from Asia Unbound

South Korea’s Small Think With Japan

August 15, 2012

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visits a set of remote islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese
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Lee Myung-bak broke new ground by making a presidential visit to Tokdo, but should the visit be considered as a big statement of Korea’s place in the world or is it a product of small thinking about how South Korea can get what it wants from Japan?

The trouble I had with Lee’s visit to the island, as significant as it may be for many South Koreans, is that with Lee as South Korea’s president I have grown used to Korean “big think” on national security issues and on its place in the world. Hosting the G20 and the Nuclear Security Summit. The idea of a Global Korea. An expanded vision for South Korean international aid and efforts to promote Green Growth. These actions advanced South Korea’s international profile and influence based on its new capacities and a calculated effort to strengthen South Korea’s position in the world. I am sure that American national security planners must have slept easier knowing that Lee had avoided escalation with North Korea into a military conflict, despite North Korea’s provocations.

But by visiting Tokdo and suggesting that Japan as the bigger country should act in accord with its national power to address historical issues, I believe that Lee is thinking small, investing disproportionate emphasis on a single, limited issue at the expense of South Korea’s broader regional and global interests. And this is occurring at the same time that the nature and balance of relative power between South Korea and Japan is undergoing profound change, but in ways that are leading to further convergence of their respective interests.

Lee’s visit may hold great emotional importance for those who are still focused on past historical injustices between South Korea and Japan, but it distracts from the central reality that ultimately must propel relations between the two countries. First, Japan needs South Korea, perhaps even more so now that it feels more vulnerable than it did when it felt strong. Japan-ROK normalization itself was built on the proposition that Japan would benefit from an economically and politically stronger South Korea. Japanese loans and investments were structured both as a source of profit and as a means by which to catalyze South Korea’s development, and by extension, provide Japan with security. Now Japan needs South Korea as a security partner in the face of China’s rise, and as a natural economic partner and source of trade and investment.

South Korea also still needs Japan both as a trading and investment partner and as a security partner. South Korea’s chronic trade deficit with Japan is a longstanding source of frustration, but South Korean companies make money in Japan and Japanese are major purchasers of South Korean products. If China substitutes for Japan’s share of South Korea’s trade, will South Korea feel safer?

Although South Korea has become an economic player on the world stage, its security remains precarious as long as it faces unresolved historical and territorial disputes on three sides—from China and North Korea as well as Japan. Effective simultaneous management of these protracted disputes requires South Korean presidents to look at the big picture and avoid instigating unnecessary tensions with its neighbors.

It will never be in the U.S. interest to choose between its Asian allies or to be an arbiter for their disputes. The United States sees rising tensions between South Korea and Japan as counterproductive, and expects both sides to manage tensions in the relationship with maturity. Actions by either side that hinder stable South Korea-Japan cooperation cannot be welcome developments in Washington, especially in the context of a U.S. rebalancing strategy that anticipates greater cooperation among Asian allies as a means of shaping China’s rise.

Nor is it likely that any single South Korean action will finally bring Japan to “see the light” on issues of history or territory. Instead, the initial predictable response of some Japanese Diet members has been to visit Yasukuni shrine following a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led moratorium on such visits since 2009. If “small think” won’t work, then the only option for successfully managing a relationship in which both sides need each other is to buck the lure of populism and resort to “big think.” Despite the apparent precedent set by the Lee visit, I hope South Korea’s next president starts with “big think,” and that Japan’s leaders are able to respond accordingly.