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South Korea's Moon torn by 'split personality' when it comes to Japan

President lacks clear principles for managing relations between Seoul and Tokyo

President Moon Jae-in's past as a student activist comes forth when he addresses sensitive issues in relations with Japan.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in has two public personas when it comes to dealing with Japan: the statesman and the activist.

In his address marking South Korea's Liberation Day on Aug. 15, which celebrates the end of Japanese colonial rule on the peninsula, Moon avoided stirring up nationalistic, anti-Japanese sentiment. One line in particular stood out. "If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands," he said.

But Moon's basic policy toward Japan remains unchanged. This was clearly reflected in his government's decision on Thursday to discontinue an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

During my most recent stint in Seoul, which lasted from April 2015 to until March 2018, I had an opportunity to meet Moon soon after his inauguration. He impressed me with his friendly demeanor and gentlemanly behavior. He did not seem to be lying when he said he wanted to repair South Korea's strained relationship with Japan.

On such occasions, Moon behaves as head of state -- the person formally representing his country.

But his colors can change surprisingly quickly. When he discusses issues related to the troubled history between South Korea and Japan, he takes on the persona of a student activist turned left-leaning politician. In this guise, he is quick to heap criticism on Japan.

Only two weeks before his Aug. 15 address, Moon harshly denounced Japan's formal decision to downgrade South Korea's status as a preferred trade partner. "We will never overlook such circumstances where Japan, the instigator of these [past] wrongs, is turning on us," he said at an emergency cabinet meeting held to discuss Japan's action. "We will never again lose to Japan."

In his cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 9, Moon appointed You Youngmin, a reputed expert in semiconductor technology, as science minister, and picked Cho Kuk, who is known for his hard-line stance toward Japan, as his closest aide. Moon also expressed determination to fight Japan's "unjust" export controls, stressing that he would not make concessions over the issue.

Moon frequently switches between his activist and statesman roles. In his Liberation Day address last year, Moon also avoided criticizing Japan over historical issues. Instead he said, "Japanese Prime Minister Abe and I reached an agreement to closely cooperate to develop Korea-Japan relations in a forward-looking manner."

But Moon has failed to match those words with actions. His government unilaterally dissolved a fund established through a bilateral agreement to provide financial support to wartime "comfort women," and his response to a ruling by South Korea's Supreme Court ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean wartime laborers angered Tokyo and many Japanese people.

Moon's acerbic attacks and his contrasting calls for friendship between the two countries are both honest reflections of his personality. One explanation for his Jekyll-and-Hyde approach is that bilateral relations with Japan are less important to him than they were to his predecessors.

Rather than calling him anti-Japanese, it is probably more accurate to say that Moon has no clear principles for how to deal with Japan.

During his Aug. 15 speech, Moon devoted much time to his ideas for promoting Korean reunification. Despite the harsh treatment he has received from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Moon made clear that he remains committed to denuclearization in the North and creating a peace regime by the end of his term in 2022. His goal is full unification of the North and South by 2045 at the latest.

Moon once said development of North-South relations would give the Korean people more leverage in talks with the U.S., China and Japan. He has pledged to make every effort to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula.

He knows that better ties between Tokyo and Seoul and the normalization of Japan's relationship with North Korea are crucial to that peace. But Moon's worldview is centered on intra-Korean relations; Japan as just one piece of his geopolitical puzzle.

In fact, the largest factor in the total failure of the Abe and Moon administrations to understand each other may be the deep-seated and seemingly unbridgeable differences in their positions regarding Pyongyang.

After Moon's Liberation Day speech, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed hope that Moon would exercise his leadership to break the impasse over the wartime labor issue. Seoul responded by filing a strong protest, calling Kono's remarks "highly deplorable." A South Korean diplomat explained it was a violation of diplomatic protocol for a nation's foreign minister to make demands of another nation's head of state.

The episode is just one instance of the cycle of miscommunication between the two capitals.

While Moon's Liberation Day speech was restrained in its criticism against Japan, it did not make any reference to the wartime labor issue. That leaves a root cause of the bilateral feud unresolved.

Seoul seems to think that Tokyo should first compromise on the issue of export controls. The Japanese side, meanwhile, insists that South Korea should first demonstrate its commitment to the 1965 treaty normalizing relations, which Tokyo says settled all claims for wartime reparations. The Abe government says the ball is in South Korea's court.

With no resolution in sight, South Korea scrapped the intelligence-sharing pact. Moon even turned a deaf ear to the U.S. call for the agreement to be extended, and its warning that abolishing it would undermine security cooperation among the three countries.

South Korea had hoped to mend ties with Japan by Oct. 22, when Emperor Naruhito will declare his enthronement at a ceremony that will be attended by leaders from around the world. Those hopes now look forlorn.

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