Headaches and headlines

The media in Japan show great enthusiasm in covering their country’s dispute with South Korea, but not all of the many opinion pieces on the issue are credible. Now the US and China are weighing in to see if they can help ease the simmering tensions. Duncan Bartlett reports from Tokyo

The images of South Korea which appear in the Japanese media can be either friendly or frightening, depending on which articles you read.

One of the most sensational recent stories suggested that in the event of a war, the majority of South Koreans would side with North Korea in attacking Japan.This wild claim was based on a completely unscientific survey, yet it nevertheless generated plenty of coverage, especially on social media, which cares little for credibility.

By contrast, South Korean pop stars, such as the girl band Twice, are winning positive press as they undertake a musical charm offensive. Next year, the group will play the Tokyo Dome, Japan’s largest venue. Tickets on secondary markets are already selling for the equivalent of 500 US dollars.

Moon Hee-sang, speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly
Moon Hee-sang, speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly

Shining Moon

But the Japanese media coverage enjoyed by even the most successful K-Pop stars pales in comparison to the headlines generated by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, whose photograph appeared everywhere following an eleven-minute meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a regional forum in Thailand in early November.

The liberal daily newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, noted that ‘nothing substantial emerged from the meeting, which produced only vague remarks by the two politicians about the current diplomatic crisis’.

The lack of a communiqué with tangible proposals only served to fuel media speculation. The topic filled airtime on serious television discussion programmes and became a hot issue in the weekly gossip magazines.

Trilateral tension

Many media commentators pondered the outlook for the defence alliance between South Korea, Japan and the United States. South Korea is threatening to break off an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, citing a breakdown of trust.

America warns strongly against such a move. David Stilwell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, has been shuttling between Seoul and Tokyo, pressing for a truce.

‘Both governments are responsible for the biting chill in bilateral ties’

He will have realised that the region’s problems run deep and have lasted many decades. Relations have been particularly fraught since last year, when South Korea’s Supreme Court began a series of rulings ordering Japanese businesses, such as Nippon Steel, to compensate Koreans who worked as labourers during the colonial period in the early 20th century.

The Japanese government has rejected the Korean court rulings. It maintains that all wartime compensation claims were settled in 1965 through a bilateral treaty, which restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.

For the Asahi Shimbun,‘both governments are responsible for the biting chill in bilateral ties that has caused a dampening effect on a wide range of areas including trade, tourism and grass-roots exchanges between the two countries’. The newspaper’s editors advise the Japanese Prime Minister to meekly offer more concessions.

One option, suggested during a visit to Tokyo by the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, Moon Hee-sang, is to set up a new fund for compensation, to which both countries contribute.

Patriotism in the press

However, this suggestion has been rejected outright by conservative daily paper the Sankei Shimbun, which is noted for its nationalism.

‘We don’t need the South Koreans economically – they’re a relatively insignificant market,’ said one of its editors – although he went on to express concern at the potential damage to the trilateral security alliance.

The Sankei seems to be underestimating the economic impact. For example, according to the Korean automobile importers and distributors association, new registrations of Japanese cars have plunged by more than 50 percent since last year. There has also been a sharp fall in the number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan, as well as a high profile boycott of Japanese goods, including beer.

Economist Shigeto Nagai and his team at Oxford Economics say that prolonged political uncertainty will affect investment decisions by both Japanese and Korean companies, as they reconsider their previously win-win supply-chain relationship.

‘We expect South Korea to try to lessen its dependence on high-end Japanese products, which may not only damage Japanese companies but also make regional supply chains less efficient,’ says Mr Nagai.

One of the opinion column writers from the Nikkei newspaper told me that these economic issues are a matter of deep concern for the business lobby. He said that many executives wish Prime Minister Abe would use diplomacy to resolve the dispute. But he added that Nippon Steel – which is facing extensive compensation claims – is standing firm against concessions.

Politically weak

Both South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe face domestic political trouble. Mr Abe has lost both a justice minister and a trade minister to corruption scandals, while, in Korea, the justice minister Cho Kuk, one of Mr Moon’s closest aides, resigned following massive street protests.

President Moon’s opponents are attempting to block his reform agenda and some critics caution against stoking up further animosity against Japan at a time of weak exports and sluggish investment.

The economy is a key issue in South Korea, ahead of a general election in April 2020. Mr Moon must leave office at that point. In Japan, Shinzo Abe has said he will not seek re-election when his current term ends in September 2021.

Defence issues

In the time that he has remaining, Mr Abe claims his principal goal is to reform the Japanese constitution. He hopes to change the status of the Japanese Self Defence Force, turning it into a regular army, which would have the capacity to fight abroad in support of foreign allies.

This plan is condemned by South Korea, China and North Korea. The North’s official media has called Mr Abe an ‘idiot and a villain’. Pyongyang is also rejecting offers of more direct talks with the South, insisting that all communication must be conducted through exchanges of documents.

China’s role

China has said that, despite the tension, it will press ahead with a three-way summit next month. The Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, plans to meet Mr Abe and Mr Moon in the southern city of Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan.

If the South Koreans suspend the joint intelligence sharing commitment with Japan before then, the atmosphere in China will become very tense. The journalists and commentators who cover the Chengdu meeting will no doubt attempt to get a story out of it, even if itisfounded on speculation.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo

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