Projects/Events

5th Japan-Korea Future Dialogue
Why is Japan-South Korea relationship so bad?

407.jpgAccording to the results of a recent survey, the number of South Korean citizens who had a bad impression of Japan dropped this year to 56.1 percent from the nearly 80 percent five years ago, while the number of Japanese who had a bad impression of its neighbor increased to 48 percent from 37 percent five years ago. Why has the relationship between the two countries deteriorated so much in recent years and what can be done to rectify the situation? Experts from the two countries gathered in Tokyo on July 28-29 to exchange frank views on how to broach this sensitive subject.


What is causing the relationship between Japan and South Korea to worsen?

YKAA1184.jpgDuring a closed session jointly sponsored by The Genron NPO in Japan and the East Asia Institute (EAI) in South Korea, Lee Sook-jong, president of the EAI, pointed out four elements that are behind the worsening relationship between the two countries: (1) a "power change" where the strengthening of South Korea's economic and international status prompted Koreans to seek a more equal relationship with Japan; (2) a change in shared benefits, where the economic and security interests that the two countries used to share have weakened due to the rise of China; (3) strengthening of identity, where societal moves to bolster a nationalistic identity are influencing the sentiment of citizens of both countries; and (4) democratization, where the governments of both countries have the tendency to overreact to popular opinion.

Former Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Kazuo Ogoura followed, noting that while the Koreans differentiate between the country "Japan" and the "Japanese" people, the Japanese people tend to mix "Korea" and "Koreans," and make an issue of the Korean national character. "This is a dangerous trend and should be ended, he said. When discussing bilateral relations, Ogoura emphasized the need to widen the perspective to include the United States, China and North Korea, and called for an improvement in exchanges not only between scholars and intellectuals but also between the citizens of both countries.

Sohn Yul, a professor of international political economy at Yonsei University, said that with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's second administration, Japan sought to become an "ordinary" country where engaging in war becomes possible, which the Koreans took as an attempt to break the regional order's status quo. The "comfort women" issue further fueled the clash of identities between the two nations, adding a sense of distrust to lingering anti-Korean sentiment and creating worrying conflicts.

Sohn, who was in charge of conducting the joint survey in South Korea, added that there is a widening gap between the Japanese and Koreans regarding the understanding of the issue of the Korean women who were forced to work in Japan's wartime military brothels, where the Koreans are sentimentally unable to accept the 2015 comfort women deal between Japan and South Korea while 49.3 percent of the Japanese are unable to understand such a Korean sentiment.


Lack of interest worse than resentment

Following the opening remarks of the experts, the participants called for dialogue and exchanges on various levels to improve. One expert said: "Everywhere in the world, the aggressor forgets and the victims never forget. That is the basis of the difference between Japan and South Korea. It is basic good manners as a neighbor for the Japanese to understand the pain of Koreans, and to do that, they should study history. The Koreans, too, must make an effort to understand not only their views but the Japanese perception of history."

Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO, wrapped up the session by saying that he feels there is a chance to improve bilateral relations. The Japan-South Korea relationship hasn't necessarily worsened, it is more a sense of being "fed up" and having "no interest" in it, he said. But with the poll showing some 70 percent of the Koreans feeling the need to improve relations with its neighbor, "Keeping in mind the existence of this silent majority, things may change if someone raises his or her voice to say we need to improve the Japan-South Korea relationship," Kudo said.


Japan and South Korea cooperation instrumental in dealing with North Korea

During the second session, experts discussed North Korea, and the role of Japan and South Korea in easing tensions on the peninsula. Yoji Koda, a former commander-in-chief of the Self-Defense Fleet and vice admiral of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, kicked off the discussion by giving an overview of the North Korean situation, concluding that the recent missile tests show that Pyongyang is extremely close to successfully developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and coupled with the fact that that there are signs that China's influence over its neighbor is weakening, North Korea is posing an even bigger threat to regional stability.

Under such circumstances, Japan and South Korea must reaffirm national goals and maintain consistency in national interests regarding policies on North Korea, Koda said. With the North's ICBMs possibly having the potential to reach the European continent, Japan and South Korea need to approach other Western nations that may be affected, he said. "We need to clarify that the best short-term result that sees the United States not attack North Korea may in the long term lead to the worst possible outcome of the North possessing ICBMs," Koda said. "We used to call North Korea's diplomacy a brinkmanship diplomacy, but now it's us standing on the brink."

Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher for the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, noted three issues that Japan and South Korea need to address: (1) restraining North Korea's provocations, and protecting their people from Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threat; (2) fundamentally resolving the North Korean nuclear problem; and (3) transforming North Korea into a healthy member of the international community. "In order to achieve all three, South Korea and Japan need to build a common understanding of the North Korean situation, and maintain common objectives and values," Moon said.

Moon said sanctions and pressure that really hit home are of vital importance, but for that, China needs to participate in the sanctions. South Korea and Japan, together with the United States, need to take a united front in convincing China, particularly when dealing with secondary boycott measures that may target any foreign companies like those from China doing business with Pyongyang. At the same time, it is important to offer a vision of what improved relations with Japan and the United States, and economic development will bring North Korea if it agrees to abandon its nuclear development program, Moon said.

Participants agreed that there was no easy solution to the North Korean crisis, and that cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul was vital to resolving the issue and building peace in the region. But experts were divided over why North Korea was so fixated on possessing nuclear weapons, with some citing "self-defense" and "a bargaining tool when negotiating with the United States" as reasons while others mentioned "the need to maintain order domestically."

Some Japanese experts suggested that North Korea becoming a nuclear power was inevitable and that the focus should be on how not to make the reclusive state use its nuclear weapons, while other experts from both Japan and South Korea said now was the last chance to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal as there had never a time when both the United States and the international community were this interested in Pyongyang's nuclear armament.

In regards to South Korean President Moon Jae-in's desire to re-establish lines of communication with Pyongyang, some Japanese experts expressed concern that such an approach will give China an excuse to soften its stance toward North Korea when the international community was trying to take a harsher stance toward the reclusive state, while others said people should not be focusing only on pressure and military action in dealing with the North.

YKAA1224.jpgExperts were also divided on the efficacy of economic sanctions, with some saying the North Korean economy was doing relatively well and the impact of sanctions would likely be limited, while others said the increasing number of people defecting from the North indicates that the country is facing economic difficulties.


For a better future Japan-South Korea relationship

Experts from Japan and South Korea reconvened the following day to discuss issues that needed to be addressed for a better future for the Japan-South Korea relationship.

Ogoura mentioned the need to improve dialogue not only between governments and intellectuals but also among ordinary people, while former South Korean Ambassador to Japan Shin Kak-soo pointed out that with South Korean President Moon, there was a chance to improve relations between the two countries, given his adoption of a "two-track" strategy of separating the handling of the comfort women and other history-related issues from non-history matters such as economic and security issues.

Shin, however, did express concern over how a prolonged period of mutual enmity would hamper efforts to understand and trust each other, and that the two countries lacked a vision over what kind of relationship they need to build and aim for. He said while it may be extremely difficult, an ideal development will be to seriously consider some complementary measures for the comfort women agreement that will seek to "heal the soul," as well as include historical research and education.

Other experts noted that elites in South Korea tend to use anti-Japan sentiment to stir up domestic politics, and that the media must not pander to such public sentiment but instead take a firm stance to guide the general public in the right direction. Another participant said what Japan needed to do is not apologize but to express "sincerity," and try to understand the Korean sentiment of "han," which is often described as a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered and a sense of helplessness due to overwhelming odds.

In closing, The Genron NPO's Kudo said there is an atmosphere in Japan that seems to regard discussions of Japan-South Korea relations as meaningless and that was a very dangerous attitude. While experts from both countries emphasized the importance of the role of governments and of citizens in improving relations, their influence was weakening, and "that is why this kind of discussion is important in linking the activities of the governments and citizens," he said.

Read more:
⇒ Now is the chance to improve the relationship
⇒ The 5th Japan-South Korea Joint Public Opinion Poll (2017)

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