Japan and South Korea

By Rachel Rochford (’23)

Recently, Kim Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, stated “If [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step” regarding joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea (Foreign Policy). The U.S. response to this has not been with particular conviction as the nation is still reviewing its policy on North Korea following the election of President Biden. However the U.S. chooses to view and respond to North Korea, Japan, and South Korea will both be essential in the process. Thus, cooperation between South Korea and Japan becomes essential in confronting North Korean hostilities. This is problematic as the two nations feel a sense of antipathy toward one another. 

As is the case with the majority of conflicts, the problems that South Korea and Japan experience today are deeply rooted in the past. In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan and remained under the control of the island nation until 1945. During that time, Korean history and culture were greatly disregarded in favor of their Japanese equivalents, laying the brickwork for the relationship that can be seen today. Following World War II and Korea’s subsequent freedom from Japan was the dividing of North and South Korea. While North Korea has not yet normalized relations with Japan, South Korea, and Japan signed the Treaty on Basic Relations which did just that in 1965. 

While it was not made public during that time, Japan did actively try to give some atonement for their past actions, providing 500 million dollars in grants and loans along with an additional 300 million dollars in loans for private trusts to South Korea. With this, South Korea agreed not to demand any further compensation from Japan. South Korea also relieved the Japanese government of the responsibility of compensation for individuals impacted by Japan’s actions. 

With this, the two nations began cultivating a diplomatic relationship. A variety of problems arose though, mainly stemming from the shared past of South Korea and Japan. In 2018 for instance, tensions again rose as a South Korean court ruled that a Japanese company owed compensation to the families of 28 victims of forced labor. Japan views itself as having already paid what was due while South Korea does not believe it has the right to tell individuals that they cannot seek compensation for the suffering that occurred.

Another issue that comes up frequently is South Korea’s desire to receive an apology for colonization from Japanese officials. A fair number of Japanese Prime Ministers have indeed issued apologies, but many have not. In 2005, at the same time as an apology was being issued, a number of officials visited a shrine to Japanese lost in past conflicts, leading to further tension between the two countries and the South Korean sentiment that expressions of remorse from Japanese officials were not sincere. 

Another debate has been over the treatment of “comfort women”, many of whom were South Korean. These are women who were forced into sex slavery in Japanese brothels during World War II. The Japanese government did not officially acknowledge what had happened until 1993. Fewer than 30 living survivors of this remain in South Korea. Those who do wish for a sincere apology, truthfulness, and legal compensation from Japan. Meanwhile, Japan feels as though the issue has already been settled. Thus, both countries find themselves treading a delicate line, and survivors of the ordeal are forced to wait even longer for an incomparably small piece of retribution for the trauma they endured. 

This delicate line was once again reached in 2018 when a trade dispute began with the South Korean ruling that a variety of companies owed compensation to South Korean families whose loved ones had suffered because of said companies during WWII. Japan responded to this by tightening up with chemical exports needed by South Korea’s semiconductor industry. 

Territorial disputes also arise such as the one over the Liancourt Rocks which house valuable fishing grounds and potentially natural resources. There is also conflict over the naming of the “Sea of Japan” vs. the “East Sea” or the “Korean Eastern Sea”. 

Finally, relations between South Korea and Japan were further strained by the COVID-19 pandemic after Japan’s travel bans and quarantine measures relating to South Korea. 

It is clear that these two nations have a rough past at best. However, in an increasingly globalized world, both Japan and South Korea will likely find themselves in an ever-increasing number of situations where something more than begrudging cooperation would be mutually beneficial. The 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations was the first step in a journey of reconciliation but it was never properly followed up upon. And so, both nations constantly find themselves on the precipice of a diplomatic dispute. 

In order to move forward, a clear and open dialogue must be held between the two nations, one which seeks to properly and purposefully address the past so that Japan and South Korea may work together for the sake of their mutual future.

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