Japan, South Korea, and the Politics of the Present

Relations between Japan and South Korea have long fluctuated between comity and crisis.

Japan, South Korea, and the Politics of the Present

In this July 20, 2019, photo, protesters tear a Japanese rising sun flag during a rally denouncing the Japanese government’s decision on their exports to South Korea in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

When South Koreans chime geonbae! and clink glasses, these days they aren’t toasting with Asahi Super Dry. In addition to shunning Japanese beer – imports of which have dropped to almost zero – South Korean consumers are boycotting many other Japanese products, among them automobiles, cosmetics, and even 7-Eleven (an American brand commonly thought to be Japanese in South Korea). In addition, Tokyo and Seoul have removed each other from their lists of preferred trading partners. Japanese foreign direct investment into South Korea dropped by a third this year. A recent poll showed that in both countries, three-quarters of respondents say they do not trust the other. The rift has also extended to security relations; South Korea has withdrawn from an intelligence-sharing agreement that took the United States, their shared ally, years to broker.

What’s responsible for this downward spiral in relations?

Many American foreign policy elites blame Donald Trump, charging him with neglecting Asia, weakening the State Department, and undermining American credibility through irresponsible tweets and gaffes. “Under President Donald Trump,” the Economist lamented, “America has become increasingly disengaged from its international commitments.” It may be true that Trump has gutted American diplomacy and undermined American credibility; and that this somehow has exacerbated disputes between U.S. allies. But long before the Trump presidency – over the past several decades and across several different U.S. administrations – relations between Japan and South Korea have fluctuated between comity and crisis.

Other observers blame Japan. They point to its imperialism and atrocities on the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century, and argue that Tokyo has not done enough to remember or atone for this era. Indeed, some analysts say that to understand the present, one must look to the past. However, while it is certainly true that Imperial Japan committed terrible violence on the Korean peninsula, this explanation is also incomplete; it fails to explain why the past sometimes gains heightened salience but at other times recedes into the background.

To be sure, sometimes Tokyo’s own behavior creates controversies about the past. But at other times, South Korean governments find that it serves their domestic and foreign policy interests to fan the flames of historical resentment. This is the situation today. Understanding the current controversy thus requires looking not to the past, but to the politics of the present.