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Japan and South Korea: reluctant partners or committed allies?

22 June, 2023

By Luke Austin – Junior Fellow

Japan and South Korea share an extensive history, one which potentially spans millennia should we include Japan’s relations with the Korean peninsula as a whole prior to the latter’s division in the mid-20th century. It has been estimated through studies on genetic data that the Yayoi people migrated to Japan from the Korean peninsula approximately 3,000 years ago, bringing rice-farming with them to northern Kyushu. The Korean Kingdom of Paekche was responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Japan sometime in the mid-to-late sixth century AD: this cultural encounter has been deemed as significant as that experienced by Japan with the West during the Meiji period of the late 19th century. Bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea were established in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations. Both Japan and South Korea remain key US allies in East Asia, having been designated together with Australia as major non-NATO allies by then-US president Ronald Reagan in 1987. They are also major trade partners. As of February 2023, South Korea was Japan’s third largest export market, while Japan represented South Korea’s fourth largest export market in March 2023.

However, despite considerable economic and cultural linkages, their bilateral relations continue to undergo periods of tension and confrontation, largely owing to Japan’s imperial occupation of the Korean peninsula until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Korea became part of the Japanese Empire subsequent to its annexation in 1910, followed by an enactment of cultural policies which included the replacement of the Korean language with Japanese. During the Second World War, up to 200,000 ‘comfort women’ (ianfu), many of whom were Korean, were forced by the Japanese imperial government into prostitution for the wartime Japanese military. Distrust of the Japanese in South Korea continued well into the Cold War: despite both states being US allies by this time, it was Japan’s colonial past which led South Korean leaders to oppose Japan’s membership in the Asian Peoples’ Anti-Communist League (APACL) established following the 1955 Bandung Conference.  While the 1965 Basic Treaty pledged US$500 million dollars’ worth of loans and grants to South Korea as compensation for Japan’s colonial rule, this sum was still deemed insufficient by much of South Korean society due to the pronounced differences between the two states’ economic standing at the time. However, the right-leaning Japanese political analyst Tarō Yayama emphasised that then-President Park Chung-hee spent almost all of the loans and grants received on public projects and industrial reconstruction. In 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yōhei Kōno gave the Kōno statement in which he acknowledged that the comfort women had been subjected to coercion by the Japanese imperial authorities. In 1995, then-Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama gave an unprecedentedly sincere apology for Japanese colonial rule over and aggression towards Korea – this was to become known as the Murayama Statement. Nevertheless, much of any mutual trust or respect restored by such moves were undermined by the actions of future prime ministers. Junichirō Koizumi, for example, continued to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine throughout the 2000s despite making a 2005 statement apologising for Japan’s wartime behaviour. Shinzō Abe criticised such moves towards reconciliation since at least the 1990s, denying the coercion of comfort women for many years to come into his terms served as prime minister and afterwards. In fact, such revisionist behaviour had become so normalised by the mid-2010s amidst Abe’s second term that for many this constituted part of his “Abe Doctrine”, intended for Japan’s rise to great power status through not only economic growth, but also via the adoption of an unprecedentedly more proactive foreign policy. Actions such as textbook reform and visits to Yasukuni Shrine are what constitute the ideological component of the Abe Doctrine, which Christopher W. Hughes identifies as involving “the casting off of international and domestic constraints imposed by defeat and the negative burden of history”. In marking such a break from Japan’s previous post-war pacifism, the connection is made between a more militaristic security posture and Abe’s conservative project to make Japan a ‘beautiful country’ (utsukushii kuni). This was considered by Abe to be a path absolutely necessary for Japan to take in order for it to not become a “Tier Two nation” and fall into the periphery of the global stage.

Bilateral Japan-South Korea relations are also strained by the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute. Despite these islets located in the Sea of Japan being under South Korean administration, they are the subject of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan. The islets were subject to a ‘vacant island policy’ between the 15th and 19th centuries by Korea, prohibiting it citizens from settling there in order to prevent its citizens from circumventing civil obligations such as payment of taxes and military service: the South Korean government has emphasised that this did not represent a withdrawal from the islets, but rather an assertion of sovereign control in of itself. The islets came under Japanese control amidst the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 for their strategic importance in waging a war against the Russian Empire. The continuation of the dispute into the Cold War and beyond has been linked to inconsistencies and ambiguity in agreements such as the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, which attempted to address the status of former Japanese imperial territories following the end of the Second World War. On one hand, the economic value of the islets is not particularly high: they offer only waters for fishing, and there is an absence of hydrocarbon reserves in the surrounding waters. On the other hand, Dokdo/Takeshima retains considerable political and symbolic significance from a Japanese perspective, so much so that the Japanese government regards Shimane Prefecture as possessing the actual rights to administer the disputed territories, while an annual ‘Takeshima Day’ has been celebrated and subsequently linked to the territories becoming an intrinsic part of Shimane Prefecture’s own regional identity and Japan’s wider ontological security from a constructivist perspective. The political significance of Dokdo/Takeshima for Japan has also been reflected in the backlash against Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the islets in 2012.

Both the comfort women issue and the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute feed into a third issue and form some sort of triad of enmity in doing so: textbook reform. A conservative backlash in late 1970s Japan led to the Ministry of Education revising school history textbooks, leading to a 1982 controversy over their content in the sense that accounts of Japanese wartime atrocities in East Asia had been significantly played down. The early 2000s saw further friction between Japan, the two Koreas and China as the new Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’s textbook, which included the framing of Japan’s wartime behaviour in East Asia as a quest to liberate the region from European colonialism, was published. As of the mid-2010s the textbook controversy was still being propagated by a number of factors, ranging from the inclusion of sections in textbooks dedicated to promoting the Japanese government’s position towards territorial disputes such as that with South Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo islets to the decreasing influence of Japanese teachers’ unions.

It is not simply a dispute of only a historical or political nature, but now also possesses an economic front. A trade war broke out in 2018, after South Korean courts ruled in favour of compensation for victims of wartime labour and other war crimes from two Japanese companies: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. If either of these companies refused to pay compensation, the claimants could then request seizure of their local assets in South Korea to pay the damages. Ultimately, this is what happened to a portion of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp’s local assets following a January 2019 ruling passed by the Daegu District Court. Japan then started to retaliate, removing South Korea from a ‘white list’ of countries given preferential treatment for export licensing in July 2019. Semiconductor manufacturing in South Korea was subsequently affected by increased scrutiny of three particular materials predominantly imported from Japan: photoresists, hydrogen fluoride and fluorinated polyimide.

However, amidst a deteriorating global security environment punctuated by ongoing crises such as the fourth Taiwan Straits crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Japan-South Korea bilateral relations have entered a new period of détente and relative calm. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made considerable efforts in seeking reconciliation in comparison with his predecessors. He invited South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May, which Yoon duly attended. Moreover, on the sidelines of this event, they prayed together at a memorial dedicated to the Korean victims of Hiroshima’s atomic bombing in 1945. They later joined US President Joe Biden, with whom they discussed the trilateral US-ROK-Japan partnership and regional issues such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Are events such as the Taiwan Straits crisis sufficient for a reform of these bilateral relations?  If South Korea deems it necessary to consolidate security ties with regional allies, then Japan is the first logical choice. China’s development of military capabilities continues to cause many both inside and outside the Indo-Pacific region much anxiety. While some have expressed doubts over the Japan-South Korean rapprochement over reasons ranging from the apparent unlikelihood of the aforementioned legislative issues ever being resolved to the Japanese government’s somewhat timid response to Yoon’s efforts at reaching bilateral agreements with Japan, the dynamics at play in the Indo-Pacific region may well be sufficient for the consolidation of a formal security partnership and the normalisation of economic cooperation. However unpopular this may prove in either country, much of the public may come to realise that such moves constitute the lesser of two evils given the presence of an erratic North Korea and an expansion-seeking China. While both Japan and South Korea are considered full democracies, it is ultimately their respective governments that have the final say on foreign policy matters. This has been illustrated time and time again in both states through initiatives including Japan’s unpopular despatch of Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) personnel to the Gulf of Oman in January 2020 and South Korea’s equally unpopular Nordpolitik intended for the improvement of relations with North Korea under former president Kim Dae-Jung in the early 2000s. Tensions over Taiwan aside, there is already a framework in place which could facilitate greater security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, albeit in a multilateral format. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’) comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan may provide such an opportunity even if South Korea does not become a full member of the alliance: specific Quad subsidiary programmes concerning maritime security and global health have been given as such examples based on South Korea’s own performance in these sectors. Japan and South Korea have already jointly participated in other formats such as the 2022 NATO Madrid Summit, which drew accusations from North Korea of attempts to form an ‘Asian NATO’. In terms of economic relations, the situation appears more optimistic than before. Over March and April, Japan and South Korea removed trade restrictions affecting one another. This ran counter to predictions made last year that Kishida would trade greater cooperation with South Korea for his political survival, owing to the presence of strong anti-Korean sentiment in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Alliances composed of reluctant, hesitant partners are by no means uncommon in the history of diplomacy. From the Delian League of 5th-century BC Greece to the uneasy pact between France and the Batavian Republic during the Napoleonic Wars to Turkey’s much more recent meandering between Russia and Ukraine despite being a NATO member, the Japan-South Korea alliance is definitely no exception in that it is driven by neither mutual amity nor respect, but rather by the necessity to collaborate in mitigating an increasingly turbulent situation in global politics.

Image: Ishida Fumio, Prime Minister of Japan, at a summit meeting with Mr. Yoon Suk Yeol, President of the Republic of Korea (Source: Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.