Korea-Japan relations have been strained for the past 3 years as the feelings of fatigue between the two citizens has been steadily increasing due to the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on the forced wartime labor in October 2018. Bilateral cooperation to reorganize the world order after COVID-19 also remains bleak. The East Asia Institue (EAI, President Yul Sohn) and Genron NPO (President Yasushi Kudo) conducted the “9th Joint Korea-Japan Public Opinion Poll.” Based on the results of the survey, this issue briefing examines the differences in public opinion between the two countries on security and economic cooperation. This briefing also analyzes the Korean public’s call to improve ROK-Japan relations and increase cooperation. President Sohn argues that ROK-Japan relations should be re-examined under the intensified U.S.-China strategic competition and the possible post-pandemic global risks. He also states that Japan should abandon its one-track approach and understand the Korean’s preference for “future-oriented” cooperation. Additionally, the next Korean administration should respond to public opinion and strive towards the reconstruction of ROK-Japan relations.
On September 28. 2021 the East Asia Institute (EAI) and Genron NPO released the results of the 9th Korea-Japan Joint Public Opinion Poll. The most notable result of this survey was the increased call made by the public for the improvement of Korea-Japan relations and their close cooperation. Since the ROK Supreme Court ruling on the wartime forced labor in October 2018, the public’s feeling of fatigue regarding a strained bilateral relationship has grown. As the relations between the two governments have come to a standstill, the two countries have been faced with considerable economic and strategic costs. Bilateral trade and investments have decreased, coordination and cooperation over the North Korean nuclear issues are difficult, and mutual distancing and slander have reduced diplomatic influence of the two states at the international stage. Currently, it is difficult to conceive of bilateral cooperation in the areas of the COVID-19 preventive measures, securing vaccines, and preparing for the post-COVID-19 world order.
This trend might change. In Japan, a political change took place when Prime Minister Abe, who had been at the center of the anti-Korean sentiment for the past year, was replaced by Prime Minister Suga and on September 29, by Prime Minister Kishida. With events such as the upcoming Korean Presidential election in Korea, the two countries are facing a fluid political situation. Now, citizens of both countries are sending signals for mutual cooperation whilst criticizing the government’s sluggish efforts to improve bilateral relations.
The results of this year’s survey demonstrate that the impression of the other country has improved along with the increased demand for the recovery of the bilateral relationship. The demand was stronger on the Korean side than on the Japanese side. This change should be understood in the context of the perceived change in the external environment, rather than of the internal dynamic of bilateral relations such as the progress in the negotiations of pending bilateral issues. Based on the recent public opinion surveys, I argue that the increasing demand for improved ROK-Japan relations, particularly on the Korean side, are brought on by the intensifying U.S.-China strategic competition and the rising concern over the China challenge. Under a perceived threat from China, the Korean public demands an improved ROK-Japan relationship cooperating through various channels including the U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral security cooperation. But, the reaction from Japanese public is different, supporting the government policy line that keeps distancing from Korea and uses the existing strategic initiatives including the QUAD, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision(FOIP), and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership(CPTPP).
The survey results pose two challenges to Korea. The first is the gap between the public and the government. Solutions need to be made on how to reduce the state of decoupling between the government and the public’s position on improving ROK-Japan relations and ROK-Japan cooperation (specifically, ROK-U.S.-Japan security cooperation, Quad cooperation, solution to the forced labor issues, etc.). The second challenge is the gap between the Korean public and the Japanese public. How to narrow the gap between the lukewarm Japanese public opinion on improving bilateral relations needs to be addressed. The aforementioned challenges are tasks that the next Korean President needs to take on.
1. The Korean Public Appraises “Future-Oriented Cooperation”
As shown in Figure 1, the “negative” Japanese public opinion toward Korea was expressed in the June 2019 survey. The negative perception of 49.9% reflects the Japanese government’s full-fledged campaign charging that the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling in October 2018 on the wartime forced labor was a violation of the postwar international legal order. On the other hand, The negative perception of Japan in the Korean public which reached 71.6% was clearly expressed in the July 2020 survey, reflecting events such as, but not limited to, the Abe administration’s export control over chemical materials used for semiconductor production in South Korea, and security conflicts over the end of GSOMIA. It is interesting to note that this trend reveals the different perceptions of the Korea-Japan conflict between the two countries. While the Japanese public has expressed dissatisfaction and anger with the Korean government’s handling of the Supreme Court, the Korean public has displayed similar sentiments toward the Japanese government’s retaliatory measure. The public opinion of the two countries is in line with the stance of each government.