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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
Covid Northeast Asia Cooperation

11 May 2020

Starting the conversation…

John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics and International Relations, University of Cambridge, and Korea Foundation Fellow and Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at Chatham House

With South Korea bracing for the second wave of COVID-19 infection and Japan’s Abe administration extending state of national emergency to the end of May, one might reasonably expect the crisis to facilitate closer cooperation between two democratic states with complimentary, interdependent economies and shared alliance ties with the United States.

Both countries can draw on recent experience of disaster management – South Korea’s response to the 2015 MERS viral outbreak, and Japan recovery from the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 and the Triple Disaster in 2011 – and digital, networked societies and social acceptance of state intervention in the private sphere. Yet, historical disputes, recent diverging geopolitical perspectives (especially in relation to China and the threat posed by the DPRK), and personal tensions on both sides of the East Sea/Sea of Japan seem to stand in the way of effective bilateral cooperation.

Tokyo will be at best a bystander to the continuing diplomatic dance between the two Koreas.

Informal offers of support from Seoul to Tokyo have made little headway, and Abe, with his approval rating languishing at 42% (down 6 points from a month earlier) and with 81% of the public believing that his state of emergency declaration has come too late, will need to devote all his energy to restoring confidence at home before looking abroad for assistance.

Focusing exclusively on the pandemic, however, may not be possible when there is increasing regional uncertainty in Japan’s immediate backyard. Recent reports about the health and extended absence from public view of Kim Jong-un have prompted a flurry of unsubstantiated rumours and the dangers of rushing to judgment that the North may be on the brink of a leadership transition. Looking to preempt potentially destabilizing scenarios, Moon administration has facilitated the provision privately of pandemic related medical equipment to the North and is keen to do more in this respect as a way of reopening stalled bilateral talks with the North.

Abe has been keen to meet Kim in the wake of earlier summits between Kim and his Chinese, Russian, US and South Korean counterparts, and so, in principle, should welcome extended engagement. However, while Japan might be a provider of economic and humanitarian assistance in the long-term (should a normalization agreement with the North be secured), the unresolved long-standing controversy surrounding Japanese nationals abducted by the North, and the need to maintain international sanctions against the North, offer limited opportunity for proactive diplomatic overtures by Tokyo towards Pyongyang.

Seoul, for now, will have the most credible chance to take the lead in any pandemic-related overtures to the North, capitalizing on its own impressive performance in combatting the virus at home and by offering practical support to a regime keen presumably to minimize any hint of domestic disorder. Tokyo will be at best a bystander to the continuing diplomatic dance between the two Koreas.


John Delury, Professor of Chinese Studies, Yonsei University

John draws our attention to the unfortunate irony that the transnational and crossborder catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated, rather than reversed, tendencies toward fragmentation and ‘self-help.’ He accurately describes how there has been minimal cooperation across ‘little Northeast Asia’ [Japan and the two Koreas], despite obvious opportunities to improve frosty relations through humanitarian cooperation. Sadly, a similar dynamic appears to be playing out in Europe, where borders have gone back up and the role of the EU has faded, as well as in the United States, where the federal government is failing to coordinate individual states in resource distribution and implementation of protocols.

While I share John’s pessimism over prospects of Northeast Asian regionalism, there have been some hopeful examples coming out of South Korea of international cooperation in fighting the pandemic. Having been proactive in building up a COVID-19 testing capacity in January, and then flattened the curve relatively swiftly in March, Korea has been equally proactive in sharing its capacity with countries in need. Norway and Ireland (as well as American states such as Maryland and Colorado) received large shipments of test-kits, while Finland flew samples back to South Korea for rapid evaluation at labs here. Whether these are one-offs or repeated exchanges depend upon the ability of political leaders to institutionalize new habits of technical and scientific cooperation promoting global health.

Some observers anticipate an even more anarchic world order awaiting us on the other side of the pandemic. The US and China are certainly not helping by engaging in what The Economist labeled a ‘new scold war’. But it should not stop the rest of us from looking for every opportunity available to strengthen habits of solidarity and cooperation. The ties between Japan and the two Koreas are so laden with misgivings that, like John, I would not look to Northeast Asia to lead the way… but I can imagine the three countries joining in broader pan-Asian initiatives as the region looks for ways to revive and sustain social and economic life without jeopardizing public health. Bilateral experiments are already underway, such as Korea’s work with Vietnam and the PRC to create a special permit/ fast track system for ‘essential travel’, or discussions between Australia and New Zealand on a “trans-Tasman travel bubble.” These could be the seeds of post-corona regional re-integration in which South Korea and Japan, at least, would have to play a critical role.