Recently there have been moves by South Korea suggesting it seeks to improve the strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
For example, Prime Minister Lee Nak Yeon made a congratulatory visit to Japan to attend the enthronement ceremonies for the new Emperor. Moon Hee Sang, speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, also recently visited Japan and spoke of improving relations.
Even South Korean President Moon Jae In, on his own volition, made an overture to chat with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the recent ASEAN + 3 summit in Thailand. In other words, one after another, South Korea’s “Big Three” have all made conciliatory gestures toward Japan.
The Japanese side still has doubts, with policymakers and observers alike wondering, “Are they really serious?”
The Calculations Behind South Korea’s Ploy
As things stand, it appears that Seoul’s real intention is to create an impression that it is trying to improve relations. It hopes for domestic and international opinion to perceive that, “See, South Korea is eager to improve relations” or “Japan is the hardliner, not us,” or “The ball for improving relations is now in Japan’s court.”
Seoul calculated that it could show the two leaders in “friendly conversation” by publishing the photos from South Korea’s surreptitious photo shoot of the impromptu meeting between President Moon and Prime Minister Abe on the sidelines of the summit in Thailand. Moon Jae In’s left-leaning administration is quite accomplished in terms of such political theatrics and information manipulation.
There was also a domestic angle to their thinking. The Moon administration’s appeal has been sapped by the scandal involving former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. With dissatisfaction and anxiety on the rise, there was a precipitous decline in his administration’s popularity just as Moon’s five-year term as president has reached the half-way point.
One manifestation is the public perception that Seoul has become isolated due to the government’s indecisive and stagnant foreign policy. Clearly, Moon thinks that a reset in foreign policy might serve the purpose of calming public opinion.
Korea watchers in Japan have pointed out that there has been a pattern of South Korean leaders seeking improvement in Japan-Korea relations when they find themselves in trouble. South Korea now faces problems on three fronts:
- the economy — economic conditions are deteriorating;
- foreign relations — Seoul finds itself diplomatically isolated;
- national security —anxiety in terms of relations with North Korea.
Concerning the first point, sluggish trade and other factors put the rate of growth on track to drop to the 1% level this year. The situation is quite severe.
On the second point, the United States has taken Seoul to task because of its confrontation with Japan, and China is as cool as ever to its overtures. As a consequence, the South Korean government increasingly feels isolated.
Finally, while at one point the Moon administration bragged about its dialogues and negotiations with Pyongyang, it was all for naught in terms of making headway on the denuclearization of North Korea.
All three factors are sources of increasing alarm for the Moon government.
Contradictions and the Strategy of Playing Japan
With that in mind, Seoul apparently decided to play on the psychology of showing improved relations with Japan first. In terms of the geopolitical environment and historical experience, this was the approach that seemed most likely to deliver quick results.
From South Korea’s perspective, Japan’s presence is a source of energy rife with contradictions. On the one hand, it always wants to appear undefeated by standing up to Tokyo. On the other hand, it has developed a psychology of dependency on Japan’s goodwill, and regards Japan as a source of psychological relief.
When bilateral relations with Japan deteriorate and confrontation continues for a prolonged period, Korean public sentiment and politics become unsettled. Rather than seeking concrete solutions to the issues causing anxiety and dissatisfaction, the psychology that “something must be done immediately” prevails in Seoul.
Coming Down the Mountain
How then should Japan react to the anxious, peevish, disgruntled atmosphere within South Korea?
It is likely that South Korea is entering a new period of intensified domestic squabbling among the ruling and opposition parties. With the conservative and leftwing forces squaring off, Japan should exercise due prudence in its response.
Veteran mountain climbers will tell you the coming down part is where it gets dangerous because that’s when it is easiest to fall. President Moon is now hearing that acerbic advice from domestic critics, primarily conservatives.
One of his predecessors, the late Roh Moo Hyun, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, was known for his fondness for mountain climbing. He also started off in office espousing self-righteous idealistic policies, including on the diplomatic front. But realism eventually caught up with him.
Roh died in May 2009 in the mountains, after falling into a ravine.
It was an apparent suicide.
(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)
Author: Katsuhiro Kuroda, Sankei Shimbun