of rows among America’s two closest allies in north east Asia. Moon has crucially used the trade/ideological row with Tokyo to call for a united North-South Korean economy which could better leverage Japan in future negotiations. According to Moon,

“The advantage Japan’s economy has over us is the size of its [overall] economy and domestic market. If the South and North could create a peace economy through economic cooperation, we can catch up with Japan’s superiority in one burst. Japan absolutely cannot prevent our economy from taking a leap. Rather, [Japan] will serve as a stimulant that strengthens our determination to become an economic power”.

When Moon says a “peace economy” he is clearly suggesting an intensification of positive North-South relations with an emphasis on ever more economic integration over the medium and long term. Moon has long advocated a relaxing of sanctions against Pyongyang and now that he is taking a hard line against an increasingly nationalistic Japan, it is all the more likely that Moon will push harder for a relaxing of sanctions in order to expedite the building of an integrated peace economy between the two Korean states.

In many respects, the ongoing Korean peace process has given Moon the leverage necessary to make such an impassioned call for economic integration throughout the Korean peninsula. Prior to the peace process, Japan and South Korea had been partners of convenience due to finding themselves on the same side of the Cold War divide. But now that South Korea is expanding its trade and cooperation with China whilst Pyongyang has become a peace partner rather than a self-declared enemy, the house of cards on which the Seoul-Tokyo partnership was built is becoming all the more flimsy.

As the two Korean states grow ever more comfortable with dialogue, plans for future cooperation and an inevitable signing of a long awaited peace treaty, the natural political alignments of north-east Asia are once again exposed just as sure as plant life becomes exposed as the snow of winter gives way to spring. As such, it is Moon’s view that for economic reasons as much as for any other justification, it is important for Korea to speak with a more united voice. Such a united voice would inevitably be one that takes a harder line against Korea’s traditional Japanese enemy than that witnessed during much of the Cold War and subsequent decades.

In this sense, one can view the last 29 years of Korean history as something of a Cold War holdover that is only now beginning to revert to a more normal and historically informed reality. This helps to explain why Seoul has been far more preoccupied with the trading dispute with Japan along with accompanying historically informed ideological overtones than it is with the multiple firings of short-rage missiles from the DPRK.

As recently as two years ago, the DPRK firing any variety of missile would have been a bigger issue of concern for the Blue House than tensions with Japan which have always had the tendency to rear their head. But now, both Seoul and the United States seem content to ignore the DPRK’s missile tests.

For Seoul, a commitment to peace with Pyongyang is looking increasingly iron clad and therefore irreversible. As such, short-range missile tests which do not violate the DPRK-US Singapore agreement are no longer viewed as outright provocations.  For Donald Trump, a desire to secure a visible victory in the context of the Korean peace process remains a priority whilst America’s own trade deficit with Japan makes Washington less than enthusiastic about doing a great deal to mediate in the trade/ideological dispute between its north east Asian allies. In this sense, the DPRK’s likely cry for attention is not working for the counter-intuitive reason that both South Korea and the United States have full faith in the overall trajectory of the pace process.

When taken as a whole, this means that Japan’s nationalistic approach to Seoul has actually helped to accelerate the Korean peace process by making it clear to the Blue House that it will ultimately be easier to work with a young leader of the DPRK on the basis of a shared history, culture and nationality/ethnicity than it will be to work with Japan’s Abe government that is prone to bouts of nationalism, especially during an election season.

In reverting back to form, Korea and Japan are certainly not destined for another war but what is clear is that Pyongyang and Seoul are well on the road to a long term partnership that will ultimately lead to some form of Korean unification, likely on some version of a one country – two systems model.

This future has if anything become ever more solidified due to recent develops in relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

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