I’d swear that I heard reasons for hope in the bilateral relationship at a (virtual) conference last week on Japan-South Korean relations.
I sensed a subtle shift in thinking in Seoul about Japan, an evolution that reflected an evolving external environment. Seasoned observers of the bilateral relationship warned, however, that there isn’t a shift in South Korea so much as growing awareness (among outsiders) of the diversity of views within the country.
Regardless of which view is correct — and the latter is compelling — both underscore a key, underappreciated point: The sad state of relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is the result of political decisions. That is an unpopular view since it is more fashionable — and easier — to blame “structural factors.” Instead, the focus belongs on individual decisions, particularly those that weaponize foreign policy to serve domestic political interests.
Naively perhaps, I thought last week’s meeting was a promising sign. Sponsored by Korea’s National Research Council for Economics, Humanities and Social Sciences, a government-supported think tank, it was another hint that Seoul was reassessing its policy toward Japan.
Other evidence includes remarks by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the beginning of the year about overcoming the history issues that plague the Japan-ROK relationship as well as his speech on Aug. 15, “Liberation Day” in South Korea, which this year marked the 76th anniversary of independence from Japanese colonial rule after World War II. Moon said the two countries should work together to “surmount difficulties” and foster cooperation based on shared values of democracy and market economy. That sounds like boilerplate but given the emotional intensity of the event, a call to look forward rather than back is meaningful.
My optimism was reinforced by the tone of the conference. Speakers from both countries lamented a “lost decade” in relations. An ROK participant described an “emotional conflict” that aggravated public opinion and fueled nationalist sentiment by vilifying the other. He added that the resulting tensions infected every sphere of relations. Significantly, each country has degraded the value of the other as a strategic partner, which intensified the downward spiral by undermining the perceived need to fix the relationship.
My panel addressed structural transformations in the bilateral relationship and there was agreement among Japanese and Koreans that this explains a lot of the problems between the two countries. Speakers pointed to the democratization of South Korea, which created opportunities for once-silenced voices to be heard in ROK politics.
In the first decades of the Republic of Korea, conservative governments in Seoul promoted good relations with Japan for both economic and geopolitical reasons. Democracy in South Korea allowed progressives to challenge those policies and the priorities they reflected: good relations with Japan and the United States, and a concomitant hostility toward North Korea and other governments of the left.
South Korean progressives used that cudgel not just against Tokyo but against politicians in Korea that supported good relations with Japan. Korean conservatives benefited from ideological alignment with the U.S. as did conservatives in Japan. Beating up on Japan was a convenient way to not only build popular support but attack an opponent.
A second structural factor is the ROK’s economic development, which has leveled a relationship that was once asymmetrical and hierarchical. South Korean companies now compete with and in many cases have surpassed their Japanese counterparts. Several South Korean speakers pointed with pride to the fact that their country had overtaken Japan in GDP per capita (when measured by purchasing power parity), and the gap is projected to widen over the next decade. A Japanese speaker argued this leveling ended South Korean reluctance to criticize Japan and simultaneously lowered Japanese tolerance for Korean criticism.
A third structural factor is the rise of China, its influence on the region and each country’s relationship with its ally, the United States. Interestingly, evidence suggests that China could be bringing the two countries together rather than separating them. There is a hardening of views in South Korea toward China, a development that challenges the narrative that Seoul is only moments away from slipping the bonds of the alliance with the U.S. and entering Beijing’s sphere of influence. The proof is in a number of surveys, the most recent of which The New York Times announced with the headline “South Koreans dislike China more than they dislike Japan.”
This is old news. I argued last year that everyone, South Koreans included, learned the wrong lessons from the fight that followed Seoul’s 2016 decision — to which China objected — to deploy a theater missile defense system. Politicians, policy makers and pundits are more inclined to stand up to China, although there remains an instinctive tendency to believe that Seoul has limited options given China’s size and strength.
Structural arguments are compelling — and convenient. Blaming the crisis in Japan-ROK relations on structural features absolves human beings of responsibility for this problem. It ignores the fact that someone had decided to weaponize these changes to serve political objectives.
The polling results should be understood in their domestic political context. There is a diversity of views in South Korea, and the onset of the presidential campaign — the vote is next year — gives conservatives a megaphone. The winner of that election can shape the bilateral relationship and set the tone for the bureaucracy and the administration.
If the goal is to bring the two countries together, then he or she should look forward, not back, and focus on the future, not the past. The president should consistently underscore the two countries’ shared values and interests, making it clear that Japan is viewed as a strategic partner and the pursuit of a positive relationship is in the national interest. He or she could invoke the Keizo Obuchi-Kim Dae-jung agreement of 1998, which would root the partnership in the legacy of a progressive president and depoliticize relations. Crucially, the next president must decide whether South Korea wants the moral high ground or a partner. That person must create space for Japanese who understand strategic realities and want to work with the ROK. They do exist.
Citizens can play a role beyond voting. They can refuse to accept a political narrative that casts Japan as villain and instead draw on their own experiences, a body of evidence that has grown substantially over the last two decades. Nearly two decades ago, the Pacific Forum, in partnership with the Mansfield Foundation and the Asia Foundation, facilitated a series of meetings that brought together opinion leaders from a mix of fields.
We expanded the group from the usual suspects — professors and think tankers — to include art curators and NGO leaders, who discovered shared interests and ample opportunities to work together. This sort of exchange, which focuses on functional areas of cooperation, needs to be institutionalized.
There are real issues that must be addressed if Japan and South Korea are to forge a stable and enduring partnership. But they can be settled, with political will and vision. Insisting that abstract and impersonal factors are the problem, while neglecting the role of individuals, is misdirection and an abdication of responsibility. Both countries deserve better.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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