Japan and South Korea Don’t Have to Love Each Other to Be Allies

History still rankles, but the relationship is sound.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before a family photo session at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before a family photo session at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Getty Images

Among the many high-profile meetings at the G-20 summit at Osaka, one of the most critical was one that never happened: a sit down between the host country, Japan, and its neighbor South Korea. Although the two countries are major security and economic partners, the latest sign that this bilateral relationship has always been a strained marriage of convenience, not a love affair.

The root of this is imperial Japan’s brutal colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945. The long-simmering resentment between the two began boiling over recently, after South Korea’s Supreme Court held that certain Japanese corporations must pay compensation for their use of Korean forced labor during World War II. The ruling came amid related discord over a 2015 agreement on the emotional issue of “comfort women”—a euphemism for the women who were forced into sexual services for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. According to some, all this represents the lowest point in the Japan-South Korea relationship since 1965.

But closer examination reveals that while the strain is real, its scope is limited. Whatever tension that exists between the two countries is a far cry from a genuine crisis unlike, say, the relations between the United Kingdom and continental Europe after the Brexit referendum. There is no reason to overreact, as the fundamentals of the Japan-South Korea relationship remain sound. Rather than force the historical issue, which leaves neither country satisfied, a better approach would be to ensure the two countries continue maintaining the healthy parts of their relationship while seeking to find compromise and make progress on the parts where they disagree.

Japan has argued that the forced labor lawsuits are precluded by the 1965 agreement restoring diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan—in which Japan paid $800 million in cash and loans—stating that if the workers are now entitled to any payments, it would be the responsibility of the Korean government. With assets of the defendant Japanese corporations now subject to seizure in South Korea, Japan has called for an outside arbitration panel and has also threatened a number of retaliatory actions, such as seizures of Korean assets in Japan. Acting just after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waved off his visitors, Tokyo upped the ante, announcing that it would restrict high-technology exports to South Korea, a move that Seoul quickly condemned as a violation of global trade rules.

On the comfort women issue, Japan has taken a legalistic approach, one that has done nothing to win over public support internationally. It had hoped that a 2015 agreement with the previous Korean government of Park Geun-hye would finally put the matter to rest, as the pact contained some of Japan’s strongest apology language to date and finally saw the Japanese government making direct payments to the women still alive.

However, the fact that neither Japan nor South Korea under the Park administration consulted the former comfort women in the negotiation process doomed the agreement from the start. Rather than being a step toward healing, South Koreans saw the 2015 agreement as an end run around the rights of the victims, aided by the corrupt government of then-President Park. Park’s approval ratings crashed as soon as the agreement was made public, and the fact that she was impeached and imprisoned after a bizarre corruption scandal did little to help its image.

Other incidents have entered into the mix, such as a statement from Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang that suggested that it would be good for then-Emperor Akihito to apologize to the comfort women and that Emperor Hirohito, who oversaw the war, had in any case been a war criminal in his own right. This sparked strong rebukes among conservative politicians in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. (For their part, emperor emeritus Akihito, who recently retired, and his son Emperor Naruhito have actually been notable advocates on the need for Japan to fully and wholeheartedly apologize for its past behavior. Both have refused to visit the right-wing-linked Yasukuni Shrine ever since Japan’s “Class A” war criminals were enshrined there in 1978.) Moon later apologized for any offense.

Some of the disputes have been more about rhetoric than actions, but it nevertheless hit the way each side sees the other hard. A study this month, conducted for Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun and South Korea’s Hankook Ilbo, found that 74 percent of Japanese were distrustful of South Koreans, a record high, while 75 percent of South Koreans did not trust Japanese people. The comfort women issue was cited as a major reason, with 87 percent of South Koreans saying Japan still needed to apologize and 80 percent of Japanese saying the country had apologized enough.

All this deserves serious attention. Yet it is also an overstatement to say Japan-South Korea relations are in dire straits. None of the historical issues changes the obvious fact that Japan and South Korea are very important to each other. Both are prosperous democracies that are facing off two of the greatest international security challenges of the 21st century—a rising hegemon in China and a nuclear North Korea. As two of the world’s leading industrial powers (Japan is fourth in the world in industrial output, South Korea seventh), the countries have formed a close economic relationship in which each takes a different but complementary position in the global supply chain. For example, South Korea is a global leader in semiconductor production, but South Korean companies buy from Japanese companies the high-tech machinery and processed chemicals with which to build the semiconductors. It will now have to be seen if the latest action by Tokyo puts any meaningful dent in those ties.

However, the recent row between the countries has not truly threatened these fundamental aspects of the Japan-South Korea relationship. Nor have negative views in polls dented a desire to travel to the other country, arguably a more accurate gauge since most tourists don’t go to countries they hate. Indeed, the exchange of people and culture between Japan and South Korea has never been greater. In 2018, more than 7.5 million South Koreans visited Japan, while more than 2.3 million Japanese traveled across the strait.

Especially among young people for whom the war is now the province of their grandparents or great-grandparents, the Japan-South Korea relationship is increasingly characterized by shared pop culture. Japanese manga and anime, which was once an underground subculture in South Korea, is now a cultural lingua franca among Koreans under 40. Meanwhile, Korean pop continues to be wildly popular in Japan, with music export from South Korea to Japan nearly 100 times greater than that from Japan to South Korea.

Of course, this is not to say everything between Japan and South Korea is as good as it could be. There were certainly a few moments in which the historical complications threatened to spill over into the fundamentals of joint defense posture, economic cooperation, and public goodwill—such as the suggestion from some Japanese politicians that Japan levy sanctions against South Korean corporations following the South Korean Supreme Court decision on forced laborers. Fortunately, however, these incidents are a minor passing phase. Despite the occasional noises, neither side wants historical issues to metastasize into economic or military ones. South Korea’s consistent position as to Japan has been to preserve the parts where the two countries agree and seek progress in parts where they disagree on a stand-alone basis. In Japan, the idea of a forward-looking relationship with South Korea has likewise been a common theme.

What would be helpful is for Japan to do more than it sees as the bare minimum and begin showing empathy for the victims of its imperial past. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2015 speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II gives a glimpse of why Japan has failed to win over South Korea. In the speech, Abe noted Japan had “repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war” but added: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

His parsing of words conveyed to South Koreans that, rather than accept responsibility for its crimes, Japan simply wants the victims of its imperial past to shut up and go away. With the comfort women issue, the Abe government refused a request that he write to each of the women personally, something that would have been seen as an extra gesture to show compassion. Similarly, Japan has rejected a compromise offer from Seoul to set up a joint fund for the forced wartime laborers.

South Korea could help by providing Japan with a clear road map for moving forward. Such a road map need not lead to an erasure of the past; rather, it would give a list of concrete steps that Japan could take to allay the concern that there is nothing Japan can do to build a forward-looking relationship with Korea. South Korea must also be ready to acknowledge the genuine efforts on the parts of Japanese society that do seek justice for its imperial past. This made Moon Hee-sang’s remarks directed against the Japanese emperors particularly ill-advised, as they have been advocates for addressing Japan’s colonial crimes. Similarly, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s multiple visits to South Korea to fall to his knees in apology at various sites of imperial Japan’s crimes did not receive the Korean media coverage that it deserved.

Above all, it is important that the two countries place the historical issue on its own track and not let it impact the overall strong health of Japan-South Korea relations. The historical issue should not, and need not, threaten the broader Japan-South Korea relationship. Rather, it is the last remaining blemish on a bilateral relationship that is otherwise more robust than ever before. With the right perspective, the resolution of the historical issue can be the capstone for a new era between Japan and South Korea, standing together against the rising tide of authoritarianism in East Asia.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s economy and financial markets for more than 15 years.

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