South Korea and Japan do not get along. This is strange, as on paper, one would expect the two countries to be close friends. They are both Asian liberal democracies with the US as their largest ally. They are in the same geographical region and both trade heavily with the other. Importantly, they are both concerned about potential geopolitical trends such as a rising China and are anxious about an armed and dangerous North Korea. These appear to tick the three boxes, economic interest, strategic interest, and similar enough cultures that tend to lead to close friendships between countries.
The reason there is tension between the two states comes down to their history and the resentment this history has caused. Korea was ruled by the Joseon dynasty for just over 500 years but, being right next to powerful Imperial China, was eventually reduced to somewhat of a client kingdom. A peasant revolution led to the short-lived Korean Empire being declared in 1897 and in 1910 Japan forcibly annexed the region. They would rule this area until their World War Two defeat in 1945.
Before the Japanese annexed the area Korea was a nation deeply-divided. Peasant revolutionaries and the ruling-class had been at each others throats for a long period of time. However, the thirty-five years of Japanese occupation was brutal. It involved slaughter, the seizure of land, the treatment of Koreans as second class citizens, forced labour, and of course, the infamous ‘comfort women’ (women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military). The anti-Japanese sentiment these actions stirred up was the driving force behind the unifying nationalism that forged Korean national identity.
Japanese memory of this time is different, and is twofold. On the one hand, many Japanese remember World War Two as a time where military elites took power and drove the country into a war that caused much suffering. This period ended when Japan became the only ever victim of a nuclear bombing. This narrative involves the Japanese as the victims of that time. Another narrative, used by many Japanese nationalists, claims that the imperial legacy wasn’t all bad for countries like South Korea. They introduced modern economic practices, modernized agriculture, built infrastructure, and introduced rigorous education systems.
The existence of these two narratives have led Japanese decision makers to give apologies that South Koreans have found to be half-hearted at best. For example, Shinzo Abe’s 2015 speech, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Second World War was met with anger in Seoul. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye made a public statement shortly afterward saying that Abe’s speech fell far below her expectations. More dramatically, in 2005 Japanese action in disputed territory led to protests in South Korea that involved the burning of the Japanese flag as well as self-mutilation.
Most notably, many South Koreans feel as though Japan has repeatedly minimized the issue of the comfort woman. They are not entirely wrong in this. Ikuhiko Hata, an influential Japanese historian claimed that there were never more than 10,000-20,000 comfort women (mainstream historians estimate around 200,000). He also claims that none of the women were forcibly recruited, something which is demonstrably false.
The result of these factors: a not so distant memory of brutal Japanese occupation; the roots of national identity in anti-Japanese sentiment; and. the ongoing historical (and territorial) disputes has led to a huge amount of public resentment in South Korea against Japan. To this day, South Korean political leaders exploit negative domestic sentiment toward Japan in order to help their election chances.
Despite these tensions the two countries do work together. Although, they have very different responses to the rise of China and to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, both countries have a strong strategic rationale to coordinate. They are involved in many multilateral ventures together and are both involved in the Six Party Talks (talks between China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia, and the US aimed at peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear program). Most recently, in mid-November, the two states signed a preliminary intelligence sharing pact, promising to share sensitive information regarding North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities. This agreement was originally designed in 2012 but was suspended due to public criticism. There are still loud voices in South Korea claiming that a security pact should never be created with Japan, a former colonial ruler.
The tensions between South Korea and Japan comprise an interesting case study. It demonstrates that there is more to the relationships between countries than economic and strategic rationale. Messier ideas such as history and identity play a large role. This is incredibly frustrating for an analyst of international relations. Identity is near impossible to measure, and the use of history is unpredictable at best. An interesting comparison to the Japanese-South Korean relationship might be the relationship between Germany and the countries that were occupied in World War Two. But that would be a job for another article.