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Japan's Relationship with South Korea

Author: Esther Pan
October 27, 2005
This publication is now archived.

How are relations between Japan and South Korea?

They worsened in mid-October after Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japanese war dead that many of Japan’s neighbors, particularly South Korea and China, see as a glorification of Japanese militarism. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, who postponed a trip to Japan as a result of the shrine visit, arrived in Tokyo October 27 for two days of talks with Koizumi and Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura. But plans for a summit meeting later this year between Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who was angered by the shrine visit, are now in doubt. Despite diplomatic bumps, experts say long-term relations between the two countries will continue to improve.

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Why was the shrine visit so controversial?

The shrine honors some 2.5 million of Japan’s dead soldiers, but the remains of fourteen convicted Class-A war criminals are also interred there. Asian countries that were invaded and occupied by Japan—including China, Korea, and Taiwan—see the shrine as an insulting tribute to Japan’s decades-long quest to dominate the region militarily. Japan occupied Taiwan from 1895-1945 and colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937. During World War II, Japan committed atrocities throughout the region, including killing up to 350,000 people during the brutal 1937 takeover of the city of Nanking, conscripting Taiwanese civilians to fight in its army, and forcing as many as 200,000 mostly Korean women to serve as “comfort women,” or prostitutes, for the Japanese army. Koizumi’s annual trip to the shrine, his fifth consecutive one as president, was made despite a September 30 ruling by the Osaka High Court that his visits violate the constitutional separation of religion and state.

Why did Koizumi visit the shrine again?

“Koizumi knows what he’s doing,” says David Kang, visiting professor of political science at the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “A lot of this is for domestic purposes. It’s a delicate balancing act.” Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has a strong, nationalistic right wing that has urged its members to visit the Yasukuni shrine to “thank from the heart and sincerely offer condolences to those killed in war,” the China Daily reported in January. The party platform contains a similar message. Kang says Koizumi and his party are trying to build a new, more assertive role for Japan—which may include amending the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9, which renounces war and vows that Japan will not maintain armed forces. Today Japan has a large and well-supplied army, but Japanese society is currently debating if the country should keep its pacifist character, installed by theU.S.administration after World War II, or become a “normal” country by having the option to build up its military capacity. “Japan is trying to figure out what kind of nation it wants to be,” Kang says.

Why did Korea react so strongly to the shrine visit?

Because it reflects a hot-button national issue: Japan’s past treatment of Koreans. “Nationalism directed against Japan is an essential part of Korean national identity,” says Charles Armstrong, assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. Experts say Roh has come out very strongly against Japan because he must respond to a bloc of young, liberal voters in South Korea that is very critical of Korea’s cooperation with Japanduring the colonial period. Adding to their disgust was the revelation in January that South Korea’s post-war government accepted a secret reparations package from Japan worth some $800 million in 1965, when the two countries established diplomatic contact. Roh is trying to distinguish himself from that earlier generation of leaders, as well as his rival Park Geun Hye. She is the leader of the opposition Grand National Party and daughter of Park Chung Hee, a military strongman and Japanese army officer who ruled South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.

What are the major bilateral issues between the two countries?

They include:

  • Territory. Japan and Korea have a long-standing dispute over a group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan that the Japanese called Takeshima and the Koreans call Dokdo. Each side claims the volcanic islets, located between South Korea and Japan. The conflict—which experts say is about territorial integrity and also fishing rights in the seas around the islands—stirs intense feelings. In March, two elderly South Koreans protested Japanese claims to the islands in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by each cutting off a finger.
  • Textbooks. Critics across Asia have accused Japan of glossing over its wartime atrocities and responsibility in grade-school textbooks. Anger over such textbooks sparked a series of violent anti-Japan riots in China in April.
  • History. In March, Roh called for Japan to apologize and possibly pay compensation for colonizing Korea. Hundreds of comfort women, whose existence Japan did not acknowledge until 1992, are also demanding compensation and a formal apology from the Japanese government. A non-governmental compensation fund for former comfort women set up in 1995 is set to close in 2007.
  • The shrine visit. When Koizumi visited Seoul in June, Roh urged him to build a new, secular war memorial and visit that one—instead of Yasukuni—to minimize tensions across Asia. The two countries also agreed to collaborate on historical research, and Japan promised to investigate the cases of South Koreans brought to Japan as forced labor during World War II. Then Koizumi went to the shrine, and much of the goodwill from the June visit went down the drain. “Should Japan only pay lip service to what we say during Ban’s trip, it will be difficult not only to have President Roh visit Japan by the end of the year, but also to restore bilateral relations during Koizumi’s time in office,” a South Korean official warned October 25.
What are the major international issues?

One of the biggest is the progress of the ongoing six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear status. The international negotiations are between China, Russia, the United States, North Korea, Japan, and South Korea. The fourth round of meetings, which yielded some promising results, ended September 19; the next round will be held in Beijing in November. Machimura and Ban are both deeply involved in the negotiations, whose continuation would be jeopardized by a break in Japanese-South Korean relations. In addition, South Korea will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in Pusan from November 14-19, and cannot afford to exclude Japan from that important economic summit. “The economic sides of the relations tend to go on,” Kang says. A free-trade agreement is in the works to harness the two economic powerhouses: Japan is the world’s second-largest economy and South Korea is the world’s eleventh largest.

What are the drawbacks to good relations?

Experts say the history of wars, occupation, and oppression by Japan in the region lead to disproportionate reactions by South Korea. “Japan and Korea will have to get to a relationship where Japan does one move, andKorearesponds with one move. Now, Japan does one and Korea does ten,” Kang says. But this kind of diplomatic overreaction is not all that uncommon, he says. Kang points to the U.S. antipathy towardFranceafter it refused to support the Iraq war, when politicians were saying “freedom fries” instead of French fries. “It’s not just Asian countries that are needlessly provocative,” he says.

How will the relationship look in the future?

Experts say the leaders of both countries, in calmer moments, know they’re deeply interrelated on many levels and must depend on each other. Their societies have become deeply connected: Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the successful 2002 World Cup, and Korean culture is currently a huge hit in Japan. A South Korean soap opera, Winter Sonata, is wildly popular in Japan. The show’s star Bae Yong Jun has become a heartthrob to millions of Japanese women, who make pilgrimages to sites in South Korea where the show is filmed. 2005 was designated the Korea-Japan Friendship Year to mark forty years of diplomatic relations. While it’s been a bit rocky so far, the overall picture is still good, experts say. “Relations are not as bad as they appear from the outside,” Armstrong says. “Much of the protest is for domestic consumption.” Even the hubbub over the Yasukuni shrine will blow over, Kang predicts. “The shrine issue is diplomatic squabbling,” he says. “It’s very low on the scale of conflicts.”

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