oth of them are economic powerhouses, and that distinction has helped earn Japan and South Korea seats at the table when it comes to international concerns. Japan is even part of the Group of Seven countries that meet at least once a year to discuss mainly global political matters. Japan is also one of the world’s most generous donors, as is South Korea.
These days, the two countries are renewing ties that have been frayed for decades, primarily to build a security alliance against North Korea and China. For all these, however, few expect either country to take the lead in responses to challenges to democracy and human rights. During the historic Korea-Japan summit in Seoul this May, democracy and human rights were not on the agenda.
Both Japan and South Korea are democracies that generally respect the basic human rights of their citizens. But in the international arena, neither has been at the forefront of issues that would forward democracy or spoken up on rights abuses elsewhere. This is especially true in Asia, where abuses by state actors are rife. But it is a region where both Japan and South Korea have extensive business interests to consider, as well as painful histories that Tokyo and Seoul strive to avoid being reminded of.
Instead of championing human rights and democracy, Japan and South Korea have even been in instances when one or both of them did the exact opposite or chose to retreat to the background. Japan’s impending release of treated waste water from the Fukushima nuclear plant that was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 2011, for example, is being seen as a rights issue by many rights activists because it poses environmental and health risks. Just recently, too, many rights advocates were outraged when the Yoon Suk Yeol administration invited the Myanmar ambassador to South Korea to an arms-export promotion event ahead of the G7 summit. Myanmar, after all, has an ongoing civil war, which was sparked by the ouster of a duly elected government by the military.
The Korean Civil Society in Support of Democracy in Myanmar (made up of 106 organizations nationwide) issued a statement protesting Seoul’s move. But the rights advocates became even more upset after the South Korean foreign ministry’s released its official reply on the matter: “Since the military coup in Myanmar, the South Korean government has suspended new exchanges and cooperation with Myanmar’s military on defense and security, and has stopped exporting strategic materials, including weapons. The arms export promotion event is an event that invited diplomatic delegations, including ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members, and has nothing to do with the Korean government’s action against Myanmar.”
To the activists, the statement not only failed to explain why a representative of the Myanmar junta was invited to an arms event, it also sought to hide behind ASEAN, which has been trying to convince the Myanmar military to put a stop to the violence in the Southeast Asian country.
Business as usual
To be fair, the Phnom Penh Statement, jointly announced by the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea in November 2022, included a condemnation of the coup in Myanmar. But the statement’s core was to strengthen the military alliance among South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In other words, democracy and human rights in Asia weren’t at its core.
As it is, both Seoul and Tokyo have yet to convince several South Korean and Japanese businesses to cease helping the junta earn revenues and pull out of Myanmar. Unlike European Union nations, South Korea and Japan still have no laws that would impose mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence (mHRDD) on local companies. This has allowed businesses from both countries to participate — knowingly or unknowingly, and directly or indirectly — in human-rights abuses in the manufacturing sector in Myanmar, as well as in other countries such as China (specifically Xinjiang province) and Bangladesh.
Last November, no less than the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar recommended that South Korea consider having such a law. But the South Korean government has been silent on the issue, and so far no proposal regarding mHRDD has been brought up in the South Korean legislature. And considering that the Yoon government has continuously eased regulations on companies since it came to power, it is likely that the present administration will veto such a bill even if it is passed by the National Assembly.
By contrast, Tokyo has begun moving toward having mHRDD legislation. On 5 October 2022, the Japanese government released the policy paper “Business and Human Rights: Toward a Responsible Value Chain” that many regard as a step toward mHRDD. The Japanese business community is said to be actively cooperating with the government’s policies as well, and expectations are the Japanese parliament will legislate the mHRDD soon.
Interestingly, the Japanese government also approved three other policy papers at around the same time: one on national security, another on national defense, and the third on the country’s defense buildup program. In a commentary posted last February on the blog of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, East Asian security expert Dr. Jingdong Yuan noted that all three documents “enable important modifications of the senshu boei (exclusively defense-oriented policy) that Japan has followed since 1946, not least allowing Japan to participate far more actively in collective self-defense with the United States and to substantially increase its ability to project force beyond its borders.”
Japan’s defense-oriented policy stems from Article 9 of its postwar constitution that has the country renouncing war and pledging that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The latter commitment has increasingly become problematic for Japan’s leaders through the years, and especially now with the constant sabre-rattling by China and North Korea. That is why Tokyo has been trying to strengthen its military alliances with the United States and even with South Korea, and aiming to “normalize” its armed forces and make it more pro-active and ready for combat.
Ghosts from the past
Japan’s plans to ramp up its military’s capabilities, however, have upset its neighbors, many of which had suffered from its violent aggression in World War II. Indeed, even after all these years, many say that Japan has yet to properly atone for what it had done during the war, particularly regarding the ‘comfort women’ or those who had been forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military.
The issue, along with other wartime abuses by Japan, has been a major sore point in Tokyo’s relations with other Asian governments for generations. For sure, it remains to be so for many South Koreans, despite efforts of successive South Korean governments to set it aside.
South Korea, though, has its own wartime atrocity that it needs to address. It had sent hundreds of thousands of troops to support U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. But in 1968 one group of South Korean marines ended up killing as many as 70 Vietnamese civilians. Last 7 February, a South Korean court ruled in favor of one of the survivors of the massacre; the government filed an appeal. Vietnam’s foreign ministry has expressed regret over Seoul’s move, saying, “Vietnam’s policy is to push the past aside and see the future. But this does not mean that it denies the historical truth, and the Vietnamese government wants Korea to respect it.”
Aside from business interests, it may well be that these wartime atrocities, along with numerous domestic skeletons in their respective rights closet, have made both South Korea and Japan realize that they are on slippery moral ground. Hence their reticence to speak up on rights issues outside their borders, since it would almost be akin to a pot calling the kettle black. South Korea and Japan have therefore chosen to concentrate on security and economic concerns that they believe would ensure a bright future for all. South Korean President Yoon even said recently, “I am confident that Korea and Japan’s future-oriented cooperation contributes to freedom, peace, and prosperity not only in both countries, but also in the world.”
The irony is that freedom, peace, and prosperity can be achieved only when human rights are respected.◉