Japan and South Korea: Rebuilding the Burnt Bridges

Caroline Hsu, May 19, 2023

Two of East Asia’s oldest and strongest players — Japan and South Korea — have had a hostile relationship for as long as some can remember. In a BBC World Service poll that was taken in 2014, only 13% of Japanese viewed South Korea positively, and only 15% of South Koreans viewed Japan positively. This dislike for the other is deep-rooted in history, with both countries having a strong mutual distrust for the other, and a multitude of incidents and events has only deteriorated relations further. Though bridges seem (and arguably are) burned and an alliance seems impossible, it is necessary for both of the countries’ survival. Scholars hypothesize that China will be the catalyst for World War III to commence, and Japan and South Korea — its neighboring countries — are in the direct line of fire and attack. It is an understatement to say that China has quickly risen to become a world superpower and has spread its dominance throughout East Asia. With President Xi Jinping expressing his desire and ambition to expand China’s physical presence and eventually reach global domination, Japan and South Korea in theory would be the first nations to fall. As World War III becomes closer to reality with every year that passes, it is crucial that precautionary action is taken to prepare for the armed conflict. Thus, Japan must adhere to South Korea’s demands for an official apology and reparations for the mistreatment of Korean comfort women in World War II. If South Korea’s demands are not met and the two countries remain at odds, both Japan and South Korea stand extremely vulnerable and are at risk of facing devastating losses. 

With the current state of Japan - South Korea relations and how the two countries have clashed heads for the past several decades, it is reasonable to assume that an alliance seems impossible. To fully understand the difficulty of reaching such a request, it is necessary to understand South Korea and Japan’s long-standing history with one another and the conflicts that keep them from being partners. Though these are only some of the disputes that keep the countries at odds, many of the reasons have roots in Japan’s imperialism and empire during and prior to World War II. 

South Korea and Japan are first at odds over territorial claims. One of these disputes is over the naming of the body of water that divides the two countries from each other. Japan claims that it should be named “The Sea of Japan,” in reference to the name that many European settlers and travelers dubbed it in maps and how we continue to use maps that have the same naming. However, the South Korean government protests and disagrees with this labeling, arguing that it should be called the “East Sea,” as it has been named as such prior to Japan’s imperial expansion in World War II. Japan disputes this by insisting that it does not matter whether South Koreans have been calling the body of water “East Sea” for centuries because it is simply the “localized” name compared to its international labeling. However, South Koreans counter this claim with the fact that South Korea was occupied by Japan in 1928, which thus gave them no voice to protest. Japan and South Korea also argue over the naming of the Liancourt Rocks, which are a group of islets in the previously mentioned body of water (“Sea of Japan”) that is currently occupied and part of South Korea. The Liancourt Rocks are extremely significant and crucial to economic development and success, containing valuable fishing grounds and large reserves of methane clathrate, which is used in global warming research. At the moment, South Korea occupies and claims ownership of the Liancourt Rocks, and stations the Korean Coast Guard in its vicinity. The territorial dispute over both the Liancourt Rocks and the naming/renaming of the “Sea of Japan” creates a large rift between Japan and South Korea, who view the issue as inflicting damage upon nationalist pride. 

South Korea and Japan are also at odds with the events that occurred during World War II, with the South Korean government and its people demanding official acknowledgment, reparations, and an official apology from the Japanese government for the comfort women of South Korea. During World War II, South Korean women and young girls were forced to have sex with Imperial Japanese military soldiers, and carried the trauma from their experiences for the rest of their lives. However, in the 1990s, a mass movement spurred survivors to come out and tell their stories, demanding reparations from the Japanese government for the damage and trauma inflicted upon them. Since the first outcry in 1992, South Korean protestors have gathered outside of the former Japanese Embassy in South Korea every Wednesday — later known as the “Wednesday protests” —  to protest the restoration of dignity and human rights of the comfort women. In 2015, the two countries formed an agreement called the “Japan-Korea Comfort Women Agreement,” but quickly crumbled due to the Japanese government’s denialism on the matter. Though former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did agree to give $8.3 million dollars to the surviving comfort women, the South Korean public was heavily dissatisfied with such reparations and demanded an official and formal apology to the survivors. Prior to this attempt at reparations, Abe had completely stopped acknowledging and apologizing for Japan’s wartime hostilities during World War II, which drove South Koreans to first distrust the agreement and secondly caused tensions to rise even further. 

Abe’s attempt to distribute reparations continued to have a negative impact on Japan-South Korea relations for years to come, and South Korea was first unsatisfied with Abe’s intentions to sweep away the events with money, and negatively reacted to Abe’s resistance and refusal to issue an official apology. In 2015, the two countries gathered to discuss the rising threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in could not emotionally accept the deal. Since Abe’s retirement, many Japanese officials have also gone to lengths to attempt to appease the South Korean and Chinese governments for wartime atrocities, but the government still finds itself divided on all issues. Though Japan and South Korea signed the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of China, the countries still find themselves at odds with Japanese officials for no longer recognizing or acknowledging wartime atrocities, and the South Korean public is deeply and negatively affected by such refusal. Thus, though the treaty does indeed stand in all technical terms, the divide between the countries is still at large, especially with the surge of demands for Japan to officially acknowledge and address the South Korean comfort women and the Wednesday protests. Furthermore, both treaties were extremely vague in wording and were thus considered unproductive and paid little heed to the victims of the war. 

Though this article may seem like a one-sided argument biased towards South Korea, we must understand that the Japanese government, as a collective,  does not acknowledge the horrors and many of its citizens still remain in the dark. Furthermore, Japan’s leaders across the board continue to ignore and disregard Japan’s actions in World War II, putting them at odds with affected countries — such as China and South Korea — and setting them up for conflict and failure. 

With a majority of the world aware of the mistreatment of Korean comfort women, Japan as a nation receives international backlash for its refusal to acknowledge the tragedies. Furthermore, Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the Korean comfort women and the atrocities of World War II further isolates them on an international scale. Though China and South Korea stand at odds, one common denominator that the two countries share is a need for reparations and acknowledgment from Japan. During World War II,  the Japanese Imperial Army stormed the city of Nanjing, China, and committed what would later be known in history as the Nanjing Massacre. Starting on December 13, 1937, Japanese soldiers committed mass murders throughout the cities alongside mass rape, looting, and arson as the whole city and its people went up in flames. After the end of World War II, the Japanese military leaders and officers in charge were found guilty of war crimes and executed. However, the Nanjing Massacre still remains an issue that wedges modern-day China and Japan due to Japan’s refusal to officially condemn the incident, and their refusal to send reparations to China. 

Though former Japanese prime minister Tomichi Murayama addressed an official apology in 1995 to victims of World War II for Japanese actions, Murayama had never officially addressed either incident. However, other Japanese public officials go even further than Murayama and strongly deny both the mistreatment of South Korean comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre to the extent of claiming both events were fabrications that had never occurred. Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, told a delegate from Nanjing that the massacre most likely never occurred, and Tokyo’s governor Shintaro Ishihara deliberately denied its existence. By refusing to acknowledge the mistreatment of South Korean comfort women, Japan gives China and South Korea a reason to band together, and furthermore, a reason for China to take action against Japan. This puts Japan at greater risk of danger, and prohibits one more alliance for their own protection.

Japan also must meet South Korea’s demands in order to create a united front against the potential threats of a future world war. Though both countries stand at great odds with other debates, the one denominator that Japan and South Korea share is the mutual distrust and dislike for China; with each country having its own reasons. A study done by the Pew Research Center shows that only 11% of Japanese view China favorably and consider Chinese to be extremely arrogant and violent, and a study done by the Sinophone Borderlands project showed that only 19% of South Korea viewed China favorably, with the remaining 81% expressing extremely negative sentiments about the global hegemon. A study conducted by The Diplomat shows that both Japanese and South Koreans furthermore share negative opinions about China’s impact on the global natural environment and China’s current military power. 

Both Japan and South Korea also understand that China is quickly becoming (if they are not considered to already be) the strongest power in the Eastern Hemisphere, and have each gone to lengths to ensure temporary protection by allying with the United States. Soon after Mao Zedong took power and changed China into a communist country with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan sought to become allies with the United States. In 1951, the two countries signed the United-States Security Treaty, wherein the United States was allowed to maintain military bases on Japanese soil, and in 1960, the two countries reunited to sign the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, where the United States pledged to defend Japan if it was attacked by a third party. South Korea and the United States soon after joined an alliance by forming and signing the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, wherein both countries would support each other in the context of an external armed attack, and allowed the United States to station military forces in South Korea. With both countries sharing alliances with the United States, it would only make sense for the two countries to unite to have a combined and thus increased amount of manpower, resources, and aid. 

Though a permanent alliance may be out of the question, a temporary alliance between Japan and South Korea could exponentially increase their chances of survival against China alongside the support given by the United States. Creating a temporary alliance would allow both countries to reap the economic, security, and geological benefits. For one, the body of water between Japan and South Korea would no longer be divided and could be used as a unified front to defend either country from China (and even North Korea in some context). As an island country, Japan is considerably vulnerable to offshore and open-air attacks with its lack of land mass, smaller population, and would benefit from South Korea’s manpower. South Korea, which is bordered by North Korea, would benefit from any extra assistance to combat North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. As one of the world’s most advanced manufacturers, Japan can supply South Korea with technology and ammunition. Though currently not actively seeking it, Japan also has the raw materials, technology, and capital to produce its own nuclear weapons program within a year if needed. Furthermore, both countries would reap security benefits; by having an alliance with one another, it is easier for the United States to assist either country, and to have a cohesive and stronger defense against China’s inevitable attempt to spread its influence internationally. 

Though Japanese and South Korean administrations have attempted to make things right with each other as the decades pass, the two countries continue to find themselves at a tense standstill. However, with the looming threat of a potential war, there must be an emphasis on the importance of an alliance and the necessity for one. Furthermore, the Japanese and South Korean publics have slowly started to view each other more favorably, making an alliance seem more possible compared to the past. A poll conducted by the nonprofit think thank Genron NPO and the Seoul-based East Asia Institute reported that Japanese who viewed South Korea unfavorably stood at 40.3% in 2021 compared to 48.8% in 2015, and South Koreans who viewed Japan negatively stood at 52.8%, compared to the 63.2% in 2015. 

This article can only provide an overview of the intricate and many issues that keep Japan and South Korea divided, but it is clear that both countries need to band together in such a time of necessity. With China predicted to spark a world war within the next few years, Japan and South Korea must take precautionary measures to protect themselves from the Eastern Hemisphere’s greatest power. Japan and South Korea stand at odds largely due to Japan’s refusal to take accountability for World War II wartime atrocities such as the South Korean comfort women, and the refusal is only negatively impacting their chances of survival against China. Whether this is through acknowledging that the “Sea of Japan” should be named the “East Sea” due to its original meaning prior to Japanese occupation, acknowledging the victims of World War II, or withdrawing from the Liancourt Rocks debate, time is quickly running out. Though bridges have been burned between Japan and South Korea, it is most definitely possible to rebuild the relations or start anew to prepare for the tumultuous future that lies ahead.


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