Argument

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Japan Wasted a Golden Chance for Olympic Reconciliation

Tokyo-Seoul relations remain mired in bad history and petty insults.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
South Korean athlete runs bases at Tokyo Olympic Games.
Oh Ji-hwan of Team South Korea rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Kanagawa, Japan, on July 29. Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Ever since the Greek city-states established their Olympic truce, the Games have been an opportunity for diplomacy. Just three years ago, South Korea made diplomatic hay out of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics by coaxing North Korea into participation, which headed off a potential war and paved the way to a series of summit meetings among South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

But there will be no similar diplomatic breakthrough during the Tokyo Olympics: After negotiating for a potential visit, Moon declined to attend the Games following a vulgar insult from a high-ranking Japanese diplomat. This near-miss is not just a squandered opportunity to improve a relationship that is at its lowest point in years. It also indicates the failure of the Japanese government to conduct diplomacy with its closest neighbor and fellow democracy based on mutual respect.

The current standoff began a little more than two and a half years ago. In October 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to elderly Koreans who had been conscripted as slave laborers during World War II, when Korea was an imperial Japanese colony. Japan, in response, retaliated by implementing export controls on critical materials for high-tech industries, touching off a diplomatic storm that still continues. After Tokyo refused to remove the export controls, Seoul threatened to cancel the military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. After intervention from the United States, the intelligence pact was not formally canceled, but it was practically suspended. Two years later, the situation remains the same: Japan’s export controls are still in place, and South Korea refuses to share military intelligence with Japan.

Ever since the Greek city-states established their Olympic truce, the Games have been an opportunity for diplomacy. Just three years ago, South Korea made diplomatic hay out of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics by coaxing North Korea into participation, which headed off a potential war and paved the way to a series of summit meetings among South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

But there will be no similar diplomatic breakthrough during the Tokyo Olympics: After negotiating for a potential visit, Moon declined to attend the Games following a vulgar insult from a high-ranking Japanese diplomat. This near-miss is not just a squandered opportunity to improve a relationship that is at its lowest point in years. It also indicates the failure of the Japanese government to conduct diplomacy with its closest neighbor and fellow democracy based on mutual respect.

The current standoff began a little more than two and a half years ago. In October 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to elderly Koreans who had been conscripted as slave laborers during World War II, when Korea was an imperial Japanese colony. Japan, in response, retaliated by implementing export controls on critical materials for high-tech industries, touching off a diplomatic storm that still continues. After Tokyo refused to remove the export controls, Seoul threatened to cancel the military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. After intervention from the United States, the intelligence pact was not formally canceled, but it was practically suspended. Two years later, the situation remains the same: Japan’s export controls are still in place, and South Korea refuses to share military intelligence with Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga never held a meeting with Moon since Suga became prime minister in September 2020. At the June G-7 summit held in Cornwall, England, a Moon-Suga summit failed to materialize as Tokyo canceled at the last minute after having tentatively agreed to a summit meeting. The two countries tried again for the Tokyo Olympics, with Moon attending the opening ceremony and holding a meeting with Suga. But the two countries quickly ran into an impasse: South Korea wanted tangible results from the summit like lifting the export controls while Japan demanded South Korea come to the table with a solution for the Supreme Court decision ordering reparations. The format of the summit meeting was also an issue: South Korea wanted an hourlong meet for an in-depth discussion while Japan insisted on a brief, 15-minute meet, the same as other dignitaries visiting for the Olympics.

Then came the final straw: Hirohisa Soma, a high-ranking diplomat at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, told a South Korean journalist on July 16 that Moon was “masturbating” in his suggestions for a dialogue because “the government of Japan does not think about the Japan-Korea relationship as much as Korea does.” Although the Japanese ambassador apologized for the statement, calling it “extremely inappropriate and regrettable,” the damage was done. South Korea’s presidential advisors, who reportedly had been evenly split in their opinions on whether Moon should visit Tokyo, quickly soured on the idea. Finally, on July 19, four days before the opening ceremony, the Blue House announced the president would not be visiting Tokyo.

Soma’s vulgar comment is indicative of a larger issue: Japanese diplomacy is caught up in messy grievances with South Korea, not a cold-eyed, interest-based analysis, which would favor a better relationship with its closest neighbor that is also a prosperous liberal democracy. If Tokyo’s trade war was a bad idea two years ago, today it looks indefensible as protection of the semiconductor supply chain has emerged as one of the world’s most important economic and national security issues.

The semiconductor shortage has led to a global shortage in automobiles and electronics with soaring prices. Because only two countries—South Korea and Taiwan—currently have the ability to produce the most sophisticated types of semiconductors used in the world’s cars and smartphones, the United States under the Biden administration has focused strongly on protecting this supply chain, especially as China emerges as the next major semiconductor producer. Had it worked as intended, Japan’s trade war would have crippled South Korea’s production of semiconductors, leaving the global supply chain even more tenuous and vulnerable.

Ironically, Japan’s trade war failed to work only because Tokyo overestimated its strength. The Japanese government expected that restricting the export of high-tech materials would bring South Korean companies to their knees because it believed Japanese materials firms had their dominant market position thanks to an untouchable level of technology. It was wrong: Japan’s trade war failed not because Japanese materials firms were more technologically advanced than everyone else, but because they formed a relationship of trust with South Korean firms that produced a tight-knit and efficient manufacturing process.

Once that trust was gone, South Korea’s high-tech companies quickly replaced the supply from Japan with domestic producers and other suppliers from the United States, Taiwan, and China. By the end of 2020, South Korea’s import of hydrogen fluoride from Japan—one of the three materials placed under export control—dropped by 86 percent from the pre-trade war level with no meaningful disruption in semiconductor production for which the material is used. Tokyo thought it had a technological spigot that could be turned off, leaving South Korean companies begging for mercy; in reality, the trade war only served to damage Japan’s materials industry. A recent op-ed in Asahi Shimbun criticized the export control as “the extreme of stupidity,” which inflicted an economic loss on Japanese companies far greater than slave labor reparations Japan would have had to pay.

This tone deafness does more than damage Japan’s economic interests. The Biden administration is fixated on achieving trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea in response to North Korea and China, and Japan’s obstructionist posture has not gone unnoticed in Washington. A recent example was the April 2 meeting among the national security advisors of the three countries in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the Biden administration’s review of the United States’ North Korea policy. Although South Korean National Security Advisor Suh Hoon expressed agreement with the Biden administration’s “calibrated, practical approach” toward North Korea, his Japanese counterpart, Shigeru Kitamura, took a highly inflexible stance—to the annoyance of U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Each refusal by Suga to meet with Moon reinforces the impression that Japan is the obstacle in trilateral cooperation.

Japan is not to blame for the coronavirus pandemic that derailed everyone’s best laid plans around the Olympics. But it is not too uncharitable to say Japan’s failure to utilize the Olympics to improve ties with South Korea is a costly missed opportunity, especially as Suga’s time as the prime minister may be running out with a general election scheduled in October. Holding out does nothing to improve Japan’s position: Its trade war failed to create any leverage over South Korea, and at any rate, the South Korean president cannot order the Supreme Court to reverse itself.

Meanwhile, as the United States puts more emphasis on trilateral cooperation, Tokyo’s obsessive focus on avoiding wartime guilt only makes Japan look absurd. The right thing for Japan to do, both morally and strategically, has always been clear: Own up to its World War II legacy, pay reparations, and build a forward-looking relationship with its nearest democratic neighbor.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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