Japan and South Korea: Doomed to Mutual Distrust?

Why Can’t Seoul and Tokyo Get Along?


The current severe chill in Japan–South Korea relations contrasts with the relative warmth when Abe Shinzō started his first term as prime minister in 2006. The causes of the difference lie in the changes that have occurred in South Korea’s circumstances in the interim.

“The ‘monster’ is already on a rampage. This May, when a 95-year-old man who had lived through the years when Korea was under Japanese rule was heard remarking that the colonial days were good, a man in his thirties became enraged, grabbed the old man’s cane, and beat him to death. Somebody who actually experienced the period was brutally killed by somebody who didn’t. This is the anti-Japanese monster that nobody can stop.”

Anti-Japanese Demonstrations Are Actually Shrinking in Scale

Ever since then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a visit to Takeshima in August 2012, the “anti-Japanese” movement in South Korea has been drawing increased interest in Japan.(*1) The quote above is taken from the narration of a clip that was aired on a recent Japanese weekly news and opinion program (Jōhō 7 days nyūsu kyasutā, Tokyo Broadcasting System Television, November 9, 2013). Almost every day the Japanese media presents reports like this on how various types of extreme anti-Japanese activities are being conducted in South Korea.

Is the tenor of this coverage accurate? It is true that the South Korean government is taking a hard line on the territorial issue and the issue of historical perceptions (particularly regarding Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula), two matters that cloud the relationship between Japan and South Korea. Ever since her inauguration, President Park Geun-hye has refused to hold a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, and there is not even a hint of a way out of the bilateral impasse. Korean media organs are also taking a negative tack, presenting stories with harsh rhetoric attacking the Abe administration for taking a “rightist” turn. And as the figures in the attached table indicate, the long-term trend is toward increasing frequency of references to the historical issue and the territorial dispute between the two countries.

References to Japan-Related Issues in Chosun Ilbo, 1945–2009

 TextbooksComfort womenTeishintai (Women’s Volunteer Labor Corps)YasukuniJinja (Shintō shrine) + sanpai (visit to worship)
1945–49 0 0 0.001618123 0 0
1950–54 0 0 0 0 0
1955–59 0.0006427 0 0 0 0
1960–64 0 0 0 0 0
1965–69 0.0005992 0 0 0 0
1970–74 0.0003898 0 0 0.0011694 0.0001949
1975–79 0.0004597 0.0002298 0 0.0002298 0.0004597
1980–84 0.0276865 0 0.001173158 0.0002346 0.0023463
1985–89 0.0127208 0 0.000942285 0.0004711 0.0025913
1990–94 0.0068027 0.0986395 0.176870748 0.0034014 0.0181406
1995–99 0.0066994 0.1201429 0.016971862 0.0049129 0.0138455
2000–04 0.0114464 0.066077 0.010405827 0.0244537 0.0468262
2005–09 0.011236 0.0594569 0.005149813 0.0440075 0.0205993
 DokdoIndependence movementShinnichiha (Japanese sympathizers)Japan + reparations
1945–49 0 0 0.025080906 0.03802589
1950–54 0.0272277 0 0.001237624 0.01608911
1955–59 0.002892 0 0 0.00771208
1960–64 0.0070439 0 0.000454442 0.00499886
1965–69 0.0077891 0.0005992 0.000299581 0.0014979
1970–74 0.0009745 0 0 0.00116936
1975–79 0.0098828 0 0.000229832 0.00114916
1980–84 0.0030502 0.0004693 0 0.00093853
1985–89 0.0025913 0.0007067 0.000471143 0.00094229
1990–94 0.0022676 0 0.005668934 0.00793651
1995–99 0.0107191 0.0017865 0.004912908 0.00267977
2000–04 0.0083247 0.0005203 0.005723205 0.00156087
2005–09 0.042603 0.0014045 0.013576779 0.00327715

Source: Kimura Kan, “Discovery of Disputes: Collective Memories on Textbooks and Japanese–South Korean Relations,” Journal of Korean Studies, vol. 17, no. 1 (Spring 2012).
Note: The figures in the table show the shares of articles as of February 4, 2011, containing the word Ilbon (Japan) that also contain terms relating to the historical and territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea (100% = 1.00). Yellow cells indicate the periods when the shares were the highest; blue cells indicate the four periods when the figures were next highest.

This, however, cannot be said to show a rise in the intensity of the anti-Japanese movement in South Korea. In fact, the numbers of participants in demonstrations against Japan have been declining over the medium to long term. Unlike in China, where large-scale anti-Japanese protests occur from time to time, in today’s South Korea one does not see masses of people taking to the streets to demonstrate against Japan. 

This is in clear contrast to earlier years. Until the 1980s or so, the participants in such demonstrations numbered in the tens of thousands. But nowadays even the August 15 event commemorating Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule in 1945 attracts barely a thousand people, and the organizers have been ruing the low turnout.

The small scale of anti-Japanese demonstrations these days is also evident if we look at the size of protests concerning other issues. For example, the demonstrations in 2008 opposing imports of US beef had hundreds of thousands of participants at their height, and in 2013 tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated against the suspected manipulation of the 2012 presidential election by government intelligence operatives.

One could even say that “anti-Japanese” has come to be an unpopular issue for protests in South Korea. The turnout for such protests these days is in fact much smaller even than that in the “anti–Korean wave” demonstration against Fuji Television in 2011, which was said to have involved more than three thousand people protesting what they saw as excessive South Korean programming on one of Japan’s major TV networks. Ignoring these facts and exaggerating the significance of the anti-Japanese movement in South Korea is dangerous.

The Change in Korean Reactions to Abe

Abe Shinzō was previously prime minister for a year starting in September 2006. The posture of the Korean media toward Abe and his administration at that time was quite different from its treatment of him in 2013. When Abe took office in 2006, both the government and the media in South Korea saw the new administration in a favorable light, expecting that it would improve the bilateral relationship, which had deteriorated during the years when Koizumi Jun’ichirō was prime minister (2001–6). Why are the Koreans now taking a much harsher view of Abe? It is not because he has changed his stance on the bilateral territorial dispute or on historical perceptions over the interval from 2006 to 2013. Even during his first term, Abe said he wanted to make “a clean break with the postwar regime,” and he repeatedly expressed reservations about the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei addressing the “comfort women” issue and the apology for Japan’s wartime deeds issued by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995. And he did not take a compromising stance on the territorial dispute.

So is the difference between 2006 and now attributable to the Koreans’ having taken a more accommodating posture with regard to the historical and territorial issues at the time of the first Abe administration? In fact, no such soft line was in evidence at the time. Roh Moo-hyun, who was then president, had pledged to undertake a reexamination of history (suggesting the adoption of a stiffer stance on the differences with Japan), and when the Japanese government under Koizumi dispatched a survey ship to the vicinity of Takeshima, he ordered it to be blocked, even if it meant ramming and sinking the vessel. And as a proponent of progressive political ideals, Roh was ideologically quite distant from Abe, more so than today’s President Park, who is politically conservative. So top-level bilateral dialogue cannot have been easy.

Even so, the Korean government and media took a conciliatory line toward Abe in his first term. The reason for this is clear: At that time people in South Korea considered cooperation with Japan to be necessary in both the economic and security fields.

The Background to the Koreans’ Earlier Soft Line

The easier of these two aspects to see is the economic importance of Japan. The graph in figure 1 shows the shares of Japan, the United States, and China in South Korea’s trade. As is clear from this graph, Japan’s share has been in a long-term decline since the late 1970s. This indicates that Japan’s economic importance for South Korea has been decreasing. I would also note that the decrease is not a result of Japan’s economic stagnation since the 1990s. This can be confirmed by observing that even when the Japanese economic boom was at its peak, in the 1980s, South Korea had a lower share of trade with Japan than in the previous decade, and its trade with the United States during those same decades followed a similar trajectory.

In other words, the decline in Japan’s economic importance for South Korea has been caused by circumstances in South Korea, not in Japan. In the past, as a divided country during the Cold War, South Korea could not find any major economic partners aside from Japan and the United States. But with the end of the Cold War, it became possible for it to trade with China and other countries of the former Eastern bloc. South Korea’s own economic development and the globalization of the world economy also contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of South Korea’s economic partners, which resulted in a substantial decline in its dependence on Japan and the United States.

This alone, however, does not fully explain the change from 2006 to 2013. As of 2006 Japan’s economic weight had already fallen considerably, and there seems to have been no need for South Korea to be deferential toward Japan. What is important in this context is the fact that as of 2006 less than a decade had passed since the East Asian currency crisis of 1997. At that point the Koreans were still in fear that another currency crisis might strike, and this concern led President Roh to opt for neoliberal economic policies diametrically opposite to his own ideology. For the South Korea of that time, which wanted to be prepared for the possibility of another currency crisis, it was essential to have a good relationship with Japan, East Asia’s major economic power.

China Changes from a Potential Enemy to a Most Important Friend

Another important point concerning the difference between the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003–8) and the current Park Geun-hye administration is the change on the security front. During Roh’s administration, one of the prominent national policy strategies pursued by South Korea was to act as a “balancer.” The idea was that South Korea, caught between the conflicting powers of the United States and China, should behave in such a way as to maintain balance between these two powers, thereby preventing the outbreak of security crises in Northeast Asia.

We should note two key facts in this connection. One is that this idea of being a balancer, which seemed to be an attempt to achieve a position of neutrality between the United States and China, was at the same time premised on the existence of a confrontation between these two powers.

The other is the deterioration of relations between Seoul and Washington during Roh’s presidency. In 2003 the United States pulled out some of the army forces that had been on the front line facing North Korea and sent them to fight in Iraq. Meanwhile, tensions with North Korea heightened because of developments including that country’s first nuclear test in 2006. So the security picture for South Korea was not good.

Naturally, the dangerous security situation tended to push the South Korean government toward reconciliation with Japan. If a serious security crisis were to occur on the Korean Peninsula, Japan would play a crucial role as the host to many US military bases. This is why the South Korean media, particularly the conservative media organs that show great interest in security issues, tried to take advantage of Abe’s inauguration in 2006 as an opportunity to promote the repair of bilateral ties with Japan—even though Abe’s ideological stance was further to the right than Koizumi’s.

By 2013, however, the situation had changed greatly. Park Geun-hye is known for her pro-China stance, and starting immediately after her inauguration in February she repeatedly declared her intention of pursuing policies emphasizing ties with China. Under the current Park administration, as a result, the importance of China for South Korea has grown to the point where it not only surpasses that of Japan but even rivals that of its ally, the United States. Beijing, meanwhile, has lent its backing to the China-friendly administration in Seoul, and when Park visited China she received a welcome far greater than that given to any previous South Korean president.

To put it in simple terms, under President Park South Korea has shifted from viewing China as a potential enemy to seeing it as a most important friend.

Japan as an Obstacle

The improvement of relations between Seoul and Beijing has also had a major impact on South Korea’s policy toward the North. While under presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and Roh Moo-hyun South Korea took a conciliatory stance toward North Korea, under Lee Myung-bak it adopted a hard-line stance, focusing on cooperation with the United States and Japan. These seemingly opposite policies, however, had a point in common: Neither of them gave an active role to China. Under both of these policies, South Korea viewed China as an element disrupting its pursuit of reunification and a rival for influence vis-à-vis North Korea.

Under President Park, by contrast, Seoul considers Beijing not a rival but a collaborator in its policy toward Pyongyang. This major shift in South Korea’s security policy has also affected its view of Japan. If China is no longer seen as an adversary, South Korea’s main security concern becomes the North, against which it enjoys a substantial lead in terms of conventional armaments. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a separate concern, of course, but the US nuclear umbrella is sufficient to counter the threat they pose. And if there is no possibility of large-scale conventional hostilities with the North, there is no need to give special consideration to Japan as the host of US military bases.

In fact, Japan, which is in confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands, is now an obstacle to South Korea. If the dispute over the Senkakus were to heat up and the United States were drawn into the fray, this would upset the foundations of Seoul’s security policy, which is premised on close ties with both Washington and Beijing. So South Korea’s interests would be better served by prying Japan and the United States apart. This is why President Park does not hesitate to criticize Japan by bringing up the issue of historical perceptions even when addressing Americans.

Conservative media organs in South Korea are strongly backing the Park administration’s security policy. China now accounts for nearly 25% of South Korea’s trade, more than the shares of Japan and the United States combined. And since South Korea depends heavily on trade, the above figure corresponds to more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. This heavy dependence on China has caused South Korea’s business leaders to focus on relations with that country, and their stance has caused the conservative media to change its tone.

Over the past few years the commentary about China as a threat, which used to be common in Korea’s conservative media, has faded from view, and now the mainstream consists of opinions stressing the importance of friendly ties with that country. And it is only natural for the conservative Park administration to feel the impact of this tendency in the conservative media.

The Mechanism for Repairing Ties Is No Longer Working

What is significant is that the circumstances of South Korea changed substantially during the interval between the two Abe administrations—and in particular that Japan’s importance to South Korea waned greatly. This increases the likelihood of frequent flaps over bilateral issues like historical perceptions and the territorial issue. The easiest way to understand this is probably with a model like the one I present in figure 2. The importance of the historical and territorial issues for South Korea has tended to decline with the passage of time. The colonial era is receding into the past, and as the country’s society has matured, the objects of public interest have diversified. This is why the numbers of participants in anti-Japanese activities have been shrinking inexorably over the long term.

Meanwhile, however, Japan’s importance to South Korea has been declining at an even more rapid pace. Back in the 1970s, Japan was a key country for South Korea both economically and in the security field. So when major anti-Japanese outbursts occurred, people moved promptly to fix the situation. Concrete interests outweighed the pull of nationalistic sentiments. But now that the bilateral relationship is no longer so crucial to South Korea, this mechanism has ceased to function.

Though Koreans’ interest in the historical and territorial issues is waning, it is not about to disappear. Under these circumstances, if the importance of relations with Japan declines below a certain level, people will not move to repair the ties lest they be subjected to an emotional nationalist backlash. They have more to lose than to gain from such efforts. This framework perfectly explains why the current Park administration will not undertake to improve relations with Tokyo no matter how far they may deteriorate—and no matter how small the number of participants in anti-Japanese activities may become.

What Should Japan Do?

If that is the case, it is clear what Japan should do. In as much as the current state of the bilateral relationship is due not to special circumstances involving President Park as an individual or particular media organs but to structural changes in the international environment for South Korea, there is no point in keeping up the erstwhile measures aimed at improving ties. We can see this from the failure of the initiative undertaken by Prime Minister Abe’s current administration shortly after his inauguration. The message that Tokyo delivered to Seoul was one grounded in “values diplomacy,” an attempt to play up the fact that Japan and South Korea are countries that share the same democratic values.

From the outset the chances that Park Geun-hye would welcome this message were nil. It inevitably suggested a relationship of opposition to China, which does not share these values. But President Park, as we have noted, was stressing South Korea’s ties to China. There was no reason for her government to accept an invitation to side with Japan.

Japan is left with just two possible courses of action. One is to work for a solution of the historical and territorial issues and seek to reduce their importance. The other is to enhance Japan’s importance to South Korea in other areas. If Japan’s domestic circumstances make the former difficult, the only option we have is the latter. We must not forget that Japan is still a major country, with the world’s third-biggest economy. So there are surely many things we can do. For example, we can offer access to our own huge market by concluding a free trade agreement. Another idea would be to provide a higher-level security framework for South Korea by encouraging the United States to get that country’s military forces deeply involved in the Japan-US alliance.

The ball is now in Japan’s court. What we face, I believe, is a test of our wits: We need to figure out how to draw on our latent influence so as to improve the bilateral relationship.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 11, 2013. Title photo: Standing in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, a Korean man reads a statement denouncing Japan for asserting sovereignty over the disputed islets of Takeshima [Dokdo]. Photo by Yonhap/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ Both Japan and South Korea claim the islets of Takeshima (Dokdo to the Koreans, also called the Liancourt Rocks in English) in the Sea of Japan. South Korea has had effective control of them since the 1950s, but Lee was the first South Korean president ever to set foot there, a move that drew a strong protest from Tokyo.—Ed.

diplomacy Abe Shinzō East Asia Asia-Pacific South Korea Lee Myung-bak Park Geun-hye Takeshima