The Troubled Japan-South Korea Relationship


While there are signs of a continuing thaw in China-Japan relations, the state of Japan-South Korea relations remains rocky–much to the United States’ dismay. Historical issues continue to plague the relationship, but the root cause of tensions is much deeper, according to Brad Glosserman and Scott A. Snyder, the authors of  The Japan and South Korea Identity ClashThe Diplomat‘s Mina Pollmann interviewed Glosserman, the executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, and Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, about what’s troubling Japan-Korea relations–and how to solve the problem.

The Diplomat: In your book, you argue that “competing notions of national identity” are the greatest stumbling blocks to more cooperation between Japan and South Korea.  How did you measure or identify each state’s national identity? Furthermore, is there any dissent within either Japan or South Korea against the dominant “national identity” that you identified in their respective states?

Glosserman and Snyder: The puzzle that led us to focus on conceptions of national identity as critical to understanding the problems between Japan and South Korea flows from the natural expectation of foreign policy realists that Japan and South Korea, by virtue of their shared geographical location, common democratic and market economic system, and shared values would be natural security partners with each other. Instead, they are frequently at odds, to the point of jeopardizing much needed diplomatic and security cooperation. We focused on national identity as a critical variable based on our observation that much of the Republic of Korea’s formation of national identity has revolved around opposition to Japan and that Japanese identity faced challenges in accommodating South Korea. We used public opinion polling over the last two decades in each country, focusing on conceptions of self and other, as one methodology for understanding mutual public perceptions between the two countries, and supplemented that analysis with interviews of opinion leaders as well as observations and over two decades of experience with South Korean and Japanese interlocutors – living in each country, frequent visits, as well as interactions in both bilateral and trilateral (U.S.-Japan-South Korea) settings.

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We believe that public opinion provides a reasonable mechanism for understanding the contours of national identity as the majority of the public in each country imagine it. Of course, there may be contending views within each polity regarding the characteristics of national identity and the concept is malleable based on the evolution of public opinion over time and the manipulation by elites. We acknowledge that identity is constructed. But most important for our purposes, the interaction between national leadership and public opinion is a critical factor in the evolution of each country’s perceptions of self and other. This means that political leaders may face the temptation to follow public opinion but may also shape public opinion with the exercise of effective, enlightened, and truly strategic political leadership.

What makes the role of public attitudes in Japan and South Korea in their foreign policymaking toward each other particularly potent, even in comparison to other democracies? Does it have something to do with their governmental structure, electoral patterns, or simply the strength of emotions involved?  And what role, if any, has the government itself played in shaping these public attitudes?

Our initial interest in the role of public opinion as an influence in Japan-South Korea relations was stimulated by the perception that in the early 2000s, political leaders in both South Korea and Japan faced a greater temptation–in the context of South Korea’s democratic consolidation and in the context of a seemingly more relaxed Northeast Asian security environment compared with the Cold War period–to follow and exploit negative domestic sentiment toward the other country for political purposes. We found the growing exploitation of negative public attitudes in the Japan-South Korea relationship to be troubling and we wanted to investigate the reasons for that change.

The emotional influence on public opinion in South Korea, and to a certain extent in Japan, has been a source of volatility that has provided a new constraint on the ability of the two governments to manage the relationship without consideration of public views. It has trapped Japan and South Korea in a cycle of rupture and rapprochement that limits the potential of the relationship compared to what might be possible if leaders of the two sides were able to jointly establish a shared identity and work together more closely. As noted above, identity consists of many strands and the prevailing strand at any given time is the result of elite narration. Leaders manipulate identity tropes to win support, finding themes that publics can identify with to garner backing for their particular agenda.

“Statesmanship”—the ability to resist public pressure—is the solution to the fractious Japan-South Korea relationship in your analysis. Surveying the current political landscape in Japan and South Korea, do you find cause for optimism? Can you identify any individual politicians or even a party that may be able to demonstrate statesmanship?

The South Korean president and the Japanese prime minister are the most accomplished political figures in the two societies.  As political leaders, both President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must be sensitive to the needs of their people and to public approval. By the same token, decisive leadership can provide valuable political capital and win public support if the leaders themselves are able to give each other enough material to work with and can make the case to their respective publics in favor of a mutually beneficial political outcome. Statesmanship is arguably the highest exercise of a leader’s political skills in the service of the state, and it is what distinguishes an average national leader from one that has a distinctive historical legacy.

Our appeal to both leaders is the opportunity to rise above narrow domestic political interests and bring along their respective publics to embrace a solution that can move the Japan-South Korea relationship to a new level. If these two leaders choose to set aside the opportunity to embrace what we believe is a compelling strategic rationale for moving the Japan-South Korea relationship to a new stage of development, the task will await another combination of leaders who are willing to seize the opportunity. We can appeal to the two leaders’ egos: Each is her or his country’s supreme leader; adopting our proposals would allow them to transform regional dynamics in ways that would allow them to become truly historical figures, rather than merely national leaders.

How has recent island-building activity by China in the South China Sea affected Japanese and South Korean calculations of the importance of their security cooperation with each other? Has it done more to bring convergence or divergence between their security worldviews?

China’s activities in the South China Sea serve as a tangible reminder to both countries that China’s rise will have strategic and security implications for both countries, underscoring the need of both countries to work together. But Japan and South Korea do not have coordinated or parallel responses to China’s activities in the South China Sea. China’s South China Sea activities have brought a measure of relief to Japan as China’s immediate focus has shifted southward from the East China Sea, but it also has stimulated Japanese efforts to both to extend its own maritime defense capabilities further to the south and west and to provide capacity-building assistance to the Philippines and Vietnam to strengthen their own respective maritime self-defense capabilities. South Korea has also watched South China Sea issues with concern because of the implications of China’s actions for areas where China and South Korea have overlapping maritime claims, but South Korea’s response has been more reticent due to its own unilateral construction on the Ieodo feature that is subject to dispute with China.  For the time being, Japan and South Korea prefer to use differing tools in response to China’s rise stemming from South Korea’s relative proximity to China, its unwillingness to compete militarily with China, and its continuing need for Chinese cooperation to achieve South Korea’s main strategic objective of Korean unification.

If the U.S. were to try to play a larger role in facilitating reconciliation, do you have any concerns about it backfiring, due to the perception that the U.S. is favoring one side over the other or that the U.S. is trying to impose itself on Japan and South Korea again? How can such concerns be mitigated?

An assumption behind the rebalance strategy is that allies of the United States in Asia must develop their respective political and security ties with each other. Therefore, the United States has a compelling interest in creating an enabling environment for the establishment of a stable Japan-South Korea relationship. Along with the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), greater cooperation among all of America’s Asian allies is essential to the success of the U.S. rebalance, a strategy that both Japan and South Korea support and benefit from.

We recommend several courses of action for the United States. First, U.S. officials should use an identity-based approach to encourage Japan and South Korea to work together.

Second, because the U.S. rebalance values both the Japanese “cornerstone” and the South Korean “lynchpin,” both alliances provide essential support for U.S. strategy and there is no room for choosing one over another. The United States should discourage either South Korea or Japan from engaging in an “alliance-envy competition” by pressing Washington to take one side or the other.

Third, we must acknowledge that the U.S. is intimately involved in many of the issues that generate tension between Japan and the ROK. American fingerprints are on many of the key decisions and developments of the 20th century. We have played a role that makes us responsible for (or at least complicit in) many outcomes that divide Japan and Korea.

Fourth, the United States should lead in making bold gestures to acknowledge the past and encourage Japan and South Korea to take commensurate steps. Of course, the U.S. should be facilitating trilateral meetings and providing opportunities for the three countries to demonstrate their shared values and interests. All of this aims to unlock the potential for trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation by making the current low ceiling in Japan-South Korea relations into a floor for a new relationship that has public support in both countries.

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