On Nov 18, 2021, Japan boycotted a joint press briefing with South Korea and U.S., initially set to follow South Korea-US-Japan vice Foreign Ministers' talk in Washington DC. Japan found fault with the visit to Dokdo, the South Korean easternmost islets, by the head of the South Korean Police. Moreover, on Dec 9, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan launched its working team to review retaliative measures to "hurt South Korea" in addition to the diplomatic protest.
There are many pending issues in South Korea-Japan relations including the Dokdo issue: Sexual slavery victims for the Japanese imperial army(the so-called "Comfort Women"), Japan's mobilization of Koreans for forced labor, history distortion, and so on. However, the right-wing of LDP of Japan completely denies historical facts of these issues and ignores the position of South Korea. This time again, the LDP's Foreign Affairs Division criticized South Korea's National Police Agency Commissioner-General Kim Chang-yong's visit to Dokdo.
There are about 20 Policy Divisions in LDP, including Foreign Affairs Division. Foreign Affairs Division of the Party is closely connected with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, and Cabinet Division is associated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. These Policy Divisions in LDP suggest policy recommendations to the Japanese government.
The Japanese government had held a dominant position with LDP's Policy Divisions during the Abe and Suga administration. So LDP's policy suggestions were nothing more than a reference to the Japanese government. However, such a relationship has been reversed under the Kishida administration. Currently, policies suggested by Liberal Democratic Pary are more likely to become policies as it is in the Kishida administration.
In particular, Japan has been preparing for the Dokdo issue since the Abe administration step by step. In June 2021, the National Museum of Territory and Sovereignty was reopen in Tokyo. It was scheduled to open last year in time for Tokyo Olympics to propagate 'Takeshima'(Dokdo in Korea), but the delay of the Tokyo Olympics by COVID-19 made the opening of the museum postponed. Since the Abe administration, Japan has tried to assert Japanese sovereignty over Dokdo and make it a controversial place to blemish South Korea's sovereignty over Dokdo. This is why Japan nitpicked about the visit of the head of South Korean Police to Dokdo.
It is said that nowadays Korea-Japan relations are at their worst since the normalization of two countries' diplomatic relations. In fact, it has deteriorated for a long time. The event which triggered exacerbation of relationship was former President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Dokdo in August 2012. It gave rise to the plunge of favorable public opinions of Japan toward South Korea. In 2011, almost 70% of Japanese had a good impression of South Korea, but in 2012 the number dropped rapidly to 30%. In the early days of the Park Geun-hye administration, it was said that Korea-Japan relations were the worst also because South Korea strongly urged Japan to resolve the “comfort women” issue. And the clincher to the worsening relation was Japan’s economic retaliation through export restrictions under the Abe administration in July 2019.
Two kinds of issues between Korea and Japan exist; problems that cannot be solved immediately and ones that can be solved by mutual consultation. Therefore, we should be obliged to take a two-track approach in setting up Korean foreign policy on Japan. The Dokdo issue is challenging to resolve right away, so we should manage it to avoid escalating into a territorial dispute. If the conflict deepens over this issue, Dokdo can be perceived as an actual disputed area, resulting in unfavorable circumstances. So South Korea should control the Dokdo issue carefully to avoid Japan’s opposition as well as to consolidate Korea’s practical domination over Dokdo.
Some insist that we should solve all problems as a package deal. But there is no single issue less important for Korea, so a package deal approach cannot be appropriate.
There are many problems between South Korea and Japan, such as victims of forced labor during the Japanese occupation of Korea, victims of ‘Comfort Women’ by the Japanese Imperial army during the Second World War, Rising-Sun flag reminding Koreans of war crimes and oppression by Japan, Export Restrictions, GSOMIA(General Security of Military Information Agreement) between Korea and Japan, Discharge of radioactive water of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and Dokdo issue. However, the two countries do not want to give up any issue and try to do their best to stick to their opinion.
Before the Abe administration, the Japanese government had a two-track approach to Korea. It exchanged opinions with Korea fully on some negotiable issues and managed to keep tensions from exacerbating. However, the far-right administration of Japan changed its foreign policy to Korea. Japan began to have the strategy to connect all issues such as Dokdo and wartime forced labor between Korea and Japan with foreign policy. During the Abe and Suga administration, Japan had insisted that South Korea was responsible for the ruined relationship because it ignored promises between the two countries and had put all responsibilities on South Korea. This strategy has been effective in securing support for Japan's conservatives.
Recently, Japan is reluctant to accept the proposal to declare end of Korean War. During the incumbent Korean government, the Japanese right-wing has claimed that the peaceful coexistence between the Two Koreas would not be helpful to Japan let alone unification of the Korean Peninsular. Therefore, it is high time to analyze Japan's strategy and prepare an elaborate policy to maximize South Korea's interests.
Hosaka Yuji, Emeritus professor of political science at Sejong University