South Korea’s 'Good Neighbor' Initiative

To heal the wounds of the historical past between South Korea and Japan, President Park’s “two-track diplomacy” needs additional support.

Japan–South Korea relations are seeing a glimpse of hope for change. While the two countries have allowed mutual affront to obscure shared interests, values and geography in the past few years, a recent talk by South Korean president Park Geun-hye signaled that a change is underway. On May 4, 2015, President Park expounded that South Korea will pursue a “two-track diplomacy” toward Japan, separating current governmental relations from historical disputes deriving from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Within two months after President Park’s talk, foreign ministers from Japan and South Korea met in Tokyo and agreed to resume dialogue to cooperate on certain issues and areas. In terms of advancing relations between Japan and South Korea, the Park administration’s diplomatic strategy so far is off to a good start.

But to heal the wounds of the historical past between the two countries, President Park’s “two-track diplomacy” needs additional support. Externally, South Korea needs Japan’s cooperation to manage, if not resolve, the ticklish historical dispute centering on the “comfort women,” the women who South Korea claimed were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels. In fact, an opportunity for overcoming the two countries’ historical animosities is close at hand—it hinges on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming statement, which is scheduled to be delivered on August 15, 2015, to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. For South Korea, it is a chance for Japan to demonstrate its sincerity to face history with humility. Internally, were there to be a governmental consensus between Japan and South Korea to negotiate a resolution for the historical disputes, the Park administration would have to proactively communicate with the strong South Korean civic groups that participate in the comfort women movement to compromise during and after the negotiation process.

“Two-Track Diplomacy”

Since assuming office in 2013, President Park has been particularly critical of the Abe administration, accusing him of evading Japan’s responsibility on the issue of comfort women. Yet, her position has shifted this year, as she clearly expressed in May that South Korea will “press forward with a clear-cut focus and direction in a different dimension” in ties with Japan, disconnecting governmental relations from historical issues.

Indeed, President Park has every reason to refresh the Japan–South Korea relationship. First, the latest Gallup weekly poll shows that President Park’s approval rating fell sharply to 29 percent, the lowest since she assumed office in February 2013. The mismanagement of the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus was one reason for President Park’s low support rate, but a poll by the Hankyoreh Institute for Social offers another explanation. The poll finds that 56.1 percent of South Koreans evaluate the current administration’s diplomatic performances as poor, compared to 35.5 percent rating it as good. Indeed, to many, stronger ties between Tokyo and Washington—as underlined by Abe’s recent visit to the United States and a chance for Abe to address a Joint Session of U.S. Congress during the trip—symbolizes a diplomatic failure of the Park administration.

Second, President Park is facing growing domestic calls to improve economic ties with Japan. According to a survey entitled “2015 Survey of Business Environment for Korean Companies in Japan” conducted by the Tokyo Center of Korea International Trade Association early this year, 53.5 percent of the surveyed Korean companies in Japan reported that the hurdles of Korean companies in Japan are increasing, which is 3.5 percent higher than the previous year’s survey. Following “the continued low yen trend” as the biggest factor for the worsening business environment, “the strained political relations between Korea and Japan” seems to be the second most negative factor that influences Korean companies’ operations in Japan, particularly in non-manufacturing areas such as tourism, transportation and service.

Third, there is an increasing strategic reason for South Korea to engage Japan in order to react to China’s growing power and unclear ambitions, typified by China’s recent expansion of its claims in the South China Sea. In an interview with the Washington Post this June, President Park expressed her view that security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are “very important” to South Korea, and South Korea will “watch with concern” developments in that area. Also, the United States is pressing President Park to play an active role in the disputes in the South China Sea. On June 3, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel called for South Korea to “speak out” in support of “universal principles and the rule of law” in the region.  

Fourth, the Park administration feels a need to respond to exterior pressure from its American ally to advance its relations with Japan. On May 18, 2015, after meeting with President Park and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Japan and South Korea to promote “healing and reconciliation” over historical issues and to strengthen their relations through direct dialogue.

The Diplomacy in Place