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The Peninsula

South Korea-Japan Ties Likely to Remain Frozen Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Published April 28, 2020
Category: South Korea

By Terrence Matsuo

Relations between South Korea and Japan remain icy amid the global coronavirus pandemic. After a bruising 2019, with severe disputes over historical issues, experts caution that bilateral engagement is unlikely to emerge in the near future.

As noted in a previous post on this blog, the government in Seoul reacted angrily to the decision by Tokyo to limit arrivals from South Korea. The Japanese government said that the decision was necessary to limit further transmission of the disease within Japanese territory. But Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha later summoned Ambassador Tomita Koji to lodge an official protest. According to a readout released by the Ministry, she “pointed out that it is very inappropriate for the Japanese government to take such measure at this point,” and urged their removal.

Experts on South Korea and Japan say the tensions caused by historical disputes are likely to inhibit cooperation in confronting the coronavirus pandemic. Yuki Tatsumi is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, and co-director of the East Asia Program. “Cooperation in any area has been derailed across the government due to the political tension, and I suspect the area of public health is probably among them,” she says.

Officially, leaders in Seoul and Tokyo recognize the need for international cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus, which first emerged in China. Both President Moon Jae In and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō have participated in a flurry of international meetings held this year via video link. There was the G20 summit held at the end of last month, and the ASEAN+3 summit held in mid-April.

In translated remarks released by the Blue House, President Moon told the assembled leaders that “active bilateral and multilateral cooperation within the region will be essential to provide quarantine and medical supplies in a timely manner to those in urgent need.”

His remarks were echoed by Prime Minister Abe. The Kantei released a transcript of a press conference he held after the same summit. “As the novel coronavirus disease is raging in the countries of ASEAN and Asia around Japan, it is extremely essential to expand cooperation in the region,” he said.

Both leaders emphasized the need to share information around which to build policies going further. President Moon called for a future meeting between the health ministers of the participating states, while Prime Minister Abe proposed “the establishment of an ASEAN center for the control of infectious diseases.”

Experts in Washington are hopeful that further cooperation in a multilateral setting is likely to continue, due to the tensions in the bilateral relationship. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens is President of the Korea Economic Institute of America, and previously served as the American representative to Seoul from 2008 to 2011. She says that multilateralism, and letting the experts talk to each other is the best decision for South Korea and Japan to make. “Let the facts and the science and pragmatism lead you towards the kinds of steps that would make sense,” Ambassador Stephens says.

The career diplomat adds that in her observation, experts “do want to share knowledge and they do want to cooperate.” Ambassador Stephens also said that the role of political leadership and diplomacy “is to help facilitate that and certainly not to get in the way of it.”

According to the public record, Korean and Japanese officials are talking to each other. Near the beginning of the month, Kim Jung Han, Director-General for Asian and Pacific Affairs in the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a teleconference with Takizaki Shigeki, his counterpart on the Japanese side. Both the South Korean and Japanese readouts confirm that they “agreed on the importance of close communication and cooperation between” their respective governments, as the South Korean readout notes in English.

But it remains to be seen if the diplomats will encourage the kinds of contacts and exchanges Ambassador Stephens identified. As Ms. Tatsumi warns: “The fact that the bilateral conversation on this issue has not moved…into more direct talks between the two countries’ public health authorities also is an indicator that the two countries have not been holding extensive conversation about the cooperation on COVID-19.

Publicly available information does show that Japanese public health officials have engaged their counterparts in other countries. On 21 February, the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Disease held a telephone meeting with the Chinese Center of Disease Control. According to a readout provided by the Japanese side, the meeting included a discussion on the state of affairs in both Japan and China, as well as sharing information. There were approximately fifteen attendees, including Director Wakita Takaji from NIID and Director George Gao from the CCDC.

According to the readout, the Japanese side pressed their Chinese colleagues for information on how the coronavirus spreads and methods to prevent it. As the number of confirmed cases continues to climb in Japan, it is clear that this is an area where Japanese officials remain vulnerable. Brad Glosserman is the deputy director for the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University in Japan. He notes that “clearly [South Korea] has more experience dealing with hot spots,” which suggests tracking and tracing infections is a useful topic for Korean and Japanese officials to discuss.

Until health officials meet, there are other areas where positive bilateral cooperation could happen. South Korea has emerged as a key supplier of coronavirus test kits. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Yumi Hogan, wife of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, had personally negotiated for 500,000 test kits for the state. This came after South Korea had already promised up to 1.5 million test kits, according to Reuters. Speaking of the latter shipment, Ambassador Stephens said: “That was a pretty big step of bilateral cooperation.”

Still, experts caution that suspicions in both Seoul and Tokyo remain significant barriers. Professor Moon Chung-in of Yonsei University says: “Moon is willing to talk with Abe, but the Japanese side seems rather reluctant.” The advisor to both KEI and Cheong Wa Dae added: “Senior Japanese government officials’ negative and even sarcastic comments on South Korea’s successful management of CVID-19 reveal such tendency.”

On the other hand, Japanese officials are wary of become scapegoats used by the Korean side. Director Glosserman notes that in his observation, the view from Tokyo is that “the Moon administration prefers to use Japan as a political tool, a rallying point for domestic sentiment, and that Seoul will never relinquish the moral high ground [on history issues].”

The mutual disdain and political tension between South Korea and Japan could even move in the opposite direction, and encourage the unfortunate status quo. Ambassador Stephens notes that there are few domestic political incentives for highlighting bilateral cooperation. “In fact, they may perceive some political downside to doing that,” she says.

“A South Korean friend said that his government took no small pride in handling the disease and outperforming the Japanese,” said Deputy Director Glosserman. As South Korea receives international attention for its skill in managing the virus, the Japanese government has expanded its emergency declaration to cover all of Japan. “Some always want to compare Japan and Korea to gain mental satisfaction,” he says.

The historical issues between South Korea and Japan are complex, and resolving them would be difficult even under the best conditions. But in order to contain and control the coronavirus, pragmatism and cooperation on mutual interests is needed by both Korean and Japanese officials. “I think the politics have to get out of the way in a situation like this,” says Ambassador Stephens. Political leaders in both Seoul and Tokyo must “foster cooperation, rather than intentionally or unintentionally hinder it.”

Terrence Matsuo is a writer and analyst of American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a Contributing Author for The Peninsula. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from B Lucava’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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