For Japan and South Korea, what next?

September 6, 2020 / 5 mins read

In Peak Japan, Brad Glosserman shows why Japan has been unable to break out of the torpor that began in the early 1990s and continues to this day, providing critical insight into its political system and culture. Glosserman was recently interviewed for the Seoul Economic Daily in Korea about the impact of Covid-19 in Japan, the South-Korea-Japan relationship, and what steps the South Korean government should take in its foreign policy in light of what’s going on internationally. The interview has been translated and lightly edited for clarity.

Can you say a bit about the impact of Covid-19 in Japan?

Japan’s response to the COVID outbreak has been schizophrenic. On one hand, the grayest country on earth should be rightly concerned about a pandemic that hits the elderly especially hard. On the other hand, the government’s power is limited–unlike the ROK, forced lockdowns are not possible. Thus, citizens assume special responsibility for their decisions. A generational split in that response (young people have been out and about while the elderly seem more restrained) has been compounded by tension seen around the world between those who prioritize health and those who worry about the economic toll. That has been exacerbated in Japan by economic difficulties that predated the COVID outbreak–the Japanese economy had already contracted before it began–and geopolitics, in particular relations with China. Xi Jinping was supposed to make a state visit in April and its postponement and possible cancellation has clouded efforts by the Abe government to improve relations with China. The attitude toward China has hardened since then due to a variety of factors–Hong Kong, continued incursions in territorial waters, and more aggressive foreign policy in general.

As I write, COVID cases in Japan are increasing; I can’t say spiking because they continue to grow. The Japanese knew that they had avoided the worst of the outbreak in the first wave, but they didn’t know why. They still don’t. Their economy is in trouble, China is being more aggressive and assertive, the US is acting more and more oddly, and Japanese political leadership appears to be weakening. In other words, all trends identified in Peak Japan are intensifying.

It seems the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics is having a particular impact on those living in Fukushima and the surrounding area. Do you foresee that this will have an effect on the popularity of Abe’s party (the Liberal Democratic Party)?

Soon? No. Abe is definitely weakened, however. That reflects the reassertion of bad habits and the sclerosis of a one-party system. Politicians and bureaucrats have settled back into old ways of doing things and that is not good for the country. Abe’s tenure has been marked by the consolidation of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. It will be very interesting to see how the political world reacts to weakness there and how the leadership vacuum is filled. The first signs of that cracking in authority are evident.

The problem is that there really isn’t a good alternative to Abe within his party or from across the aisle. Approval ratings for the Cabinet have been falling but the Japanese public does not trust the opposition. The DPJ split and is no longer the leading opposition party; that position is now filled by the Democratic Constitutional Party of Japan, and its distinct identity from the LDP is unclear. This is often the case in Japanese politics. In Peak Japan, I noted that perhaps what most outraged the LDP was DPJ success at pushing through parts of the LDP agenda. So, no, the opposition has not matured. Nor for that matter has the Japanese voting public.

The key question is when Abe will leave office. There isn’t interparty agreement on who should succeed him and my guess is that Abe wants to hang on until the 2021 Olympics. But there are so many uncertainties between now and then that it is hard to anticipate how things will unfold.

You have repeatedly emphasized the need for South Korea and Japan to cooperate, not only in the book but also in the several talks, papers, and debates. Unfortunately, the relationship between these two countries is continually worsening, considering the historical, economic (e.g., whitelist removal, export regulations), and military conflicts (e.g., GSOMIA). Furthermore, Japan openly opposes South Korea joining G7. Do you still believe these two countries can cooperate? If so, what would you consider to be the first step?

Yes, I still believe they can cooperate but that it would require political leadership that understands national priorities and interests and puts those above the political interests of particular leaders. The first step would be resolving the trade dispute. The opening of a WTO case is a way to make progress. And since the WTO dispute resolution mechanism is currently broken the dispute cannot be resolved immediately, which buys the two countries time.

The problem, as repeatedly noted in those “talks, papers, and debates” is the utter lack of trust between the two governments. That must be rebuilt–but neither side trusts the other or believes that its partner wants to resolve the larger suite of issues that keeps them apart. South Koreans believe that Japan wants to keep them down and ignore the past, while Japanese believe that the ROK wants to maintain the moral high ground and keep them on the defensive. Japan wants Moon to make a political decision to promote better relations, and the only way they will be convinced of his sincerity is if he pays a political price for such a move. As I have suggested, if Moon were to say that “he accepts the Supreme Court decisions on forced labor but believes that it is South Korea’s national interest not to enforce them,” then that could lay the foundation for progress. Japan could find a face-saving solution to the problem.

The point of regional security cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan is the strategy of response to China and North Korea. The official reason for Japan’s opposition to accepting South Korea as a member of G7, which President Trump suggested, is that ‘there is a difference in ideologies between South Korea and the other member states of G7 on how to respond to China and North Korea.’ What’s your opinion on this position? And what is your opinion regarding South Korea’s diplomatic action as it relates to China and North Korea?

There are two issues here. The first is expansion of the G7, which really isn’t on the table. The G7 is outdated and needs a new raison d’etre. The proposal for a D10 makes some sense but a lot depends on details that are not forthcoming. Any organization of advanced economies with liberal democratic foundations that doesn’t include the ROK isn’t worthy of the name. South Korea must be a member of such a group, but that begs the question of what the group is for and what it will do. Seoul will likely not be the only ‘difficult’ government in such a grouping.

The second question has to do with a general understanding of South Korea’s security policy. I have written a good bit about this with Paul Choi–there is a recent article in The Diplomat. Our argument is that few really get Seoul’s thinking. Caricature tends to prevail, rather than an appreciation of the sophistication of ROK policy. We have all learned the wrong lessons from the THAAD episode. We need to reassess that incident and geopolitical dynamics generally to get policy and possibilities right.

It has been a while since the absolute hegemony of the US was weakened due to the steep rise of China. Many experts refer to the relationship between these two countries as a ‘Tuchididdes Trap.’ It has made the security dynamics in East North Asia more complicated. And the US-China conflicts and the East North Asia conflicts in turn frame the foreign policy of the Middle East. In this situation, what do you think is the most effective diplomatic policy Korea can consider?

I believe that Seoul’s best interest lies in continued alliance with the US, despite the fact that President Trump makes that difficult to see and even harder to pursue. I also believe that closer ties with Japan are vital and a strong Seoul-Tokyo axis could give both countries more leverage with the US. The most important thing though is for the South Korean people to quit thinking of themselves as “shrimps among whales,” and to believe that they have more agency in foreign affairs and should be more creative in their foreign policy.

You said, “The flying geese view is an obstruction for the Japanese in considering how to prepare for Japan’s future development.” However, last year, Japan imposed economic retaliation against Korea, excluding major export items from the whitelist. Do you think Japan’s strategy worked for Japan?

No. Japan is trying to figure out how to practice better national economic statecraft and has reorganized its government bureaucracy to do so. The decision viz-a-viz the ROK on those three products was wrong-headed. There may well have been national security concerns–Japan wasn’t totally off base in having worries–but its response was shortsighted, emotional, and ultimately a self-inflicted wound.

Rumors of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea have been circulating, and I don’t think it’s just simple pressure to increase defense cost sharing. What do you think of the possibility of withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea?

That would be a mistake. The issue of burden sharing is now part of every US alliance around the world. Its salience predates the Trump administration but Trump has the most narrow and mistaken understanding of how alliances work and the advantages they provide to the US. There must be a recalibration of roles, missions, and responsibilities among the US and its security partners but that will demand a new understanding of how alliances work. The US has been very slow to do that. Allies are going to have to convince the US public that they believe in mutual responsibilities and shared missions. Often when I talk to allied governments, they urge the US to make the case for the alliance to their publics, as if that wasn’t their job. Not only is that not the case, but they are going to have to do more to sell the alliance to the US public as well. We all must become engaged in doing the PR work for these security partnerships.

As you say in the book, Japan is at its peak and already facing the problems that countries all around the world will soon be facing. Japan is trying to find a solution to problems like aging, low growth, and low consumption. What do you think Korean government should take away from the Japanese government’s efforts on such issues?

Learn from Japan’s mistakes. Don’t be too insular, don’t put off dealing with trends that are already visible and problems that are likely inevitable but not here yet. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t get cocky. Accept uncertainty, the need to constantly challenge yourselves and acknowledge that the world is changing faster than you think and all your assumptions will likely soon be upended. Openness–in virtually every sense–is key. Tinkering is unlikely to solve structural problems.

You say in the book that Japanese people are focused on becoming a mature country. However, the major conservative forces such as the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) and Prime Minister Abe have different ideas. What do you think of the reality of Japan’s addition of military capability through the revision of the pacifist constitution?

Japan is a small ‘c’ conservative country. Most Japanese don’t buy into the nationalism of Nippon Kaigi or the hard right. They want recognition for their contributions and the good things they have done, prefer not to dwell on–that is NOT the same as ‘erase’–the past, and mostly want to be left alone since they see a hostile world surrounding them. They know they are vulnerable and they fear that the changes that they must make to adjust to that world will not necessarily make their lives better. After all, who knows what the future will bring? The key message of Peak Japan is that in the absence of certainty about a better future after they make changes in their country, the Japanese will stick with the comfortable situation they are in.

The military piece of this is simple: The Japanese want to be left alone. They are pursuing military capabilities to better defend themselves and be a better ally. Not to threaten anyone else. For some Japanese, improved capabilities are intended to allow them to better contribute to international society, to give back what they have gained from the contributions of others. But that is not a universal sentiment. More popular is a belief that the country should not do anything that risks entanglement in foreign controversy or conflict.

Last question: recently John Bolton’s memoir has become a hot issue in Korea. Bolton criticized President Donald Trump’s policy toward North Korea and he put forth a very negative assessment of the Korean government while evaluating the Japanese government and his fifteen-year friend, Prime Minister Abe, as relatively friendly. What do you think of his book?

I am bothered by the Bolton book. In truth, there is little that he reports about President Trump’s thinking that was not known or suspected. The president is vain, narcissistic, self-absorbed, ignorant, and petulant. He cannot distinguish between his personal interest and that of the country. Perhaps even more worrying is the complete breakdown of a rational policy making process in the White House. The disorder is most disturbing–and the fact that someone like Bolton could get as close to power as he did is unsettling. He appears to have promoted his own agenda throughout his time in the White House and I must wonder how many other people throughout the administration are doing the same. That suggests that the chaos is structural and there is perhaps even more damage being done elsewhere.

We all must worry about what happens after Trump. T­­­­hese problems will not just go away if he loses the 2020 election.