By Tri Vo, Staff Writer

At first glance, South Korea and Japan seem destined  to become formal allies given similar democratic systems, culture, and most importantly, shared alliances with the United States. Strategically, a Japan-South Korea alliance reflects the geopolitical trajectory of the Asia-Pacific region. As the United States is diminishing its commitment in the region, a Japan-South Korea alliance could provide a security bedrock for the two Northeast Asian democracies against a rising authoritarian China and the continuing threat of North Korea. 

Nevertheless, recent events have cast doubt on the viability of this alliance. The current tensions started with the 2018 decision of the South Korean Supreme Court requiring Japanese firms to compensate for forced labor during World War 2. Tokyo then removed Seoul from its export whitelist of privileged trading partners, citing security concerns. However, given the timing, Tokyo’s decision appears to be measured retaliation to the 2018 ruling. The removal outraged South Korea, sparking  a series of public boycotts and implementing export restrictions targeting Japan. The South Korean government even signaled its intent to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Although Seoul later signaled a change of course, there is still doubt regarding the continuation of the agreement given the subsequent spar between Tokyo and Seoul. In light of these recent events, it is clear that both nations face continued obstacles that prevent them from forming a formal alliance. 

These historical grievances stem from the Japanese colonization of Korea from 1910-1945. During this period, Japan imposed a brutal regime which included forced labor and sexual enslavement of many Koreans. During the Cold War, South Korea (and U.S. policy towards Korea) became preoccupied with the Korean conflict and subsequent efforts to rebuild and liberalize the South Korean economy. As a result, the trauma of the Second World War in Asia faded into the background of a U.S. dominated Cold War policy of containment and South Korean needs to boost its economic growth through cooperation with Japan.  During the 1980s, information about Japan’s past atrocities was greatly limited by the government and little attention was paid to these historical issues with Japan

With democratization, however, these historical issues began to resurface, among them the grievances of the colonial past. The ongoing dispute regarding the sovereignty of the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands only serves to remind Koreans of Japan’s past aggression, thus aggravating what has already been a rocky relationship. The South Korean government, consequently, must grapple with potential backlash from its citizens should it become too close to Japan without addressing historical issues. The reluctance of the Lee Myung-bak administration to sign a security agreement with Japan in 2012, due to internal opposition, demonstrates how historical issues still poison the bilateral relations. 

Japan has usually stopped short of definitively correcting its past wrongs. Japan did attempt to resolve historical issues with South Korea through the 1965 agreement that provided monetary and economic compensation for South Korea. However, this only affected the South Korean government and not private citizens. For many Koreans, the historical issues with Japan still remain unaddressed and present an obstacle for future cooperation. To make matters worse, the authoritarian South Korean regime of Park Chung-Hee rode roughshod over popular opposition to sign the agreement. In short, the 1965 agreement is not viewed legitimately by the South Korean public but rather is a relic from the dictatorial past. 

Furthermore, Japan has failed to sincerely atone for past atrocities. Although some Japanese administrations did issue verbal apologies, such as Prime Minister Hosakawa’s statement in 1993 clearly identifying Japanese abuses, many subsequent governments only vaguely mentioned atrocities. The Japanese House of Representatives in 1995 issued an inadequate resolution expressing Japan’s contrition by glossing over the true nature of Japanese crimes. Worse still, some conservative Japanese Prime Ministers, especially Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, have conducted visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Though these trips have been framed as paying homage to the Japanese war dead, the shrine houses many Japanese war criminals sparking anger from  China and South Korea. Further failures include Japan’s history textbooks that downplay past atrocities and espouse Japanese claims of Dokdo/Takeshima. Controversies still continue, as Japan plans to fly the imperial flag to represent itself at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.  These actions cultivate an image of a Japan unrepentant of its past wrongs, creating a tremendous obstacle for many South Koreans even after half a century of normalization. 

As China continues to rise and North Korea still threatens South Korea and Japan, a possible Japan-South Korea alliance holds more significance than ever before. Nevertheless, historical controversies still halt the creation of such an alliance. These issues prove to be an effective wedge that China and North Korea exploit to divide the two. In fact, in the 2006 nuclear crisis, South Korea appeared to side with North Korea and China rather than Japan. Given South Korea’s increasing economic interdependence with China, there are more reasons for Seoul to enter China’s orbit despite the differences in their political systems. 

As the stakes are high for resolving the historical issues, Japan and South Korea should take drastic measures to  move forward from the past. For Japan, it could start with abandoning its claim on the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. Given the public indifference in Japan regarding the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, it would be politically expedient for Tokyo to concede to Seoul. The Japanese government should also cease visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and express sincere apologies that detail Japan’s historical atrocities. Similarly, Japan should seek cooperation with Seoul to settle historical controversies on a more individual level through agreements proposed by Seoul, foregoing the 1965 agreement to escape responsibilities. For its part, South Korea should move beyond grievances following an apology and must not move the goalposts for the sake of domestic political gains. The South Korean government should also educate its citizens about the shared democratic values and existing security position between Japan and Korea. Only by moving through these steps can both nations overcome historical obstacles to forge an alliance that will promote prosperity for liberal democracies in East Asia. 

Tri Vo is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University’s  Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Asian Affairs. He has a deep interest in East Asian international relations, history, and politics. 

Non-Digital Works Cited

  • Glosserman, Brad, and Scott A. Snyder. 2017. The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Midford, Paul. 2008. “Challenging the Democratic Peace? Historical Memory and the Security Relationship between Japan and South Korea.” Pacific Focus 189-211.