Changing the Narrative in Northeast Asia
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Changing the Narrative in Northeast Asia


Ties between Japan and South Korea remain frozen. Korean President Park Geun-hye continues to refuse to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Military exchanges remain curtailed. Even economic relations have been curbed, such as a lapsed bilateral currency swap and reduced Japanese investment in Korea.

At root are disagreements over the facts of Japan’s colonization of the Peninsula (including issues of the Japanese military’s recruitment of women to provide sex for soldiers—comfort women—and the ownership of the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan), how Japan remembers and shows contrition for this colonization, and to what extent South Korea acknowledges Japan’s reconciliation efforts. These disagreements dominate the bilateral narrative. This narrative, however, is in dire need of change toward one that prioritizes the interdependent nature of their security.

This situation predates the current administrations. During the Cold War, U.S. security guarantees to South Korea and Japan froze bilateral discussions on the role, if any, the other country played in their security. While disagreements over history existed, the necessity of a united front against global communism meant disagreements rarely disrupted relations. Occasionally they sprung up, such as controversies over Japanese history textbooks, but these were quickly resolved.

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The Cold War’s departure, coupled with the democratization of South Korea and the death of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, meant the parameters of debate widened considerably. North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments highlighted Pyongyang’s threat. Likewise, the Tiananmen Square events and the Taiwan Strait crisis demonstrated that Beijing was willing to use force at home and engage in military coercion. While these events led to revised relations with the United States, they failed to motivate Tokyo and Seoul toward serious bilateral security discussions.

Instead, the issue of history burst from its Cold War vestures. With renewed attention on Tokyo’s wartime behavior, Tokyo issued a number of apologies and pursued new efforts at reconciliation. Seoul, however, questioned the sincerity of these efforts. Statements or actions by Japanese politicians that ran counter to Tokyo’s efforts lent support to Seoul’s criticisms, as did textbooks that downplayed Japan’s wartime past. The repeated nature of these criticisms, however, led to “apology fatigue” in Tokyo and a growing wariness that Seoul was playing the “history card” for political gain and was therefore unwilling to move beyond 1945.

There is strong need to move beyond this narrative toward one that focuses on the interdependent nature of their security. Both countries share common security challenges. China is a long-term threat that seeks a dominant regional role. Along with an opaque military modernization program, it has demonstrated its penchant for assertiveness and cherry-picking of international laws, such as its encroachment on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands and the imposition of an expansive Air Defense Identification Zone that overlaps with both Japan’s and South Korea’s. North Korea continues to be a dangerous short-term threat. In addition to sinking a South Korean naval corvette and shelling an island, its long list of provocations include firing missiles into the Sea of Japan (and over Japan), testing nuclear weapons, and proliferating missile and nuclear weapons technology.

These security challenges carry direct implications for South Korea and Japan that should override the history narrative and demonstrate why they have more to gain by working together. This has not happened. Yet, recent debates have raised the profile of the interdependent nature of their security that could lift the security narrative above historical debates.

Abe raised anxieties in South Korea when he stated that the United States cannot rush to the defense of South Korea without prior consultation with Japan. Seoul’s trepidation is that Abe can hold U.S. support hostage. Specifically, unless South Korea makes nice with Japan, Abe can effectively control Washington’s assistance to Seoul in a contingency.

Similarly, South Korea has been explicit that in a contingency, Tokyo cannot dispatch its military to rescue Japanese living in South Korea. If Tokyo so desired, it requires Seoul’s acquiescence. In other words, Park holds the key over whether to allow Japan access to rescue its citizens in a Peninsula conflict.

Neither of these should be surprising. Exchanged notes in 1960 between Tokyo and Washington regarding Article VI of their security treaty states that the U.S. use of facilities and areas in Japan for combat operations elsewhere are subject to “prior consultation” with Tokyo. Similarly, using any country’s military to conduct a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) in another country requires permission. In both cases, Tokyo and Seoul have the right to say no.

These debates are important, however, because they focus attention on the security narrative in a new way. Different from arguments that draw strategic connections between China or North Korea to the need for U.S. allies to cooperate, these debates focus on how their citizens’ lives are dependent on their neighbor. Korea matters for Japan because if Tokyo wants to conduct a NEO, it requires Seoul’s full assistance. And because time is crucial, the more they can work out in peacetime, the quicker Japan can respond in wartime. Similarly, Japan matters for South Korea because if conflict breaks-out, Seoul requires the full assistance from U.S. Forces-Japan. For this to happen, prior consultation with Tokyo is indispensable, followed by all levels of Japanese support to U.S. forces within its borders. Three significant challenges exist, however, that impede the security narrative from overriding the historical one.

First, considerable negative public opinion exists in both countries. In South Korea, an April 2014 poll by the Asan Institute shows that Japan’s favorability is similar to that of North Korea’s: low. A 2013 poll on South Korea and its neighbors even indicated that a majority of Koreans felt Japan poses a threat (third after North Korea and China). A similar dynamic is found in Japan. The most recent Cabinet Office poll (November 2013) shows a majority of Japanese do not feel affinity towards Korea, marking a sharp reversal of a decade-long trend in a positive direction. The growth and persistence of such negative views makes it difficult to shift the narrative beyond historical grievances, let alone the acceptance of interdependent security. The 2012 cancellation by Seoul of agreements on information sharing, acquisitions and cross-servicing is testament to this.

Second, there has been a tendency for Seoul to focus on pre-1945 history above everything else. Seldom heard are acknowledgments or praise of Japan’s post-1945 behavior. Over time, Seoul has increasingly even pushed for a “correct” version of history. Park has pressed this with the a number of U.S. Officials including the President, Secretary of Defense, and even in her speech to Congress. In so doing, however, to borrow language from Park, Korea locks itself into thinking of bilateral ties as an “aggressor-victim relationship.” This type of thinking is antiquated and makes it difficult for Seoul to imagine new ties with Tokyo in any sense of equality or security necessity. Without showing a willingness to acknowledge Japan’s seven-decade record of peace or efforts toward reconciliation, Seoul’s pre-1945 focus will continue to be an important driver behind downward Japanese sentiment toward Korea and Tokyo’s skepticism of Seoul wanting reconciliation.

Finally, there is a tendency for the Japanese leadership to succumb to the temptation to dabble in historical issues that are known to arouse anger and resentment in Seoul. This includes visiting the Yasukuni Shrine—where war criminals are enshrined—and reviewing the official comfort women apology. Although Tokyo may not consider these as problematic, they bolster the thinking in Seoul that Japan is attempting to downplay its wartime past. Worse, they arouse suspicion that Japan has not truly atoned for its past. Such actions fuel Koreans’ distrust of Japan and make it hard to accept Japan taking on a larger security role, especially one linked to South Korea’s security.

These challenges, while difficult, are not insurmountable, but leadership is required. South Korea leaders need to quarantine historical disputes and place greater emphasis on peaceful, post-war Japan. Japanese leaders, on the other hand, need to demonstrate greater empathy toward Seoul’s concerns and avoid actions that will provoke South Korea.

None of this means sweeping historical disagreements under the rug, but it means quarantining them from politics. Leaders have a duty to set the right tone and lead by example, but so far Park and Abe have missed opportunities to demonstrate such leadership. When NHK President Momii Katsuto dismissed claims regarding comfort women, Abe should have fired him as such comments contradict Tokyo’s official apology recognizing Japan’s culpability. Likewise, when Moon Chang-keuk was forced to withdraw his nomination as premier because the media painted him as pro-Japanese, Park should have defended him as an effort to build positive relations with Japan. Both leaders missed an opportunity to repair the views their neighbor holds of their country.

Bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo do not have to be in disrepair. Nor does it benefit them as they face common security challenges. Leadership is needed to move the narrative away from history to one focused on the interdependent nature of their security, but it requires effort on both sides.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, HI and an Adjunct Fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The views expressed above are those of the author. 

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