“A Miracle on Children’s Day” was the title given to a front-page newspaper article relating unusually positive news in Japan-South Korea relations. The piece appeared in a South Korean daily last week. It was the story of a South Korean girl who was diagnosed with acute leukemia while in India with her family. Thanks to Japanese government assistance, the family was able to take a chartered Japan Airlines flight back to South Korea. The fact that the Japanese and South Korean ambassadors to India are acquaintances was a factor in working this miracle. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the teamwork was a “good example of cooperation between Japan and South Korea.”
Those in diplomacy say, however, that “national sentiment which has grown cold does not thaw easily.” In late April, the South Korean media reported that the South Korean government is considering providing face masks to Japan and the U.S. The report prompted the posting of many “No mask aid to Japan!” comments on the petition board of the South Korean Office of the President. Numerous posts of “Aid from South Korea? No thanks!” were seen in Japanese online media, as well.
The diplomatic schedule has been upended by the new coronavirus. South Korea had plans for President Moon Jae-in to visit Japan for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. They hoped to leverage the meeting of two countries’ leaders to open a path to resolve outstanding issues, but this will not materialize.
There is a “time bomb” in Japan–South Korea relations. It is seen as only a matter of time before the South Korean court issues a disposal order for Japanese companies’ assets, which were seized by defendants in a lawsuit on wartime requisitioned labor. Japan has told South Korea that liquidation of assets is a “red line,” but Seoul’s position is that it cannot intervene in judicial rulings.
Prospects for the relationship have become even more opaque following the recent South Korean elections. A bill to resolve the issue of wartime labor, which was submitted at the end of 2019 by National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, is expected to fall through due to changes in the makeup of the National Assembly. All the members of the South Korea–Japan congressional league will be replaced. This will fracture the political connections between the two countries. A diplomatic insider says that “the relationship between Japan and South Korea is heading toward a second low point and the question now is how to repair the relationship after that.”
The rise of the Democratic Party of South Korea, for whom the reunification of North and South Korea is a top priority, impacts security issues, which center around the Japan–U.S.–South Korea framework. South Korea and the U.S. could not come to an agreement on cost sharing for the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea. Five months have past since the agreement expired. Some in the party say that the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) is not necessary.
Many previous South Korean administrations that lost support toward the end of their term turned to anti-Japanese policies. Moon has gained power through the recovery of his approval ratings and the stability of the ruling party. Will he be able to balance the realization of ideals and cooperation with neighboring countries? Moon’s actions will have considerable impact on East Asian affairs.