Ji-Young Lee is a political scientist who teaches at American University’s School of International Service. She is the author of China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination (Columbia University Press, 2016). Her current work concerns historical Korea-China relations with a focus on military interventions, as well as the impact of China’s rise on the U.S. alliance system in East Asia. She has published articles in Security Studies, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, and Journal of East Asian Studies. Previously, she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Politics and East Asian Studies at Oberlin College, a POSCO Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center, a non-resident James Kelly Korean Studies Fellow with the Pacific Forum CSIS, an East Asia Institute Fellow, and a Korea Foundation-Mansfield Foundation scholar of the U.S.-Korea Scholar-Policymaker Nexus program. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Seoul National University, and a B.A from Ewha Womans University in South Korea.
Articles by Ji-Young Lee
The year 2021 ended with no breakthroughs in Japan-Korea relations. Bilateral ties remain stalled over South Korea’s 2018 Supreme Court ruling on forced labor during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula and Japan’s export restrictions placed in 2019 on key materials used for South Korea’s electronics industry. The inauguration of Kishida Fumio as Japan’s new prime minister in September did not lead to a new momentum for addressing these bilateral issues, as both Tokyo and Seoul adhered to their positions. Prime Minister Kishida, while acknowledging that Japan’s relationship with South Korea should not be left as is, largely reiterated Tokyo’s official stance from the Abe and Suga governments that Seoul should first take steps on the forced labor issue. South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a letter congratulating Kishida on his inauguration, signaling willingness to talk about bilateral challenges. Developments in the final months of 2021 are a reminder that there is no easy solution to these issues in sight.
In the summer months of 2021, the big question for many observers was whether Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon Jae-in would hold their first summit meeting during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Cautious hope was in the air, especially on the South Korean side. However, by the time the Olympics opened in late July, any such hope was dashed amid a series of unhelpful spats. Seoul and Tokyo decided that they would not gain much—at least not what they wanted from the other—by holding a summit this summer. With Suga’s announcement of his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the end of September, barring any sudden turn of events, his tenure as Japanese prime minister will be recorded as one that did not have a summit with a South Korean president.
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.
The inauguration of Suga Yoshihide as Japan’s prime minister in September 2020 did not lead to a breakthrough in the stalled Japan-South Korea relationship. However, it provided an opportunity for South Korea to signal that President Moon Jae-in would be interested in a summit meeting with Suga. In the final months of 2020, it became apparent that both governments in Seoul and Tokyo felt the need to improve bilateral ties, but had not yet found a way to make that happen.
“Cold economics, cold politics” has become the new normal in Japan-South Korea relations. Instead of the practical stability that they maintained in the first months of this year, latent tension became the defining force as Seoul and Tokyo followed through their earlier decisions made in 2018 and 2019. The twin decisions—South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling on forced labor during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula and Japan’s export restrictions on key materials used for South Korea’s electronics industry—planted the seeds of discord and deterioration of bilateral ties during the summer months of 2020. In June, following the 2018 Supreme Court’s order, the Daegu District Court released a public notice to Nippon Steel, formerly known as Sumitomo Metal, a move to seize and liquidate the local assets of the company. In response to Japan’s imposition of export controls in 2019, South Korea filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization. This downward spiral will likely continue for the remainder of the year unless South Korea and Japan take decisive action to address these disputes. On the North Korea front, Japan’s newly published Defense of Japan 2020 assessed North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities as posing greater threats to Japanese national security than previous years.
In the first months of 2020, Japan and South Korea maintained pragmatic stability despite a brief flare-up over travel restrictions. The need to prioritize recovery from COVID-19 weighed heavily in favor of both countries seeking to focus on domestic issues. With the landslide victory of the ruling Democratic Party in the April parliamentary elections in South Korea, it is not likely that Seoul’s approach to the bilateral disputes with Tokyo will undergo a fundamental change anytime soon. With the US presidential election now six months away, continuing stalemate in US-South Korea military cost-sharing talks and volatility surrounding North Korea form an important backdrop to uncertainties in the South Korea-Japan bilateral relationship. By September, we may know whether it is pragmatic stability or latent tension that is the defining force in South Korea-Japan relations in 2020.
If relations between Japan and South Korea were defined by “cold economics, cold politics” through the summer of 2019 (as we described it in the September issue of Comparative Connections), South Korea-Japan ties at the end of 2019 had begun a tentative thaw. Tensions between the two countries have fallen in the waning months of 2019 from their peak in the summer, when Japan imposed export restrictions on South Korea and Seoul Korea indicated its intent to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Sharing Agreement (GSOMIA). Following a comparatively quiet but tense period in September and October, both countries took de-escalatory steps starting in November—most notably South Korea’s conditional decision not to withdraw from GSOMIA after all—that improved the atmosphere and created space for diplomacy.
It is hard to find anything truly unprecedented in a South Korea-Japan relationship that has long seen periods of elevated tension. That is what makes the recent escalation of disputes into the economic relationship a moment of outsize significance in the history of the relationship. As recently as the last update for Comparative Connections in May, we concluded that “South Korea-Japan economic and trade relations have remained … largely unrelated to political developments and driven by practical considerations.” That assessment reflected the fact that, however high the political tensions, there have been two unwritten red lines: first, allowing political tensions to harm existing, mutually beneficial security cooperation for deterring North Korean provocations, especially when working jointly with the US; second, bringing those tensions into the economic relationship. Over the last four months, those red lines have been blurred in a series of escalating retaliatory moves with direct consequences for both countries and the regional economic and security order as a whole.
In the early months of 2019, Japan-South Korea relations have continued a downward spiral. In their dealings with the radar lock-on dispute and a South Korean court ruling on forced laborers, both Seoul and Tokyo responded to the other’s action negatively, reaching the point of suspending all senior-level defense exchanges for the first half of the year. While recent developments may point to yet another period of all-time low in Seoul-Tokyo relations, it is possible that the year 2019 may signify the beginning of a new trend at a deeper level. That is, Seoul and Tokyo do not regard the other as a valued partner in their long-term national security strategy, even when addressing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. On the Japan-North Korea front, once the biggest regional champion of the US “maximum pressure” campaign, Japan has continued to reckon with the region’s sudden turn toward diplomacy with North Korea and made some policy adjustments for better alliance coordination with the United States.
Fall 2018 represented a turning point in Japan-South Korea ties as an uneasy truce between the two countries gave way to escalating tensions. South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that two Japanese companies must compensate 10 South Koreans forced into labor during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. South Korea’s decision to dissolve the foundation built to implement the 2015 “comfort women” agreement between Seoul and Tokyo, though not unexpected, also added to the general atmosphere of growing tension. As 2018 came to a close, tensions flared as Japan alleged a South Korean Navy destroyer locked onto a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force plane with a radar used for targeting weapons – a claim Seoul vigorously denies. On the Japan-North Korea front, Prime Minister Abe’s willingness to meet Kim Jong Un characterized Tokyo’s response to the Trump-Kim summit amid increasing uncertainty concerning Japan’s role in talks on denuclearization of North Korea, but with no real change of Japan’s North Korea policy.