South Korea and Japan: Unhappy Partners

As an example of the worsening relations between Japan and South Korea, a Japanese politician, in fact, recently remarked that he wished the Japanese islands could physically move away from the Korean Peninsula.

I am sure many Japanese feel the same way, but the emotion is not exclusively Japanese. Many Koreans dream of the same miracle.

Some experts on Japan-South Korea affairs claim that the origins of the current deterioration in bilateral relations have their root in the 1990s, when “turning-right” and “revisionism” in Japanese politics really started, and when South Korea began toying with the idea of getting close to North Korea and China under the pretext of overcoming long-held Cold War mentalities.

Although there were ups and downs and disputes in government-level interactions in the 1990s, and especially in the 2000s, the period was characterized by unprecedentedly high citizen-level interactions in the form of tourism, the Korean Wave trend in Japan, and the co-hosting of the World Cup 2002.

The biggest difference between the bilateral disputes of the past and of recent years, and what makes the current tensions more serious, is that the deterioration in relations has spilled over widely to the outside of so-called Track-1 interactions, and now involve the emotions of mainstream citizens in both societies.

And while it was more typical in the past for only the Korean side – both the government and society – to display emotionally-charged reactions, the level of emotional involvement of Japanese society and media in recent years also seems to have drastically heightened, based on various opinion polls and Japanese media coverage, resulting in mutually negative social undercurrents.

The current collective emotional state in both Japanese and South Korean societies is one in which mainstream citizens are embracing pessimism and/or cynicism concerning any prospect of better bilateral relations. The current social undercurrents reflect the view that there is little new to expect from the other side.

Under current circumstances, a political breakthrough is not likely, at least for the foreseeable future, because bilateral relations have always been highly publicized/politicized and are prone to influence from social undercurrents and public opinion. Even if some additional Track-1 agreements were to be reached on some of the ongoing disputes concerning “comfort women” or the issue of forced Korean labor during World War II, for example, any agreement not addressing the current state of bilateral deadlock on the social level would be no more than a short-term patch.

Political and social transformations in both Japan and South Korea in the post-Cold War period have enabled the mainstream public to play an important part in guiding and updating their own countries’ desirable political and social order. Such domestic trends, in turn, have also inevitably influenced the two countries’ foreign policy postures.

But neither society has succeeded in understanding the significance of the post-Cold War experience of the other and its relation to foreign policy postures, while taking for granted and self-congratulating the historical significance of what their own society experienced and achieved in the same period, even from a global, historical point of view.

This double standard shared by both the governments and societies – over-appreciation of one’s own experience, and under-appreciation of the other’s – is the cause of the mutual misunderstanding at the heart of the current bilateral deadlock. The purpose of this essay is to urge a broader awareness of this often-overlooked dimension.

Cultivating this social awareness is a crucial prerequisite for reestablishing a firmer social basis for better bilateral relations at the grassroots level in the long-run, although admittedly, this might not be directly useful as short-term policy advice.

Post-Cold War era experiences

The public in Japan and South Korea often overlook the fact that in both countries, political and ideological camps that had not been considered mainstream during the Cold War have become incorporated into a legitimate political voice. Factions and ideas that were considered extreme or even taboo in the Cold War context have now been allowed to take part in domestic politics as legitimate forces.

Rapidly shifting domestic and international situations have allowed many of these ideas to be incorporated into mainstream debates as valid options to be considered for the future of their respective countries. This expansion of what constitutes mainstream and acceptable domestic political ideas in the new transitional period in both Japan and South Korea, in turn, also has had an impact on their bilateral interactions.

In the case of South Korea, one of the most contentious domestic political issues in the post-Cold War period concerned the notion of “achieving social justice,” and it was closely linked to the process of democratization. Because the country had experienced a long period of military dictatorship and various non-democratic political practices throughout most of the Cold War period, the question of re-establishing justice in society has weighed heavily on South Korean domestic politics once democratization took root.

Although the question of how that social justice can actually be achieved is still politically contentious, it has involved strengthening economic prosperity and the degree of democracy for ordinary citizens, along with punishing former elites and re-investigating the deeds of former power holders as a means of making up for past national pain and suffering.

These practices have been generally supported by the public, especially the younger generations, who are less likely to put up with the authoritarian practices of the past simply for the sake of maintaining order and national security, as was the case during the Cold War.

For Japanese society, the post-Cold War era has been a time in which the public strove to come to terms with the legacy of World War II. As is well known, overcoming this legacy centered around finding a more pragmatic and realistic solution to bridge the gap between the dogma of pacifism symbolized by the Peace Constitution, on one hand, and the increasing international pressure, on the other, to proactively contribute to international peace and prosperity as a major liberal democratic player in world politics.

Younger generations in Japan now are less likely to be dominated by tiresome legal debates concerning the definition of pacifism that were common during the Cold War period. Their more realistic outlook of the country’s proper position and actions in the world has facilitated various changes in Japan’s foreign policy stance. And the increasing demand by Japanese society to “move on,” to truly overcome the remaining legacy of past war memories by adopting a more international and pragmatic worldview, has also resulted in gradual shifts in Japan’s external stance that have been generally welcomed by the international community (except, of course, by Japan’s immediate neighbors).

In both Japan and South Korea, the historical significance of what their own societies experienced in the post-Cold War is often mentioned in social discourse of the mainstream public and media as a source of collective pride in their country’s unique recent achievements, despite numerous difficulties. But while the two societies tend to positively evaluate the trajectory their own country has taken, most citizens do not understand or appreciate the nature or meaning of the transformation that took place on the other side during the same period.

At the same time, they hold the cynical view that the other side is simply not capable of understanding them and that this expectation itself is futile.

Mutual lack of understanding

The contemporary South Korean national narrative, especially widely held by the liberal progressive element of the Korean public, is influenced by the view that society has tried to achieve the level of social justice worthy of a true democracy by implementing various domestic and economic policies, while punishing officials and other elites who were authoritarian, corrupt or unfair.

One might add to this story that society made the most significant progress in this regard in 2016, when then-President Park Geun-hye was deemed morally inadequate to be president and was impeached as a result of “people’s power.” The national narrative and the underlying public sensitivity to social justice and morality are powerful ideational factors in domestic politics, because they are legacies of the Korean trauma from post-colonial authoritarianism that employed national division, the Korean War, and the Cold War as legitimizing factors for their own rule.

This domestic trend has influenced South Korea’s approach to bilateral relations with Japan. For example, there still seems to be a tendency on the Korean side – shared by both the elites and the public -- that Japan should be more understanding and embracing of the Moon Jae in government’s move to problematize the process through which the comfort women agreement of 2015 was finalized, and also the new issue regarding compensation for forced Korean laborers during World War II.

Although one major rationale for the re-raising of the comfort women issue on the Korean side is based on the argument that the 2015 agreement was signed by a previous regime that was ousted from power due to moral deficits, the more important underlying collective belief is that since Korea is the historical victim in bilateral relations, it always has the upper hand vis-à-vis Japan in setting the agenda in bilateral historic disputes.

Many in Korean society tend to believe that their preoccupation with justice and morality in domestic politics is something universal that can be easily shared and understood in the international community. Given this, it is not hard to understand why the news of strong negative Japanese reaction to Korean side’s problematizing the process through which the previous agreement was reached, and of Japanese stubbornness in only sticking with the legal aspects of it, are easily regarded by many in Korean society as a case of Japan playing the victim, which in turn is seen as another visible symbol of that country recently turning “right” and “revisionist.”

The current social narrative in Japan on South Korea, on the other hand, is dominated by the storyline that post-Cold War Korean democracy – regardless of how dynamic and participatory it might be –is not mature, since it is not predictable and its “rule of law” has proven to be highly prone to political reinterpretation.

Mainstream media also promote the view that if any new regime can annul foreign policy decisions made by previous administrations, it is similar to old-fashioned revenge politics, with this interpretation at the center of the growing social belief that South Korea might not actually be one of the “likeminded countries” that Japan wants to relate to in the first place.

Awareness as a new start

Under the current conditions of the Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship, I do not believe that any new Track-1 policy developments or agreements can mitigate the entrenched social cynicism concerning the prospect of genuine bilateral reconciliation at this point. The undeniable fact is that under the current situation, whatever happens bilaterally will continue to be interpreted by both societies through the colored lens of negativity and pessimism, further reinforcing the source of mutual misunderstandings mentioned above.

For now, what is most needed and helpful is a general increase in social awareness among ordinary, moderate citizens in both countries about the origin and nature of mutual frustration and misunderstanding. Any measures taken up by elites that would assist in realizing this endeavor would be a welcome change, and I believe that it is crucial if we wish to reestablish a solid social basis for better bilateral relations for the future.

One final suggestion – this one for the Track-1 level – is that both the Japanese and South Korean governments have long embraced a very confined view of who constitutes “friends” on the other side. For example, Korean officials have often regarded the “left-wing pacifists” in Japan as “moral” and “conscientious” intellectuals, while Japanese politicians prefer to interact with Korean elites who are either opposed to the liberal-progressive camp in Korean politics, or the ones who are still heavily influenced by the anti-communism of Cold War ideology.

Although those on the other side whom the Japanese and South Korean governments have regarded as likeminded friends have more or less lost their dominant political and social power base in their own country for a number of understandable reasons, the two governments have still continued to maintain a limited view, in turn unnecessarily inviting misunderstanding among ordinary citizens on the other side that the government next door is supporting a specific political faction in their own domestic politics.

By doing so, the officials in both countries have failed to seize opportunities to embrace other potential friends – including the vast majority of moderate citizens on the other side – who might otherwise have been sympathetic.

Seung Hyok Lee is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and an Associate at the Centre for the Study of Global Japan, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada. The views expressed here are those of the author. Reprinted with permission from the Asia Global Foundation, a Seoul-based think tank.