The bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea is notoriously bad. In theory, they check all the boxes that political science and sociology tell us should predict a close friendship — consolidated democracies, complementary economies, a common love of both sushi and K-pop, and of course a shared great power ally. Yet only a few years ago they experienced a quasi-military crisis over a disputed island, the political leadership of each country has an icy relationship with the other, and they have proven incapable of engaging in meaningful bilateral cooperation.
But recent history suggests that poor bilateral relations and productive cooperation can go hand in hand under the right circumstances. For the United States, long wishing to convince Japan and South Korea to work together without arm-twisting, bribery, or mediation, the challenge is knowing when and how to intervene. The United States can be a bridge that helps connect Japan and South Korea, but it’ll require re-orienting how Washington views their relationship.
The oft-cited reasons for strained relations — comfort women, disputed islands, Japan’s insincere apologies, paying ancestral homage at a shrine that includes war criminals — are all distractions, just as news coverage is a distraction from actually understanding world events. Domestic politics is partly, not entirely, to blame; chalking up poor relations solely to domestic politics is a wholly unsatisfying intellectual blow-off. Why would domestic politics in either Japan or South Korea encourage antagonism against one another, but not against other regional neighbors, especially given Japan’s history of aggression against far more than just South Korea? However necessary it may be, clearly domestic politics is an insufficient explanation; there is some other variable or set of variables floating in the background that would be more useful to understanding why relations are, and are likely to remain, poor.
As sociologists and historians who study this peculiar relationship will tell you, the real source of friction in the Japan-Korea relationship relates to identity and how each chooses to remember Japan’s imperial half-century, during which it brutally occupied the Korean Peninsula. That yawning gap in historical memory creates shared distrust, and the larger the gap in historical memory, the larger the baseline of bilateral friction the relationship experiences.
In other Asian countries like the Philippines, suffering Japanese imperialism was terrible, but not a major part of what constituted who they were or how they defined themselves. For the Koreans though, the unifying nationalism we know today didn’t really start until there was a common cause that united political elites (yangban), religious leaders, and peasants — the yoke of Japanese imperialism served that unifying purpose. So collective suffering under Japan is an important part of understanding what makes Koreans Korean.
But Japan’s memory of the pre-World War II era has both a twinge of victimization and echoes of the “White Man’s Burden” famously described by Rudyard Kipling. Whatever misdeeds Japan might be responsible for, its imperial legacy wasn’t all bad; it introduced post-agrarian economic practices, built national infrastructure, and imposed rigorous (Japanese) educational systems. More important to Japan-Korea relations, though, is Japan’s remembrance of the period as one in which it too was a victim. Japan remembers its imperial era as a time where aggressive military elites drove the country to regional wars, causing mass suffering by co-opting Japanese politics. Japanese people also rightly remember themselves as the only victims of nuclear bombing — ever.
The point of recounting these narratives — which are unfamiliar to many in the West — is to convey that the “history issue” that plagues Japan-Korea relations is not a simple matter to overcome. Even scholars like Victor Cha, who has drawn on strategic explanations to account for variations between friction and cooperation in Japan-Korea relations, do not deign to predict that geopolitics or threat perceptions will somehow lead to a new era of amity.
But all is not lost. Just because the Japan-Korea relationship at the bilateral level is distant and weak doesn’t mean they’re incapable of working together at other levels and in other ways. During their brief quasi-militarized spat in 2005, both were active in the Six-Party Talks to denuclearize North Korea. In 2012, when a simple information-sharing agreement fell apart at the eleventh hour and Koreans protested in the street (admittedly not a rare phenomenon), both sides still worked together as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), conducting military exercises, tabletop leadership seminars, and all the accompanying coordination (of which there’s a lot) involved in making exercises and leader meetings happen.
The Six-Party Talks and PSI are but two of many examples illustrating the same pattern: even during the low points of Japan-Korea relations, the two have proven willing to work together for the sake of maintaining other ties when there’s a shared interest at stake. Neither country wishes to alienate itself from others in the region, especially when cooperation on certain issues is a manifestation of a shared interest or belief in something — in the above cases, the nonproliferation norm. The past four years have been some of the worst in Japan-Korea relations in a generation at least, but in certain contexts cooperation has been possible.
If the United States wishes to see greater cooperation between Japan and Korea, the starting point is recognizing the multilateral-bilateral distinction that’s emerged in recent years. Given this pattern, the question should not be how to improve Japan-Korea relations — that’s not going happen anytime soon. Nor should the question be how to get them to cooperate more; of course we all want to see that, but that’s not the right question. Instead, the key is asking what third-party ties Japan and South Korea share in the region. Are these shared ties based on a common motivation, like nonproliferation in the case of PSI?
These types of questions illuminate the path to greater Japan-Korea cooperation, regardless of any distrust or antagonism that persists between them. They may also help the United States avoid wasting time with initiatives based on U.S. calculations of what Japan’s and Korea’s interests should be, focusing instead on how each sees the interests and norms that motivate their relationships with others in Asia.