On Japan–South Korea cooperation
by Daniel Sneider, Lecturer in International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University and APP member
The dysfunctionality of Japan–South Korea relations led many to despair about whether the two Northeast Asian neighbours can l ever get along. Efforts by US officials to create trilateral opportunities on security, climate or cybersecurity have largely foundered.
History provides two lessons, which point in contradictory directions
The first is that the tensions are deeply rooted and fundamental to national identity in both countries. The other is that progress is possible, but requires political leadership and the help of the United States. While historical enmity remains, strategic and even tactical conditions can create opportunities.
Specifically, two moments in Japan–South Korea relations provide relevant lessons: the 1965 treaty to normalise relations and the 2015 agreement on so-called ‘comfort women’*.
Post-war efforts to establish relations began in 1951 amid fierce fighting in Korea and with Japan on the verge of restoring sovereignty. The United States was eager to bind its two allies together, but neither South Korean leader Syngman Rhee nor Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida were enthusiastic about dealing with thorny issues, such as the treatment of the Koreans living in Japan and compensation for Japanese colonial rule.
Successful talks on a treaty to normalise relations and settle post-war claims finally took place in 1965. Despite strong opposition in both countries to the compromises needed to reach a deal, the treaty became the legal foundation for post-war Japan–South Korea ties.
A change in leadership was needed to make that possible, particularly in South Korea, where the military-led regime of Park Chung-hee had taken power in 1962. A Japanese-trained officer in the wartime Imperial Army, Park was determined to follow the Japanese model of export-led industrialisation and needed Japan as a source of aid, investment and technology. The Japanese government of Eisaku Sato understood that this was the best partner they could hope for and saw economic opportunity.
The strategic situation also pushed them together. China tested nuclear weapons in 1964 and 1965, the Vietnam War was in full swing and North Korea was emboldened. The United States saw a Japan–South Korea partnership as crucial to meeting the communist threat. Washington made normalisation a priority in every meeting with South Korean and Japanese leadership, pushed for the treaty and intervened when talks hit snags.
A similar convergence led to the 2015 comfort women agreement, which created a Japanese-funded foundation to provide compensation to survivors and affirmed Japan’s responsibility for wartime acts. The then South Korean president Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late military dictator, held a strong personal concern for the women but wasn’t wedded to the progressive narrative of victimisation. Then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe advocated a conservative revisionist narrative, but was also pragmatic and not vulnerable to criticism from the Japanese right.
Strategic realities also played a key role then. The Chinese challenge was manifest. North Korea’s nuclear program was progressing rapidly and efforts at negotiation had stalled.
Japan–South Korea relations dived after Abe’s December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead, but once Japanese and South Korean officials began talking to each other again, the United States combined direct pressure from the President and behind-the-scenes mediation to help facilitate a deal.
Renewed cooperation seems unlikely today, but this could change. The South Korean government of Moon Jae-in, reflecting long-held views of South Korean progressives, and prompted by court decisions, has challenged both the legitimacy of the 1965 treaty and moved to effectively dismantle the 2015 agreement. From this perspective, the deals were unequal bargains, compounded by Japan’s ongoing denial of its war crimes.
For the Japanese right, this gives credence to their insistence that South Koreans are unreliable partners, unable to hold an agreement. They dismiss the progressive government in Seoul as de facto partners of China.
The strategic situation, however, lends weight to those who argue that the threat from China and North Korea should bind them together. In Washington, the broad effort to encircle China requires close ties to allies and between them. Both Tokyo and Seoul nominally support trilateral cooperation.
The US role has also shifted back toward bringing Tokyo and Seoul together. When relations took their latest nosedive, the Trump administration was notably disengaged. But the Biden administration is emphasising the role of allies and actively encouraging trilateral meetings.
Perhaps partly in response, the Moon administration has signalled, but not manifested, a desire to step back from its opposition to the 1965 treaty and the 2015 agreement. But Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, confident in his alignment with Washington on China policy, has so far not reciprocated.
The missing element to bilateral cooperation then is political leadership. Moon is deeply committed to the progressive agenda and his party faces a serious challenge in next year’s presidential election. Suga is weakened, facing challenges both from within his ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party and from the liberal opposition. Neither man seems personally inclined to take on the risks of compromise.
The Biden administration may have concluded that any breakthrough will have to wait until next year and a change of leadership, perhaps in both countries.
Yet officials in Tokyo and Seoul are quietly working to lay the groundwork for a potential deal on wartime history issues and it is essential that the United States makes clear, from the highest level, the imperative to repair relations. The coming Summer Olympic Games, which Moon is planning to attend, could provide a moment to set relations on a different path. History shows that progress is possible with leadership and patience.
*This is only an agreement to Westerners. Neither country describes it as such. There is no one, signed document approved by the legislature. There are two different summaries of a discussion.