The Stubborn South: Why Seoul Needs to Mend Ties with Japan

While South Korean President Park Geun-hye has conferred with Chinese President Xi Jinping five times since 2013, most recently during a June 2014 summit in Beijing, she has refused several invitations to meet one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Her excuse is that the Japanese leader and his country have not demonstrated sufficient and sincere remorse over Japanese actions during World War II and prior, such as the use of Koreans as “comfort women” for imperial Japanese soldiers. But the animosity is odd, in spite of this terrible past, since Japan and South Korea share a great power ally and protector in the United States and both are committed liberal democracies in a region where a nuclear-armed North Korea remains a major security threat. And the interests of both countries would be adversely affected if China changes the strategic and military balance in the region in a way that radically diminishes American power and influence.

Antipathy toward Japan is not unique to the Park presidency. The Roh Moo-hyun (2003–08) and Lee Myung-bak (2008–13) administrations also experienced tense moments with Tokyo over the same or similar wartime issues. What is different is that Park has insisted, from the start of her term in early 2013, that progress in bilateral relations would depend on demonstrations of sincere remorse by Japan about the past that go beyond the more muted demands of her recent predecessors, while the strongly nationalistic Abe is unlikely to oblige.

The problem with this impasse is that while an often diplomatically gauche Japan is an easy political target, using wartime history to embarrass and distance Tokyo will become more and more detrimental to Seoul’s strategic interest. Besides playing into the hands of China and North Korea, this insistence on continuing to pick the scabs of seventy-year-old Japanese wartime misdeeds is likely to cause other regional players, including America, to become increasingly impatient with South Korea’s reluctance to be more constructive about the region’s challenges and its own interests.

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But while Park’s intransigence may seem counterproductive to policymakers in Tokyo and Washington, it plays well domestically. For South Koreans, the past—as William Faulkner famously wrote—is never dead; it’s not even past. Memories of past Japanese aggression are very much alive and, according to recent polls and surveys, they translate into greater fears about the dubious prospect of rapid Japanese remilitarization than about the very real and very rapid Chinese military buildup, or, even more astoundingly, than about the threat posed by North Korea, a country with which South Korea is still formally at war.

The depth of anti-Japanese feeling is illustrated by a farcical event in December 2013 when South Korean peacekeeping forces in Sudan faced imminent threat from insurgents and issued a desperate call for more ammunition. Because Japan’s military was the only other entity on the ground with the same caliber ammunition, Tokyo promptly authorized its Self-Defense Forces to hand over ten thousand bullets to the Koreans. But the gesture caused such a public uproar that Seoul refused to accept the ammunition, suggesting that South Korean antipathy toward Japan trumps even the need to protect one’s own troops.


To be fair, Abe has made some clumsy diplomatic moves, which have made it much easier for Seoul to continue to nurture its rage against Japan. Last December, he became the first Japanese leader in seven years to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates those who died in service of the Japanese Empire since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, including fourteen convicted “Class A” war criminals from World War II. Abe also flirted with the idea of re-examining aspects of the Kono Statement, the acknowledgement, in 1993, by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, that Japan had forced South Korean women to act as “comfort women” for the Japanese military during the war.

Recognizing the hole he was digging for Japan, Abe subsequently declared that his administration would uphold the general 1995 statement, offered by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, apologizing for the damage and suffering caused by Japanese troops to the region and would not revise the Kono Statement. Abe also commented that he was “deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors.” But President Park’s response to these gestures was a demand that the Abe administration do more to demonstrate remorse without actually specifying what would fulfill such a requirement.

The Park administration seems to be looking backward in relations with Tokyo, returning to the ideal of a penitent Japan that was so reassuring to the region in the decades immediately after World War II. But that vision of a cowed Japan no longer serves the strategic interests of either South Korea or the United States. The US-led alliance system that became the primary factor for stability and security in Asia is now being challenged by China’s military rise. If the alliance system is to endure by adapting to the rise of a great power outside that system—the first time it has occurred since the end of the war—key regional allies will have to carry more of the security burden from America than they have in the past. But South Korean intransigence is a roadblock to this streamlined alliance.

Most of America’s regional security partners appear to be stepping up to the plate by openly or tacitly supporting aspects of Washington’s “pivot” to the region. Australia has offered American naval forces “strategic depth” in the region by giving the Seventh Fleet access to port, supply, and refueling facilities in its northern bases. Singapore has upgraded its Changi Naval Base to accommodate up to four US littoral combat ships. A ten-year agreement signed in April between Washington and Manila means that up to five Filipino bases will be made available for US forces to rotate aircraft, ships, equipment, and troops—some twenty-three years after the American Navy vacated Subic Bay, then the largest US overseas naval base. Malaysia has offered to host US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft, useful for long-range surveillance missions and anti-submarine missions. There is even talk that recent wartime foe Vietnam will eventually allow American ships to use its naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay.

But while America’s strategic engagement and military presence have been enhanced, the US and its allies are still far short of winning the day. Even as China is emerging as possibly the loneliest rising power in world history, given its lack of genuine allies, regional efforts to blunt its aggressive rise will fall short without Japan taking up more of the slack, both as an American alliance partner and a stand-alone power. Indeed, Japan is the only Asian power capable of affecting the regional military balance in any significant way, a fact that should have a greater impact than it does on South Korean policy.

Although China’s military budget is now more than three times that of Japan’s, the Japan Self-Defense Forces would still give the People’s Liberation Army more than a run for its money in any localized naval and/or aerial battle. While China has a quantitative advantage in tanks, aircraft, and submarines, much of its hardware is in decay, giving Japan a clear qualitative advantage.

By some estimates, fewer than five hundred of China’s more than seventy-five hundred tanks could be classified as modern. More than half of the PLA Air Force planes are from the Soviet era, circa 1970s, while only around half of its submarine fleet has been built within the last two decades. In contrast, Japan has highly advanced, indigenously built planes and submarines, and is supported by sophisticated military equipment from the US. In the next few years, the US will sell Japan new anti-missile destroyers, submarine technologies, amphibious vehicles, surveillance drones, and cutting-edge fighter planes, including forty-five F-35s and a number of V-22 Ospreys. Military experts, including some from China, generally agree that the fifth-generation F-35 is a superior craft to China’s own fifth-generation equivalent, the J-20, while China has no counter to the V-22, a helicopter-aircraft hybrid that can, for instance, carry five hundred troops or one hundred and forty tons of equipment to the disputed Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea, from Japanese bases in under one hour.

Japan’s problem in becoming a counterweight to the Chinese has nothing to do with hardware or technological capacity and everything to do with postwar institutional limitations standing in the way of it playing a more expansive strategic role. Under a reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow collective self-defense, Japan, formerly prohibited from deploying its Self-Defense Forces except when its territory was under attack, can now come to the aid of its allies and security partners. But the Abe government is fighting stiff resistance in its efforts to further bulk up American and allied efforts to hold ground vis-à-vis China’s rise—a problem made more complex by South Korean hostility.

Every significant maritime country in Asia—Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and India—is supportive of such an expanded Japanese role. Australia has taken the lead in concluding a defense technology and intelligence-sharing agreement that paves the way for the purchase of Japan’s world-leading submarine propulsion technology. Canberra’s move has been strongly supported by Washington, as Australia’s new underwater offensive capacity will add significantly to joint allied efforts to best the PLA in various theaters in East Asia. Japan is delivering up to ten new multi-role patrol boats to the backward Philippine Navy over the next few years. None of these interactions would have been possible without changes to the way Japan is allowed to interact with allies and security partners initiated by the current Abe administration.


The only countries not enthusiastic about Abe’s new policy are China and North Korea, obviously, and, problematically, South Korea. Since Abe’s second coming as prime minister, from December 2012 onward, South Korea has expressed concern about a more expansive Japanese strategic and military role. For example, when Abe first floated his constitutional reinterpretation allowing for collective self-defense, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued statements arguing once again that Japan first had to do more to dispel doubts that it was truly remorseful for its wartime history. Thus Seoul finds itself politically and diplomatically aligned with Beijing on one of the most crucial issues in the region. South Korea’s decision to join with China to oppose Japan removing its prohibition on collective self-defense could especially backfire when it comes to Seoul’s primary security problem: North Korea.

In one possible scenario, in which large numbers of the North Korean army—numbering some 1.2 million in total—invade the South, American forces would need a large number of military personnel—far more than the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea—and significantly more military assets to repel the invasion. For such a response to be logistically possible, America would certainly need to use Japanese military bases, due to the limited air bases and seaports available in South Korea. Without Abe’s much-criticized constitutional reinterpretation, use of Japanese bases and other national assets would have been illegal.

While Seoul’s political and strategic thinking looks confused, Beijing is shrewdly taking advantage. There have been moments of overreach in China’s support of South Korean criticism of Abe for allegedly steering Japan back to its more militant past. But there have also been clever attempts at driving a wedge between the two American allies and entrenching nationalistic animosities against Tokyo.

In January 2014, for instance, China made a play to stroke South Korean nationalism by opening a museum in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, to honor Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, who in 1909 assassinated visiting Japanese statesman Ito Hirobumi in Harbin and was subsequently captured and executed by Japan. The idea for the museum was an embellishment of a more modest suggestion, made by President Park during a summit with President Xi in mid-2013, that China establish a plaque to commemorate Ahn. While Japan considers Ahn a criminal, South Korea sees him as a national hero from history. Apparently, now China does too.

Seoul certainly saw Beijing’s gesture for what it was: opportunism. But South Korea no doubt appreciated Chinese assistance in putting wartime and historical issues front and center in its effort to shame Japan. But keeping an embarrassing swath of history alive can backfire, especially when there are skeletons in Seoul’s own closet. One of them was revealed in official documents released in 2005 covering the negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo in the lead-up to the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations, which established normal diplomacy between the two countries. The documents had been kept secret for forty years. During these negotiations, South Korea demanded $364 million in compensation for the more than one million Koreans conscripted into the workforce and the military during the period of Japanese colonization from 1910 to 1945. Japan proposed that it directly compensate individual victims, but Korea insisted on a lump sum that the government would then dispense to the victims. When the money arrived in the form of grants and soft loans from Tokyo, authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee (father of the current president) instead spent it on national economic development.

South Korea’s history with Japan has ghastly moments, but in this regard it is not unique. Many countries in the region (as well as America itself) suffered tremendously at the hands of Imperial Japanese forces. For strategic and economic reasons, and also with the passage of almost seventy years during which Japan has largely behaved as an exemplary regional and international citizen, these governments and populations have learned to embrace a more confident, can-do Japan. For the sake of its own interests and the future of its own neighborhood, South Korea needs to find a way to follow suit.

John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney. This article is an expansion of an earlier online feature.

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