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On May 9, South Koreans elected progressive Moon Jae-In as president, a harbinger of potentially major political changes after two successive conservative administrations. Moon comes to power at a particularly delicate time for South Korea, with a sluggish economy, high tensions with North Korea, and frayed ties with China, its most important trading partner.
Although relations between Pyongyang and Beijing will top Seoul’s foreign policy agenda, Moon has made the improvement of ties with Japan an important objective. A few days after taking office, Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke over the phone and agreed to enhance cooperation and build a “future-oriented” relationship. The two leaders also agreed to resume shuttle diplomacy, which had been discontinued during the tenure of ousted South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. A meeting between the two leaders can be expected on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany in July.
While the early signs are positive, there remain major obstacles to meaningful rapprochement. One of the most important sticking points in bilateral relations was thought to have been resolved in December 2015, when Tokyo and Seoul reached a landmark “comfort women” deal. Many in Japan were hopeful it would mark a turning point in bilateral relations. Under the agreement, Abe expressed his apologies to the women who had been forced to work in Japanese army brothels before and during World War II, and the government provided 1 billion yen to a fund for the victims. In return, the then Korean administration of Park declared the issue to be resolved.
However, polls have shown significant public opposition to the deal, and Moon Jae-In promised during his presidential campaign to re-negotiate the deal. So far, however, despite Korean officials raising the issue since the election in meetings with Japanese counterparts, the two sides have been careful to avoid clashes, mindful of the need to smooth relations at a time of high regional tensions. But public opinion poses constraints on the Korean president, and several high-level officials, including the foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, are eager to reopen the matter.
Though the issue will not simply go away, with deft leadership and cooler heads, this minefield can be avoided. Moon should ensure that the most vocal opponents of the comfort women deal within his government refrain from overt criticisms of the agreement, which could inflame public opinion, and instead favor back channels. He could also tone down the talk of renegotiation and instead encourage the Japanese government to pursue a separate deal that would directly involve representatives of the comfort women. The latter were not consulted in 2015, which was one of the main reasons for the public outcry that followed the announcement of the agreement. For its part, Tokyo should avoid overreacting to perceived slights, as it did in January 2017 when it temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea and suspended economic talks after a South Korean citizens’ group installed a statue commemorating comfort women in the city of Busan. If the issue does flare up, however, it need not plague attempts at mending fences. The South Korean President has shrewdly made clear that the improvement of bilateral relations is not contingent on a settlement or successful renegotiation of the comfort women deal.
Even if Abe and Moon manage to avoid entanglement over the issue, diverging views over North Korea could cause friction. Both see North Korea as the most pressing threat to their country’s national security, but they differ in how they want to deal with Pyongyang. Japan, along with its U.S. ally, has pushed for increased pressure and harsher international sanctions against North Korea. On the other hand, Moon, who was chief-of-staff to former President Roh Moo-Hyun during a period of rapprochement with the North, has vowed to resume inter-Korean dialogue. Although such an approach has considerable appeal in South Korea after a decade of heightened tensions under conservative presidents, Moon runs the risk of undercutting Japanese and American efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
However, the South Korean president has publicly admitted the challenges of reengagement with the North, and it’s unlikely he will rush to open dialogue under the current circumstances. Notably, he has been a strong supporter of United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea and has vehemently criticized Pyongyang’s recent provocations. Furthermore, while Japan favors increased sanctions on Pyongyang, it is opposed to any action that may result in overt hostilities, which is an interest it shares with South Korea. But although Moon may be cautious in the short term, his campaign platform and cabinet nominations make clear his intention to alter his predecessor’s North Korea policy, and this may lead to friction with partners down the road.
With converging values and interests, a shared security alliance with the U.S., and similar security and economic concerns, the benefits of a healthier relationship should be obvious to both Tokyo and Seoul. Above all, closer ties provide a stronger foundation for policy coordination in dealing with East Asia’s security and geopolitical challenges. At a time of lingering doubts over the U.S.’ commitment to the region, which reassurances from Washington and high-profile visits by U.S. officials have not completely assuaged, greater cooperation between the region’s two most advanced democracies can be a boon for regional stability. It can also facilitate intelligence sharing, which tensions have at times prevented, as well as further increase military-to-military engagement, including regular bilateral and multilateral exercises.
Prime Minister Abe and President Moon have both repeatedly expressed eagerness to work together to tackle shared issues. If they manage to temper the nationalist leanings that are so prevalent in their respective constituencies and that have so often undermined bilateral relations, they may succeed in building a framework for sustainable cooperation. If nothing else, the current tensions and uncertainty over the regional and global order should provide more than sufficient impetus.