Why can’t we be friends? Frustration in the Asia-Pacific Part 2: The Republic of Korea

Scott Musgrave*

This is the second part of a four part series where Alochonaa East Asia Editor, Scott Musgrave looks at the tide of hostility in East Asia between Korea, China and Japan. Scott argues that it is the engagement, or the lack of engagement of the US, that affects how these states interact with each other, particularly in regards to Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Inzai, April 16, 2014 (Alochonaa): In my first article I looked at the system in which the major actors of the East Asian political system act. I presented the argument that the United States plays an integral role on how these states interact with each other.  This is particularly noticeable in the relationship between Japan and the Republic of Korea (RoK). As I suggested, and as Victor Cha has written about with his theory of ‘quasi-alliance,’ Japan and Korea at times when they felt abandoned by their great power protector were more careful in their approach to diplomacy and looked to strengthen ties. However, when US presence has been strong and the perception of threat was low, Japan and the RoK have taken shots at each other and largely followed policies that have been detrimental to diplomatic relations.

This article will be looking firstly at the geopolitical situation for the RoK. Then, I will look at how the RoK’s neighbours influence its foreign policy with particular focus on Japan.  I will also have a look at the tenets of Korean nationalism and how they affect domestic decisions and international behaviour.

The RoK is surrounded by several possible threats to its security. Their siblings in Pyongyang have remained the number one security concern for most RoK leaders since the end of the Korean War. The unpredictable Kims have always kept those in Seoul on their toes and are the reason why compulsory military conscription exists for all males.  Furthermore, as there was no official peace declared at the end of the Korean War, the two states are technically still at war. (Only an armistice was signed to end the conflict) Anything could happen, but with the more conciliatory approach to the North with Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy and a general decline in relative power in Pyongyang, the threat is far less stated than it once was.

A little further south the growing power of China has been raising concerns. Under the presidency of Roh Moo-Hyun a very amicable approach was taken to relations with Beijing. Roh was very confident of a peaceful rise of China and kept close ties with Beijing as a result. Since the election of Lee Myun-Bak and subsequently Park Geun-Hyee, relations have been slightly frostier and actions, such as China’s re-designation of its ADZ, have drawn sharp criticism from Seoul. Needless to say, the hawks of the incumbent Saenuri party are much more guarded about the possible rise to prominence in Chinese power and much more interested in maintaining healthy relations with the US.

Finally, across the Sea of Japan, or the East Sea as the Koreans like to call it, lies the eternal foe of Japan. Whilst Japan does not strike many as an obvious threat like the other states mentioned above, many in South Korea regard Japan as a possible security threat that looms as a destabilising influence in East Asia. Japan, like the RoK, is allied with the United States, both have similarities culturally, their languages are about as close as English is to German, and they maintain democratic, capitalist systems. Stephen Walt’s balance of threat theory would suggest that Japan and Korea should get along.  Walt’s theory suggests that if two states are met with a mutual threat and share similar values they will most likely create an alliance. However, it is the combination of history, nationalism and domestic power wrangling that defies this logic.

Japan and South Korea have a checkered past to say the least. The first incursion of Japanese forces into Korean soil occurred in 1592 and ended in 1598 when the armies led by Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi were beaten back by combined Ming Chinese and Choson Korean forces. The retreat was enforced by the death of the generalissimo Hideyoshi himself.

The most recent Japanese incursion into Korea was the most damaging. The 1910-1945 annexation and colonisation of the peninsula has irreparably influenced Korea to the present day. Such was the cruelty of the occupation it created a general distrust and hatred for the Japanese. Koreans were expected to assimilate and become more Japanese. They were forced to adopt Japanese names, to work as forced labourers and many Korean women were forced into prostitution for the benefit of the Japanese Imperial Army. However, history in itself does not necessarily cause future conflict. It is how this history is use that creates problems.

At the end of the occupation, early Korean leaders pounced on the seething anti-Japanese sentiment as a means to mobilise the populace. Kim Il-Sung, the god-king of the North, built a reputation on his superb fighting abilities as a guerrilla in China against the Japanese. He along with his trusted comrades were well respected for their exploits and largely made up the DPRK government. The reverence for those who fought against the former ruler was strong and Kim was able to cultivate this reverence and hatred of the Japanese to legitimise his rule. However, what about the South? The South was much the same in many ways. The first Korean president, Rhee Syng-Man was staunchly pro-American, anti-Communist who had built a reputation where he was involved in organized protest against the Russian and Japanese Empires at the end of the 19th century as well as being implicated in the 105-man incident where 700 Koreans were arrested in connection to assassination attempts on Masatake Terauchi, the Governer General.

This was merely the beginning. The RoK refused having relations with Japan until 1965 when a normalisation treaty was signed. Under the tenets of the agreement, Japan would pay 800 million dollars in soft loans and grants. While Japan was interested in repaying each Korean that suffered during the war, it was agreed that the Korean government would be responsible for distributing the wealth .  For some this agreement was a sell out and it has made some picture Park Chung-Hyee, the President at the time, as a Japanese sympathiser. Park is now largely regarded as the best President in RoK history for his economic reform, but his past as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army has added speculation to his motives.

Current nationalistic tendencies tend to focus on some of these points and ignore others. First of all, Koreans are the first to fire broadside when Japanese leaders do anything remotely related to what could be perceived as history revision or praising the past. Prime Ministerial visits to the Yasukuni shrine are perhaps the most potent and often lead to great outbursts in China as well. The shrine, holding the souls of the war dead, as well as some Class-A war criminals, is largely seen as a relic of the imperial era and an affront to the people of Asia who died during Japan’s Asia-Pacific war. Secondly, text books approved by the Japanese Education Ministry that omit or dumb down the significance of certain events of the occupation such as the involvement of ‘comfort women’ and the extent to which the war was an aggressive one. Nothing however quite beats the uproar over the tiny, remote Liancourt rocks.

Known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the Liancourt rocks are a small chain of tiny islands that are known to have good fishing grounds and possibly of natural gas deposits. The rocks were annexed under the 1910 Korea-Japan Annexation agreement but there has been squabbling still as to its true ownership. The Japanese claim that the territory has belonged to them since the 1700s or so whereas the Koreans claim even earlier ownership. The key problem is that the Liancourt Rocks were not given back to the Koreans in the treaty of San Francisco in 1952 which officially ended the war and imperial rule in Japan. However, the Koreans have administered the islands for the best part of the last 50 years with 37 South Korean national police officers garrisoned there currently.  Whenever the Japanese have claimed sovereignty or asserted there is an ownership dispute over the islands such as ‘Takeshima Day’ in 2004 or when the Japanese sent survey boats in 2006, Korean nationalists have gone off their rockers. Such was their influence that President Roh Moo-Hyun sent warships to defend Dokdo from the Japanese boats.

DOKDO IN YOUR PANTS: One of the many examples of Dokdo paraphernalia sold in Korea - Google Images

One of the many examples of Dokdo paraphernalia sold in Korea – Google Images

These actions are obviously dangerous for diplomatic relations. South Korea has at times been extremely confrontation when facing Japan, but why does it happen? If we peruse some of the history of the past 10 years or so it has largely been when Korean leaders have been embattled with either low popularity or some kind of scandal that nationalism has been deployed.  If we examine the tenure of Roh Moo-Hyun we can see that at the beginning he was largely accommodating toward then Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi for the sake of more future oriented ties. However, as his party was criticised popularity ratings dived. Roh then suddenly became more proactive in criticizing the Japanese including Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine that he had done previously to no uproar. Furthermore, as the aforementioned Liancourt Rocks dispute showed, Roh was willing to deploy military force against Japan to deter them from an important national interest. Furthermore, as Roh had taken a much more hospitable view to China he felt safe in knowing that even in jeopardising relations with Japan, China did not pose a threat. North Korea similarly was engaged in the 6-party talks with Japan, the RoK, Russia, China and the USA and the Sunshine policy continued. Optimism about the security environment led Roh to being more confrontational with Japan to drum up popular support.

The view for Lee Myun-Bak was much more cynical and measured. The conservative Saenuri party largely viewed China’s rise suspiciously and favoured close ties with the US. Lee even had a fantastic personal relationship with President Obama that helped the diplomatic ties become even stronger. At this time, Japan too underwent domestic political change to the Democratic Party of Japan that held a much more compliant view toward relations with the RoK. Indeed, the Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda brought with him important colonial documents to hand to South Korean scholars as a gift on his first visit to Seoul.

During this time however, with domestic pressure on US leaders to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, along with China acting more assertively in the South China Sea, perceptions of threat were much higher at this time. North Korea too with its transition in leadership certainly heightened concerns about the stability of the region. Relations between Japan and Korea at this time were largely amicable. A military intelligence agreement had been in development and was due to be signed in 2012 however Lee Myun-Bak did the unimaginable to scupper the deal. Lee refused the agreement and made a visit to Dokdo, the first Korean President ever to do so. This shattered what hopes many had of good relations between the two nations.  Why he did this is down to speculation but it is possible that due to his brother being embroiled in a corruption scandal, Lee needed to protect himself and assert his pro-Korean intent. However, with he being so late in his term, it does make one wonder why he would.

More recently, Japan has switched back to the Liberal Democratic Party and the RoK has switched presidents to Park Chung-Hyee’s daughter, Park Geun-Hyee. Eager to distance herself from her father’s pro-Japanese image, current President Park has avoided dialogue of any kind with Tokyo and has allowed Japan to be criticized for its controversial remarks about the war dead and comfort women.  We will talk more about these exact discretions in Japan and their various reasons in the next article.

At the moment, the US has forced Abe and Park to kiss and make up, but one wonders how long that may last.

As I have shown, politicians in Seoul are quick to act when there is no clear and present danger over Korea’s safety. In times where perception of threat was low, nationalist sentiment was allowed to brew and was often used to propel flagging approval ratings. In times where perception of threat was higher, these sentiments failed to float to the surface in any meaningful way.

Korea is a strong democratic society that will only sort out its relationship with Japan when its leaders and Japans want to.

*Mr. Scott Musgrave, East Asia Editor for Alochonaa, is an avid East Asia watcher. Scott has written a Master thesis on contemporary Japan-Republic of Korea relations at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He now lives in Japan keeping his finger on the pulse. Scott is available on twitter via @ScottM_IR where he also comments on his other love, football. 

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


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