South Korea is safer than Japan

Not far from the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a monument to the Japanese enthusiasm for South Korea rises up these days. A Japanese and a South Korean entertainment company have jointly set up an exhibition in a pavilion on the South Korean Netflix series "Crash Landing on You", which is an enormous success in Japan. On the facade, photos of leading actress Son Ye-jin and leading actor Hyun Bin shine on video screens. Inside are pictures, videos and props.

Because of the corona fear there is not a huge rush. But a few Japanese let themselves be taken into the emotional story of a rich South Korean businesswoman who is blown over the border to North Korea while paragliding and falls in love with an officer there.

The new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would have one less problem if he could save the Japanese joy of South Korea's pop culture into a political reality in which he has to forge alliances in the conflict with China and North Korea. But that's difficult, maybe even impossible. Because Japan and South Korea's governments argue almost without a break.

It was only on Wednesday that the South Korean Ministry of Defense complained about a complaint from the Japanese Ministry of Defense. The day before, this had summoned the South Korean military attaché in Tokyo to protest against Seoul's new defense white paper. Japan is no longer called a "partner", but only a "neighbor". It also complains that Japan has hindered military cooperation with its ongoing claims to the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of ​​Japan, which South Korea calls Dokdo and is one of its territory. "Unacceptable," says Tokyo - which Seoul cannot accept.

There is currently no harmony between Seoul and Tokyo

In initial telephone conversations with Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, Blinken recently emphasized that good relations between all three countries are important for peace and security in East Asia. His team is currently looking for the right degree of rapprochement and rigor in China and North Korea policy. And of course he needs his allies in the region for this. But the most recent exchange between Tokyo and Seoul shows that the two neighbors are just not able to achieve harmony.

The differences are deeply rooted in their soul. Some politically minded people in South Korea find history unfair when they think of the contradicting realities after the Second World War: In Europe, Germany had lost the war and was divided - in Asia, Japan had lost the war and Korea was divided. While the failed empire was able to start rebuilding, the Korean people had to experience the next devastating war after the liberation from Japan's colonial rule, the Korean War between North and South. Before the border at the 38th parallel became an impenetrable demilitarized zone in 1953 and the arduous resurrection from bitter poverty began in the south under authoritarian governments.

Today, the South Korean government is relatively liberal, the economy successful, society somewhat carefree. You feel free and self-confident enough to demand a reappraisal of history that used to be lacking. In turn, the political elite of the established economic nation Japan no longer wants to be offered.

After the re-election of the LDP career politician Shinzō Abe as premier at the end of 2012, she made a clear shift to the right. Nationalism brings voices from Japan's strong right-wing extremist circles. As a result, the ruling party no longer wants to talk about war guilt and lawsuits from Korea, even under the current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. One refers to earlier excuses and agreements with which one sees oneself ransomed from all war guilt. For example that of 2015, which came about through the mediation of the USA and which was supposed to "finally and irreversibly" bring the dispute over the so-called comfort women, i.e. Koreans who performed involuntary sex services in Japanese military brothels during the war, to an end.

The dispute over military cooperation can be a security risk

But war guilt cannot be settled so easily by contract. South Korean human rights awareness meets Japan's right-wing conservative national pride. When the Seoul Supreme Court awarded former forced laborers compensation from Japanese companies in 2018, it was an affront to the Japanese government. In 2019, Tokyo removed South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners. Seoul responded by downgrading Japan in turn.

At the beginning of January, the crisis worsened when a court in Seoul ruled that Japan had to compensate five surviving so-called comfort women with 100 million won each, around 75,000 euros. "That is going too far," they say in Japanese government circles and feel that they are right because of the principle of state immunity.

Can Japan and South Korea overcome their big, small-scale dispute at least for the most important tasks of the present? In 2019, the government of President Moon Jae-in decided to terminate the GSOMIA agreement with Japan, which is important for the cooperation between the USA, Japan and South Korea on North Korea issues. Under pressure from the USA, Seoul reversed the decision at the last minute. But the impression remained: The neighborhood dispute can be a security risk.

The new US administration must create a new atmosphere in the relationship between Japan and South Korea. Perhaps South Korea's television art can help. Series star Son Ye-jin is definitely up for warm words about Japan. She recently gave the Japanese news agency Kyodo a handwritten message in Korean: "I hope you are well and healthy." Many people in Japan were certainly more interested in that than the eternal dispute between Tokyo and Seoul.