At a recent conference in Washington D.C., senior American strategists wrung their hands over the difficulties between two allies, Korea and Japan. With 2015 marking the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations, these individuals fretted that as important neighbors in Northeast Asia and allies that share the strategic interests of the United States, Japan and Korea must move beyond their difficult bilateral relations this year. One policy pundit asked, “Is this the permanent ‘new normal’ in Japan-Korea relations?”
Undeniably, we are in a bad period of the relationship. The two leaders have not met, and they barely look at each other at multilateral meetings like APEC or the East Asia Summit. As bad as things may be, if we take the long view, what is striking about Korea-Japan relations has been the ability to forge pragmatic cooperation over the past 50 years in spite of undying historical and emotional issues. That is, there have been far more periods of normalcy in Seoul-Tokyo relations than periods of friction. Low points, like in 1973 with the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung or in 1974 with the assassination attempt by Mun Se-kwang on Park Chung Hee, have been the aberrations, not the norm.
So the question becomes, why do Seoul-Tokyo relations deteriorate at various times and return to normalcy at other times? The rote answer from the Koreans is that the Japanese are insincere about their past. The response from the Japanese is that Koreans are stubborn and unwilling to forget. But I think there are four other answers or “theories” about how the relationship works.
One view is that Japan-Korea friction at its core is about conflicting identities. Particularly in the Korean case, what it means to be Korean cannot be disassociated from anti-Japanism. For example, the two major national holidays in Korea are March 1 and Aug. 15 - both of which explicitly celebrate Korean patriotism in terms of the struggle against Imperial Japan. In the United States, we have July 4 as our Independence Day, but it is not contextualized as an anti-British holiday. The result of this is that while the United States sees Japan as a key democratic ally in Asia and the world, Koreans see Japan as a potential enemy.
Another view is that Japan-Korea friction is not about identity, but domestic politics. That is, periods of friction in the bilateral relationship correlate with domestic election cycles, where politicians need a convenient “whipping boy” to gain political support. Being tough on Japan or being patriotic is the ground where politicians feel most safe, without fear of reprisal. Conversely, a conciliatory attitude by either Japanese or Korean politicians is viewed as risky at home, with little promise of reward.
A third theory is that Japan-Korea friction is not tied to identity or domestic politics, but is a function of bargaining and negotiating tactics. Put simply, the argument is that Koreans (and others) play the “history card” as a way to gain leverage to get Japan to give in on other issues. A question once posed to me by a Japanese scholar captures the essence of this thinking: “Would all of these countries care so much and for so long about Japan’s past if Japan had the economy of a small Caribbean country?”
The fourth theory of Japan-Korea relations focuses on systemic factors external to both Japan and Korea. In particular, the problem is not identity, politics or bargaining, but the degree of external security threats faced by Japan and Korea. When Japan and Korea perceive “security-scarce” environments - such as salient North Korea threats or weak U.S. defense commitments - they are less willing to allow their bilateral relations to be impeded by historical issues. But when Seoul and Tokyo see “security-rich” environments - such as weak threats and strong U.S. commitments - they are more likely to allow relations to deteriorate over historical issues.
Which of these theories is accurate? A combination of these factors appears to be at play in every bilateral breakdown. The point here for Park, Abe and Obama, is that the complexity of the relationship should not be taken for granted. For Park, it’s not just a matter of “comfort women,” and if somehow this were resolved then all would be fine. For Abe, the problem is not simply a matter of Park, and that somehow once she leaves the Blue House, everything will be resolved. And for the United States, it’s not just a question of telling the two allies to “get over it” and move on.
Korea-Japan relations are much more complex that the three governments are willing to admit. Appreciating this complexity is key to celebrating the 50th anniversary of relations this year.
*The author is professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
by Victor Cha