A Time of Change on the Korean Peninsula

Japanese-Korean Relations at a Turning Point: Evolution Transcending Friction


Relations between Japan and South Korea have been plagued by repeated incidents of friction, especially those involving a territorial dispute and the so-called comfort women. But the bilateral ties are simultaneously undergoing a structural transformation. This article explores the options for building a strategic relationship that benefits both sides.

The Cycle of Friction in Japan–South Korea Relations

Repeated squabbles have been upsetting the ties between Japan and South Korea for about a year now. If the warmest point in the bilateral relationship occurred around October 1998, when Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō and Korean President Kim Dae-jung declared that the two countries would conclude a partnership agreement, the relations since then have failed to evolve and indeed appear to have retrogressed instead. We might even say that there have been 14 “lost years” in Japanese-Korean ties.

Looking back over this period, Japan and South Korea had a fairly healthy relationship when Roh Moo-hyun became Korea’s president in 2003, but in the second half of his administration a number of problems came to the fore—most notably the territorial dispute over the group of islets called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean. Roh switched to a hard-line stance, and a virtual diplomatic war ensued. President Lee Myung-bak succeeded Roh in 2008, and hopes for friendly relations gained traction once again. At the time, Lee’s administration was promising to follow a pragmatic course in foreign relations, while Japan was moving toward a change of government under Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, who took office in 2009 with a reputation for adhering to a liberal view of history. Again, however, hopes were dashed. During Lee’s term the two countries have agreed on expanding their currency swap arrangement, but they have not made noticeable progress on any other front. While there has been talk about establishing a free trade agreement, movement toward a conclusion has been minimal. What instead has been conspicuous is repeated friction every time Japanese officials say something about how Takeshima is an “integral part of Japanese territory.”

Demands for Compensation and Views of History

The latest round of this regularly recurring friction had a surprising beginning. It was the Constitutional Court of Korea that triggered the squabbling. In a ruling handed down in August 2011, the court faulted the Korean government for not pursuing the issue of compensation for former “comfort women” who were forced to become sex slaves during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The question of Korean claims for past Japanese actions was addressed in a 1965 bilateral agreement on the settlement of problems in regard to property and claims. The Japanese government argues that this agreement resolved all the outstanding issues involved in settling rights of claim, but the Korean government takes a different view, saying that it does not cover, for instance, the compensation demanded by the surviving comfort women. What the constitutional court ruled is that the Korean government is in violation of the Constitution for setting aside this difference in interpretation and failing to enter into negotiations with Japan on behalf of the comfort women. In effect, the court ordered the government to proceed with negotiations.

The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan holds a regular meeting in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul known as the “Wednesday demonstration.” In September 2011 the council announced a plan to erect a monument to the comfort women near the embassy; a statue of a Korean girl in traditional costume. While Tokyo complained to Seoul, its protest was ignored and the statue was unveiled in December. Later that month, with this issue in the news once again, Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko brought it up when he held a summit meeting with Korean President Lee in Kyoto. Noda requested the statue’s early removal, but Lee said only that the issue of the comfort women is important and that Japan should address it constructively. In this way, the meeting concluded on a sour note.

Now the Korean judiciary has delivered another blow to Tokyo’s view that all compensation questions were resolved by the 1965 agreement. At issue here is the legality of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and subsequent rule until 1945, during which time Japanese companies conscripted Korean workers. The official Korean position is that the annexation was illegal and invalid; a view that opens the door to claims for damage from conscripted individuals. In a decision handed down in May 2012, the Supreme Court of Korea reversed all previous rulings by finding that Japanese companies have an obligation to compensate drafted workers for unpaid wages. This decision has moved the courts into the battle between conflicting views of history. It has provided grounds for questioning the political route to resolving problems based on the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea. And if taken to the extreme, it could even force the treaty’s annulment and renegotiation.

The resurfacing of this history problem has applied the brakes to Japanese-Korean cooperation in the security sphere. News reports in the Korean press have declared that Japan revised its Atomic Energy Basic Law in 2012 in order to open the door to the development of nuclear weapons, and that Prime Minister Noda wants to alter the government’s interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution so as to enable military action for collective defense. Evidently the Koreans are worried that Japan will once again step forward as a big military power. Reacting to public sentiment, the Korean government executed a quick change of course. It had been preparing to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan at the end of June 2012, but it put the matter off at the last minute. Behind this lay the thinking that it would be wise to proceed cautiously on security cooperation at a time when many people, remembering Japan’s history of aggression, are of the opinion that Japan has failed to reflect on its evil deeds and is aiming to become a military power again.

The President Takes a Trip to Dokdo

The feuding led eventually to a significant hardening of President Lee’s position on the history problem. On August 10 he made a visit to Dokdo (Takeshima), and he followed it up by declaring that if Japan’s emperor wants to visit South Korea, he should first apologize for Japan’s colonial rule. When a head of government behaves in this way, one can only wonder what is going on. Seen from the perspective of the Lee administration, frustration over Japan’s passive response to the issue of the comfort women and other questions of history must have reached boiling point, encouraging the use of “shock therapy.” In that light, the trip to Dokdo, which had previously been considered a forbidden move in the game of diplomacy, begins to make sense.

It was in 1905 that Japan reaffirmed its claim to Takeshima by officially incorporating it into Shimane Prefecture. Ever since the Roh administration, Seoul has been saying that this territorial move was part of a Japanese scheme to annex the Korean Peninsula in 1910. In other words, the territorial dispute is considered part and parcel of the history problem. The view in Tokyo, however, is that these are two separate issues. In this light, we must doubt that Lee’s Dokdo trip nudged the Japanese government any closer to a positive stance toward the comfort women issue. On the contrary, Seoul probably only reinforced the hard-line thinking that has long been present on the Japanese side, producing a negative impact on efforts to resolve the history problem. That is, Seoul misplayed a card that it could have used effectively for other purposes by trying to play it in the history game.

Bilateral Relations at a Structural Turning Point

When we review the stance of Korean administrations toward Japan, we can see a pattern. In its early days, each administration tends to act in a friendly manner, but later, when the anticipated results fail to materialize, disappointment in Japan builds up. Toward the end of the administration, when the president becomes a lame duck, it becomes difficult to restrain expressions of strong antipathy toward Japan, and the administration may even seek to exploit anti-Japanese sentiment in a bid to enhance its popularity. Such is the mechanism that has been generating friction in Japanese-Korean relations from one government to the next. At least in the case of the Roh and Lee governments, the existence of this cycle of sentiment toward Japan cannot be denied.

Does this mean we should view the current squabbles as just one phase in an ongoing cycle? When one looks more broadly at the bilateral relationship, examining the period from the Cold War’s end to the mounting friction of the last few years, one can see that it has radically changed. This leads me to suspect that a structural turning point in the relationship has arrived. The structural changes over the past 25 years or so can be summarized in five points: (1) The power balance has become more level; (2) shared values are spreading in each country’s establishment; (3) Japanese-Korean ties are becoming more diverse and multitiered; (4) mutual interest is becoming more equal in quantitative and qualitative terms; and (5) a new sense of identity has been enabled through an accumulation of cooperative experiences. Let me briefly explain each of the points.

  1. Japan and South Korea are rapidly approaching equal footing in terms of economic power, and the Korean presence in international society has grown weightier. Under the circumstances, convergence can also be seen in the diplomatic power each country wields.
  2. Korea’s sustained economic development has turned it into an advanced country and made it more democratic. As a result, Japan and Korea now stand out in the East Asian region as two countries firmly committed to the values of free-market democracy.
  3. A multitiered structure of relations has developed, one that extends beyond the ties on the government level and between business leaders to include civil society relationships. Moreover, these ties are being constructed not just in the political and economic worlds but also in various other fields, including cultural exchange.
  4. In former years Korean society showed a strong degree of interest in Japan, but Japanese society was not very interested in Korea. Now globalization in Korean society has led to a relative decline in interest in Japan, while the Japanese have become more strongly attracted to Korea. As a result, the degree of mutual interest on the two sides is becoming more equal. Furthermore, Korea’s globalization is tempering the public’s perception of Japan. Instead of viewing Japanese-Korean relations in black-and-white terms of good or bad, Koreans are looking at them from a comparative perspective that takes relations with other countries into account.
  5. Thanks to the joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup and other international events, and thanks to their cooperation in international aid projects, the Japanese and Koreans have come to recognize that in the context of multilateral negotiations, their interests are merging. There is a growing sense that Japan and Korea have developed a relationship in which they can supply international public goods if they both work together.

Mounting Friction in a More Equal Relationship

In the context of this structural transition in the relationship between Japan and South Korea, how can the recent increase in friction be explained? Without doubt the two countries are becoming more equal and more like each other. These two Asian neighbors are also acquiring a similar position and level of power in global politics. Accordingly, they are gaining more shared interests in terms of the kind of international environment they desire. Both are allies of the United States, and this makes it necessary for them to cooperate in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of the alliance.

In the area of relations with North Korea and China as well, the policies they need to pursue are converging. From Japan’s perspective, it would be better for the Korean Peninsula to move toward unification under Seoul’s leadership than for North Korea to continue with the development of nuclear weapons to protect itself, even as it becomes increasingly dependent on China. And if Japan and North Korea normalized their relationship, Japanese diplomacy would gain greater leverage. From Seoul’s perspective as well, close collaboration with Tokyo is desirable in moves to normalize relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang and in steps to implement economic cooperation between South and North Korea.

Because of its relations with China, Seoul faces limits in terms of how far it can go in strengthening its cooperation with Tokyo. The economic ties between South Korea and China are deepening, and Seoul finds itself in a position where it has no choice but to ask Beijing to use its influence over Pyongyang to facilitate the relationship between South and North Korea. At the same time, however, for the purpose of constructing an East Asian order in a form that will be beneficial to South Korea and Japan, Seoul needs to assist efforts to persuade Beijing to behave as a responsible great power. And only by cooperating with Tokyo can the two countries together secure enough influence to have an effect on China. No doubt the incentive for Seoul to cooperate in this endeavor has been reinforced by the movement of Japanese-Korean relations in the diversified, multitiered direction and by the experience of evolution when the two countries cooperate with each other.

Needless to say, cooperative ties between Japan and Korea cannot be expected to mature automatically. There are limits to their common interests, and there are also zero-sum aspects of their relations, where one side can realize benefits only by denying them to the other side. In cases where rivalry between the two countries is seen to be important, cooperation may be rejected. Even if both sides can expect to benefit, one side may be in a position to gain more benefits than the other, and that could lead to a decision against cooperation on the grounds that allowing mutual differentials to grow wider is not desirable. In this context, it is easiest to opt for cooperation in cases where the benefits realized can be made to swell most efficiently by taking a cooperative approach. Furthermore, the benefits must not be mutually exclusive, and the country in a superior position must be content to let mutual differentials grow smaller.

Mutual Trust as an Indispensable Element

For cooperation to go forward, mutual trust must be part of the relationship between both sides. Cooperation is not an option that is easily selected when there is a lack of trust and a fear that the other will try to get the better of it. Consider, for instance, the General Security of Military Information Agreement and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. GSOMIA and ACSA are arrangements that would enhance the interests of both Japan and Korea in their alliance with the United States and in their relations with other countries, such as North Korea and China. From Seoul’s perspective, however, these advantages look rather small when set against the disadvantages that would arise in the event that Japan opted to embark on the path of the military power.

Again, consider the influx of Korean pop culture, which is symbolic of the evolving, diverse, and multitiered relationship. How it is perceived depends on whether you are in Japan or Korea. The Japanese see it as a phenomenon that is increasing the influence of Korean culture in Japanese society, and they tend to believe that it is drawing the two countries closer together. But the Koreans see it as a global phenomenon, and this makes it hard to say that it is drawing the two countries together. In other words, an increase in the density of cultural exchange cannot be said to make an unconditional contribution to stronger ties of mutual trust between the two countries.

In the above I have demonstrated that at a time of striking change in the structure of Japanese-Korean relations, there are limits to how far the friction in the bilateral relationship can be explained from the single perspective of the cycle in domestic Korean politics. We have also seen that the structural change is not the primary cause of the friction, and that the outcome is mediated by the choices political actors make. In this light, the nature of political decisions becomes important. Let us now give thought to the conditions needed for political choices that can pave the way to new possibilities that are now available due to the structural change in the bilateral ties.

Opting to Move Beyond the Cycle of Friction

The following can be said about the context in which Japanese and Koreans have triggered friction by their political choices. On the Korean side, the encounter with altered conditions—more equality and a better balance in relations with Japan—has caused confusion. Overestimation of the intentions and capabilities of their bigger neighbor and underestimation of Japan when it does not live up to expectations have occurred simultaneously. Not surprisingly, people easily subscribe to the thesis that Japan has consistently set its sights on becoming a major military power, and this perception has now reached the level of an unquestioned precondition.

Meanwhile, the image of Japan in Korean society is undergoing radical change. Japan is rapidly ceasing to be seen as a model or goal. The dominant image instead is the extreme one of a country from which the Koreans no longer have anything to learn. Believing that Japan cannot play a role that will benefit their country, people say that there is no point in taking any interest in it. Among the young generation in particular, an attitude of indifference toward Japan is supplanting feelings of like or dislike. Such is the background to the tendency among Koreans to focus even today solely on the history problem regardless of the other important issues in the bilateral relationship.

On the Japanese side, by contrast, the structural transition has created a situation in which Korea is perceived as having more strategic importance than it had in the past. At the same time, however, Japanese-Korean cooperation sometimes stalls because of a stubbornly passive posture adopted by those on the Korean side, and the Japanese involved conclude that Korea will never change. This can easily degenerate into an emotion akin to resignation, one in which people presume that little can be expected from cooperating with Koreans. Instead of seeking to realize the possibilities inherent in cooperation, the Japanese make the assumption that working together is sure to be difficult and will not easily lead to new possibilities. One even gets the impression that they have resigned themselves to an escalation of the conflicts that arise from relations between the two parties.

All this notwithstanding, are there really any realistic and effective options we could use to assist the evolution of Japanese-Korean cooperation? If our aim is to sustain and improve Japan’s diplomatic presence in East Asia, we will find it hard in the current power environment to unearth any option that would be more effective than the choice of moving Japanese-Korean cooperation to a higher level. And the same can be said from the Korean perspective.

Cooperation as a Tool for Dealing with North Korea

In that case, we need to ask whether bilateral cooperation is really that difficult. To be sure, the recent escalation in friction makes one sense all the more keenly that it will be no easy matter to get cooperation going on a higher plane. Even so, there should still be room for making choices. The Japanese may be feeling resigned, but it is doubtful that Japan’s foreign policy has done all that needs to be done to convince the Koreans of Japan’s importance to their country while dispelling the distrust that has arisen from the coexistence of overestimation and underestimation of Japan that I mentioned earlier.

Of course, there are areas where negotiation is not possible, such as when a territorial dispute with room for compromise is turned into a history problem lacking any leeway. In other areas, however, is there not some remaining space for bold proposals on the comfort women issue and other such problems of historical perceptions, where Japanese society is encountering friction that might be avoided? And might not these proposals be able to persuade the Koreans that Japan has changed, that it is reflecting on its past? At the same time, Korean society also needs to evaluate Japan in a more reasonable light instead of succumbing to extreme reactions of overestimation and underestimation. Such a change is to be desired not so much because it would help Japan but because Korea itself suffers when it is unable to make an accurate assessment of the value of utilizing Japan.

One front on which Tokyo and Seoul ought still to be able to cooperate effectively is relations with Pyongyang. In the six-party talks among these three parties, Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, Tokyo and Seoul find themselves being relegated to the sidelines on account of Pyongyang’s increasing reliance on Beijing and the priority it accords to its relations with Washington. If Tokyo and Seoul work closely together to normalize relations between Japan and North Korea and promote economic cooperation between South and North Korea, they can augment their presence in Pyongyang’s eyes.

Starting from Below Zero Under New Administrations

The next election for South Korea’s president, who serves a single five-year term, is scheduled for December 19. The ruling Saenuri Party (formerly Grand National Party) has already decided on its candidate: Park Geun-hye, the first child of President Park Chung-hee (1963–79) and a representative in the Korean National Assembly. The Democratic United Party, the main opposition, has chosen Moon Jae-in, representative and chairperson of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, as its candidate. A key variable will be coordination between Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, a professor at Seoul National University who has decided that he will run as an independent and is hugely popular among young Koreans.

While it is too early to make any predictions, Park is currently maintaining her lead in the race. The Korean political scene can be roughly divided between conservatives, who vote for Saenuri, and progressives, who prefer opposition parties. But Park has complicated matters by distancing herself from President Lee and leading Saenuri toward the center. In the sphere of economic policies, she supports “economic democracy” and welfare, and on relations with North Korea, she favors more active engagement with Pyongyang. In this situation, it has become difficult to discern differences in the positions of the ruling and opposition parties.

As part of this political scene, Japanese-Korean friction is on the rise. While it does not seem likely that this friction will become a contentious issue in the presidential election, the next government is sure to move into office with strong constraints on its policy toward Japan. Indeed, it may differ from past administrations by having to proclaim from the outset that it will maintain a tough stance toward Japan. In a sense, however, starting out from a deficit position can actually broaden the possible directions for moving forward.

Japan, meanwhile, also has an election coming up. It should not be long before voters go the polls in a general election. This contest will probably not give whichever party wins it a comfortable majority, however, and it is likely to stir up debate over the best line to take in territorial disputes. In the absence of attractive alternatives, many voters will no doubt swing behind candidates and parties that favor a hard-line approach.

One cannot help but feel apprehensive about Japanese-Korean relations when even cooperation on low-key matters such as GSOMIA bogs down. Clearly those on the Japanese side need to make courageous overtures involving the issue of historical perceptions, seeking to prompt the Koreans to reevaluate their assessment of Japan. Only then will it become possible to build a strategic relationship where both Japan and Korea can make effective use of their mutual ties. The question now is whether the two countries will be able to make this choice and start working on it.

 Recent Incidents of Friction Between Japan and South Korea
August, 2011 The Constitutional Court of Korea rules that the South Korean government is in violation of the Constitution for failing to pursue the dispute settlement procedures of the 1965 agreement on problem settlement in order to protect the fundamental rights of the comfort women.
September A Korean civic group announces a plan to protest against the Japanese military’s sexual slavery by erecting a monument in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul. The monument, a statue of a Korean girl, is unveiled in December.
December Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko and Korean President Lee Myung-bak hold a summit meeting in Kyoto. Noda requests the removal of the statue; Lee requests positive action on the comfort women issue.
May, 2012 The Supreme Court of Korea rules that Japanese companies have an obligation to compensate drafted Korean workers for unpaid wages.
June On June 29 the Korean side abruptly postpones the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan scheduled for the next day.
  • On August 10 Lee makes the first visit by an acting Korean president to the islets called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.
  • On August 14 Lee states that Japan’s emperor should make a sincere apology for the country’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula if he wants to visit South Korea.
  • On August 15 Lee delivers a speech during a ceremony in Seoul to celebrate Korean Liberation Day from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. He states that he will urge Japan to act responsibly toward a resolution of the comfort women issue.
  • On August 17 the Japanese government announces that to resolve the dispute over Takeshima, it will propose to the Korean government the institution of proceedings before the International Court of Justice.
  • On August 30 the Korean government formally rejects Japan’s proposal to jointly refer the territorial dispute to the ICJ. Japan decides to take the matter to the ICJ alone.

(Originally written in Japanese in September 2012. Title background photograph: Noda Yoshihiko [left] and Lee Myung-bak during the December 2011 summit meeting in Kyoto. Courtesy Sankei Shimbun.)

Noda Yoshihiko South Korea currency swap arrangement Saenuri Party Lee Myung-bak Roh Moo-hyun Obuchi Keizo Acquisition and Cross-Serving Agreement ACSA Atomic Energy Basic Law comfort women Constitutional Court of Korea Park Chung-hee Park Geun-hye Sohn Hak-kyu Supreme Court of Korea Takeshima