US President Donald Trump meets South Korea's President Moon Jae-In and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
By Karl Friedhoff & Grace Kim
US President Donald Trump, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on July 6 on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. In response to North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on July 4, the allies issued a trilateral joint statement condemning the test, committing the partners to applying maximum pressure on the regime, as well as calling upon neighboring countries to work together toward this goal.
China’s reluctance to apply pressure to North Korea is a major challenge for the trilateral partners, but misalignment between South Korea and Japan has also slowed down trilateral cooperation. Disputes over history compounded by chilly mutual perceptions are considered the greatest roadblocks. In addition, less than two weeks after the trilateral summit, Seoul proposed holding official talks with Pyongyang, increasing uncertainty about security cooperation as well.
Separating Security from History
Seoul and Tokyo have recently focused on the need to build “future-oriented ties” to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Shortly after elected president in May 2017, President Moon deployed a special envoy to Tokyo and agreed with Prime Minister Abe to resume shuttle talks that had been suspended for more than a year. Moon also stated that security cooperation would be handled separately from the historical conflict over the comfort women issue. This was a major shift from the policy pursued by previous president, Park Gun-Hye. She refused to have talks with Abe until the comfort women issue was resolved.
Disagreements on North Korea Policy
North Korean missiles have landed in waters within the Japanese exclusive economic zone this year, prompting Tokyo to strengthen its ties with Seoul. Through a phone conversation between the leaders and the South Korean special envoy visit to Tokyo, Moon and Abe recognized that their countries share strategic interests, and both have committed to working together against the North Korean threat.
But a moment of unease arrived when Seoul officially proposed talks with Pyongyang on July 17. The South Korean Unification Minister announced a plan to sit down with North Korean officials to discuss reducing tensions around the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and resuming humanitarian projects such as family reunions. Seoul described this proposal as part of implementing the Berlin Doctrine— President Moon’s vision for a peaceful Korean Peninsula.
Neither Tokyo nor Washington were pleased with the move. “This is not a time for dialogue, but for pressure,” the Japanese government spokesman said the day after the proposal was announced. The White House was also hesitant to support Seoul’s decision, saying that the current situation is “far away” from the “right circumstances” for dialogue.
But Seoul appears determined to meet Pyongyang. South Korea responded that it “consulted with the US” and other nations prior to issuing the proposal. As Pyongyang has remained silent as of July 20—the proposal offered a meeting on July 21—Seoul confirmed that there will be “no deadline” for a North Korea response.
Public opinion also diverges on how to deal with North Korea. The 2017 Korea Times–Yomiuri Shimbun survey found that South Koreans were leaning towards talks, while the Japanese preferred putting more pressure on North Korea. More South Koreans wanted an engagement-oriented North Korea policy (44%) than pressure (30%); in Japan, a pressure-oriented approach (51%) was more popular than engagement (41%). As even experts disagree on which approach works better, debate will continue, and Seoul and Tokyo might go through a period of adjustment.
On paper, Seoul and Tokyo have already moved on from one historical challenge—the comfort women issue. On December 28, 2015, the foreign ministers of both countries released a statement on comfort women including an official apology from the Japanese government for the war-time sex slavery of Korean women. But one year later, 85 percent of Koreans wanted to renegotiate the comfort women agreement, while 57 percent of Japanese opposed a renegotiation.
President Moon has told Japanese leaders that “the Korean people cannot emotionally accept” the comfort women deal, and suggested renegotiating the agreement. However, renegotiation seems unlikely. Tokyo has repeatedly said that this is the final and irreversible deal—as acknowledged in the December 2015 statement—and that there will be no renegotiation.
Despite this potential roadblock, the first Moon–Abe meeting appears to have been fruitful. But Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang may create additional challenges. Security was expected to continue to be a strong point of cooperation between South Korea and Japan under the Moon administration. Instead, it may end up on the long list of points of contention should Seoul continues to push for engagement.