Why don’t Korea & Japan Align?


For awhile I was collecting links and such to make an argument about Korea and Japan working together on big issues like China and NK, or finally clinching the much-discussed but little worked-on FTA. Both the realist and the liberal in me wanted to see two liberal democracies working together in a tough environment with similar structural threats. Initially I had written: “This may be the biggest news of the year if it actualizes: Japan is apparently considering real defense cooperation with SK. If you follow East Asian security, this is a revolution. Try here, here and here.” But this is sorta cheating on social science, right? Looking around for any scrap of data to support an outcome we like, even though it isn’t really happening?

Well, I give up. Instead of more normative, but ultimately speculative, essays on why East Asian states should align, found an Asian Union or Community, build a local alternate to the IMF, forge a common currency, take ASEM seriously, etc., I think we should start asking why Asian states cooperate so badly. (My short answer: they’re too nationalist.)

My students bring integration up all the time. Until the euro crisis got really bad, students used to tell me all the time that Asia needs an EU or coordination against the (much-loathed) IMF. And I’ve read lots of term-papers on this. But the more I look at the most important Asian international organization (IO), ASEAN, the more it just doesn’t impress me no matter how much hype it gets (which is a lot out here at the conferences and in business advertising in the media). ASEAN is around 60% of the age of the EU and has done maybe 20% of the integration/cooperation the EU has. I argued in ISR a few years ago that lots of IOs aren’t actually about integration at all, but rather the joint self-defense of weak and/or authoritarian elites (Organization for African Unity, Gulf Cooperation Council, Shanghai Cooperation Organization). But that still doesn’t explain why Korea and Japan are so distant. And now for work, I’m revisiting Walt’s Origins of Alliances. Balance of threat feels pretty persuasive too, but I think it would struggle with the Korea-Japan case, as would the democratic peace.

So if I had the time, I would write this up as a real journal submission. This case creates trouble for both standard realist and liberal arguments that have underlain my own personal (as well as USPACOM’s) enthusiasm for this alliance-that-refuses-to-be for awhile. I flagged this earlier as a good non-western puzzle for IR that doesn’t really get the attention it deserves, because we don’t know Asian cases very well (Kang is very important on this, IMO). Realist Walt and liberal Doyle tell me this alliance should happen, but Koreans stubbornly refuse to do what social science tells them to. (Cue your orwellian fantasy of intellectuals with their hands on the whip at last to force the world to fit theory.) When I mention idea this at conferences or to my students, I get lots of blasé disinterest.

In short, all three big paradigms of IR broadly seem to suggest that Korea and Japan should be much closer than they are. But Korea just won’t do it, and my sense is the Japanese don’t really want to either. Here’s the basic theoretical run down as I see it:

1. Realism: Korea and Japan face a very similar structural environment. They are geographically in basically the same place facing the same regional security complex. So if states balance power (Waltz), wouldn’t Japan and Korea be cooperating to hedge China, and mildly cooperating to more balance NK? If states balance threats, especially proximate ones with offensive power (Walt), shouldn’t Korea and Japan be pretty publicly aligning against freaky, unpredictable NK, and mildly cooperating to hedge China? But they really aren’t doing any of those things. Sure, they’re on the same side of the table in the NK talks, but there’s no real coordination. Diplomatically, Korea can barely talk to Japan, and Koreans can be downright japanophic if you get them going on Japan’s colonial history here. The Liancourt Rocks and the history issues constantly interrupt. As everyone knows, the US relationship with them is ‘hub-and-spoke’ bilateral rather than NATO-style multilateral. The US would love for them to cooperate, but they don’t. Their relationship is more like Schweller’s ‘underbalancing’ than Walt’s balance of threat, even though Walt should fit here pretty well.

2. Liberalism: Shouldn’t two liberal democracies be friends, if not allies? The democratic peace, security community, and other liberal theory broadly tells me that Korea and Japan should be closer than they are. I guess one could say that the democratic peace explains why they don’t fight even though they don’t like each other much. That might actually be a pretty good finding: two otherwise hostile states are able to channel their disputes through conflict-dampening democratic transgovernmentalism. (But even that might be spurious, as one argue that it is the mutual US senior alliance partner that tamps down the conflict, as many would argue is the case between Greece and Turkey too.)

But the more norm-based, neocon, or ‘strong’ versions of the democratic peace anticipate a sense of ‘we-ness’ or community among democracies, like in NATO, or less so, the OAS. A few years ago, there was talk about formalizing a ‘community of democracies’ as sorta like a global NATO of liberal states. But I don’t see this here at all. When we think about the US-Canada relationship or EU relations, we see a reasonable amount of warmth that suggests that ‘we-ness,’ shared concern for the other’s well-being, and an unwillingness to exploit the other. I don’t see here. Korea and Japan are more like ‘frenemies’ than liberals in solidarity. Liberalism and democracy – and all the conflict-reducing things that are supposed to flow from that, like student exchanges, tourism, mutual language learning, lots of Track II interchange – don’t seem to be working. Germany and France managed to do this stuff and build a real alliance, as did the EU generally. But Korea and Japan are more like Greece and Turkey.

3. Constructivism/Culture: Shouldn’t culturally similar states find it easier to cooperate, like the US and Canada? In EJIR, I argued that Confucianism played a role in keeping an east Asian peace before the Opium War. The more time I spend in Asia, the more I think Korea, Japan, and China are more culturally similar than they want to admit. (My students bristle at that one a lot.) And if you look at Korea and Japan, they do in fact share a slew of cultural characteristics from the mundane – eating lots of fish with chopsticks – to the profound – long histories of Confucianism, Buddhism, shamanism, monarchy, social hierarchy, ancestor veneration, etc. (NB: This is one of the reasons why Huntington’s clash of civilizations didn’t go down too well in East Asia. Because he couldn’t very well lump China and Japan together for political reasons, Huntington was forced to parse out Japan as radically different based on Shintoism. This wasn’t really convincing.) Brian Myers argues that this cultural similarity is one the reasons why Japan was able to absorb Korea without too much difficulty.

But this doesn’t seem work either. (So maybe Huntington was right after all?) I find Korean students intensely dislike being compared to Japan and hammer away what Freud would almost certainly call the “narcissism of small differences.” If you didn’t know the differences between kiminos and hanboks, just about everyone here is excited to can tell you in great detail.

In short, two states that share a lot of cultural characteristics, structural-geographic conditions, threat perceptions, and domestic institutions and values can’t ally and can barely talk to each other. To give a western example, imagine Canada saying the US was a greater threat to it than the USSR. As a rule, I find Koreans worry far more about Japan than China, or even NK (yes, that’s not an exaggeration outside of the foreign policy set), and there is a far amount of paranoia about Japan lurking beneath the surface. I know Japan less well, but Japanese colleagues I know from conferences tell me similar stories about how many Japanese look down on Koreans and secretly think Japanese was good for Korea, because it brought modernity.

So what would be a theoretically progressive way to explain this tough case? The actual empirical issues of territory and history that keep them divided are well-known, but it is important to not just tack them on as a transparent ad hocery like, ‘balance of threat only works when partners haven’t conquered each other in the last 50 years.’ I find this a tough one.

So if you’re a grad student, here’s a paper idea.

34 thoughts on “Why don’t Korea & Japan Align?

  1. Yea, interesting huh. Though clearly not as well-read as yourself I’d be inclined to say it’s definitely got a lot to do with the nationalism, and Confucianism. The ‘Asian Way’, as it were, is not to trust anyone, but bolster your own growth at almost whatever cost. Japan certainly I think is still very much of this mindset, they never really calmed down after the Meiji Restoration.

    I once asked a friend of mine in Osaka what she thought about Koreans. She said nobody trusts them, because they kidnap Japanese people and keep them detained so that the secret service can observe their habits, in order to be better at undercover work in Japan. Granted, she is a young woman (like myself) and she has virtually no political interest, but that I think makes her all the better as a source. She’s absolutely conformist and embroiled in pop culture (you know how Japanese kids are), so she reflects a common, if perhaps a little ignorant, opinion. The dislike of Koreans in Japaan goes a bit further than frenemy status, possibly.

    Maybe Japan won’t ally with Korea against the threat of China because they still uphold that Meiji pride; it’s not their inclination to admit a military weakness compared to any other country. I suppose they believe they aren’t threatened; anyways, the giant zaibatsu-like ‘keiretsu’ of Japan are probably unlikely to be threatened for a few decades yet by Chinese enterprise. They are a few steps ahead and more grown-up. Then again, China is attempting to get its hooks into Myanmar etc. and may end up having a windfall of natural resources. Japan will be watching China’s growth carefully, even though over the last couple of years it’s slowed a bit.

    I’m an udergrad student in Asian politics at Victoria University in Wellington, NZ. My own blog is aimed at young, interested people who want to become more involved with Asia Pacific – an important direction for us in New Zealand, as I’m sure you can imagine. Please view and interact if you have any time.


    • Thanks for reading. Good luck with your blog. Blogging is time-consuming, and I am impressed you would try to do that as a undergrad. That’s pretty great if you are really writing for it regularly. I will try to respond to you if you comment on this site. I am aware that is hard to get traffic. I also write for an international relations (IR) theory website: http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2012/04/why-dont-korean-and-japan-align-even.html. It can be pretty tech-y IR, but there are lots of comments already on this post there.

      I think we are probably close in identifying nationalism as a deep divider. My sense is that Asian states are very nationalist-westpahlian. This badly inhibits cooperation. In the Korea-Japan case, the difficult issues of history and territory only compound this divide.


  2. I am currently a research student in Japan, Tokyo. The Japanese people (usually students who are finishing the undergraduate program; first year students who just got into university have better things to do than worry about politics and stuff like that) I managed to talk about this issue were usually perplexed, they couldn’t come up with an answer as to why the current situation is as it is. They feel that things would be better if a deeper cooperation between the countries materialized. Still they don’t know what could be done to solve the issues. They tell me that the country has apologized on several occasions, they helped financially South Korea during it developing stage (although it was not called reparations, most Japanese consider it was a form of it).
    Most of them told me that because of all the one-step forward two step backward situation regarding Japanese-Korean relations, people are getting tired and tend to just disregard the Korea issue. It is way easier than too actually try to solve the situation especially when your opponent views everyone of your gesture with a ridiculous amount of suspicion. On economic terms Japanese-Korean companies manage to cooperate quite well, like the Sony-LG venture for LCD screens. If I remember correctly it was LG. ( Japanese companies and people appreciate Korean products and are really looking at them as rivals that you can learn from. I don’t know how aware Korean people are of this on the Peninsula.) Later on Sony sold it’s share in the factories to it’s Korean partner but both of them were more than satisfied with how things played out.
    I think this is the reason Japanese don’t feel the need to rush things in the political circles. If things are working more or less now than it can wait until Japan solved it’s domestic issues. This might come back to haunt them on long-term though. Still now days what are dominating Japanese minds like in every country are domestic and especially economic issues.
    Also with the election this year in SK if you mentioned Japan in a positive light I would suspect you are committing political suicide. 😀


    • I don’t know Japan as well as you, but I get this sense too. The Japanese seem to be burned out on the history/territory flap with Korea. For the Korean end of it, the vibe I get is that they don’t believe the Japanese though. Now and again, some Japanese right-winger spouts off about how Japanese occupation was good for Korea because it modernized it, or the issue of the Yasukuni shrine comes back up. I think what Koreans (and Chinese) want is German, post-Nazi-style contrition. I don’t think the Japanese can do that, but it’s probably necessary to serious integrate Japan into Asia. At least that’s what I see over here.

      Thanks for reading.


  3. Thank you Robert for your insightful post and blog, which I follow closely and learn a lot from.

    I have some comments and insights to add, especially on this topic concerning Korea-Japan relations, which are complicated from the start. First, I think that history is a factor that cannot be underestimated for the role it plays in East Asian identity and psyche.

    Japan’s history of aggression against Korea during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is still a bane in bilateral relations, even 67 years after Korea’s liberation. Perhaps the U.S. hubs-and-spokes alliance system with Japan and SK, the post-war conservative single-party and dictatorial rules that dominated each country respectively, and the exigencies of Cold War politics are all to blame for muting these historical grievances from being aired and properly healed on the countries’ own terms. Until these issues have been completely settled, how is it possible for two countries to unite as bona fide allies while frustration, agony, suspicion, and misunderstanding continue to underlie their interactions? Basing a Japan-South Korea alliance purely off of shared political and strategic interests alone are not enough to band-aid over serious traumatic memories, putting aside the enormous strides in progress that has been made in relations in recent decades due to the advent of popular culture and mutual economic prosperity.

    Second, I believe your argument about cultural similarity overlooks some major points, especially in depicting North Korea as laying outside the context of Northeast Asia’s cultural composition. North Korea cannot be taken out of the formula of Korea-Japan relations. Both North and South share the same pre-division history and grievances against Japan, and it is difficult to imagine South Koreans and Japanese truly making a breakthrough on those historical issues without North Korea’s involvement. It is also difficult to imagine South Korea joining forces with Japan against North Korea and acquiescing to, in an extreme case, the reoccupation of the Korean peninsula by Japanese military forces in the contingency of war against or the collapse of the Northern regime. While North Korea is regarded as a menace to both the South and Japan, it does not represent the same threat and hence does not form the basis for a shared strategic alliance between the two countries. To the South, the North represents an existential threat, an alter ego that historically competed for supremacy and legitimacy over the South in every imaginable field: military, culture, diplomacy, and social development. Today, the North still threatens the security and stability of the South by its ability to cause or threaten great havoc on its population centers, market values, and cyber security, especially in the event that the South assumes sudden stewardship over an imploded and economically devastated North. In the meantime, North-South relations have been locked in a fratricidal and precarious rivalry that is hungrily focuses upon the satisfaction of winning over the opponent. Plus, there is the complicating factor that major elements in South Korea seek engagement with the North and solidifying a pan-Korean identity, despite the resistance of conservative public opinion. Japan does not share nearly as much heat from, proximity to, and bloodline with North Korea as the South and its principle grievances against the North entail the kidnapping of Japanese nationals that occurred decades earlier and the worried perception that somehow the North will employ its developing stockpile of weapons on the Japanese homeland in revenge for its historical wrongdoings. Japan’s interests (from a historical position of strength and used to getting its own way) do not exactly match the South’s (from a historical position of weakness and distrust of larger powers that shared with the North) as far as strictly geo-strategic balancing of power is concerned. To claim that Japan and South Korea have a natural basis for a strong strategic relationship due to the shared North Korean threat is to grossly overlook the complexity of historical relations in the region and the differing nature of each country’s relationship to the North.

    There is much more that could be written on this topic, but let me leave it at this overall point: given the deeper historical and cultural ties that interlace the Northeast Asian states, it would be a mistake to define national relations as monopolized by purely government diplomatic ties, political ideology, and Cold War balances of power. Relations between Korea and Japan are hardly static or monolithic. They can differ among different segments of the population and stress different values of ethnicity, ideology, culture, history, religion, etc. and they deserve a more detailed analysis rather than sweeping generalizations.


    • Thanks for this full reply. I appreciate such length consideration of my work.

      I don’t really disagree with any of this. From an area studies, inductive approach, the distance between them is easy to explain. As I mentioned in passing, the history/territory issues are well known. You elaborate them well, and I agree.

      My interest was more deductive. IR theory has a several bodies of general theory that claim to explain alliance formation. One of those says that states facing similar threats will work together, even if they don’t really like each other or are very dissimilar. The coalitions against Hitler, the Kaiser, Napoleon, and the USSR are good examples. By that logic, Korea and Japan should be balancing China and NK. But they aren’t. And there are other strands in IR that say similar things; democracies, for example, tend to work closely with each other. That isn’t the case here either. So from a general theory or ‘nomothetic’ perspective in IR theory, the Korea-Japan dyad is somewhat puzzling, even if from a Korean studies view, it’s easily explained. It’s worth noting that this is why historians and area studies scholars frequently dislike political scientists – we think about general modelling, not real places.

      In passing, it’s also worth noting that I think Korean foreign policy elites do actually want something cooperation with Japan. I’ve been at lots of IR conferences where Koreans (and Japanese and Americans) all say this cooperation should happen. I think it is Korean public opinion that blocks it. At least, that is what I see.

      Thank you again for reading.


      • Dear Robert,

        Thank you for your detailed replies. I’m afraid I overlooked your intent earlier and I appreciate what you are trying to do. My question to you, however, is why theory is so necessary and relevant to explain otherwise explainable cases? If culture can factored into theory, why cannot history also be a factor explaining theories on alliance formations? I took many IR theory classes in college, though it is still hard for me to shake away the contextual reality from case studies.

        Although I might slip back into context-based observation, I will take a shot, however, at addressing the questions you posed. I would say after viewing many blog responses here that I would agree most with Dani Nedal on Duck of Minerva on explaining the South Korea-Japan conundrum. I believe the US bilateral hub-and-spoke security alliance with both countries poses the largest barrier to both countries from cooperating more closely in defense. Even if the US is in decline and China is on the rise, as long as that hub-and-spoke alliance system is in place it is structurally very difficult for Japan and Korea to reach out to one another. They are comfortable with how their alliance network is right now, still lingering from the Cold War era. It seems that they still have confidence in the US security guarantee, and would like to prevent the status quo from suddenly changing for as long as possible, no matter how grim things might look right now. Maybe in the extreme situation that South Korea and Japan lose all confidence in the US’s ability to protect them against a hostile China or nuclear NK, maybe then they would come to see mutual dependence as inevitable and we would see a fundamental change in the East Asian security environment and alliance network.

        Plus, as Dani Nedal mentions, emerging capitalistic systems and integrating markets in China have rather merged all these countries economic interests and promoted close cooperation rather than costly balance of power, an argument of liberalism. As far as the realist concerns you continue to raise, using the examples of the Kaiser, Hitler, etc. I don’t think these apply to Japan and Korea in regards to China. The alliances such as NATO against the communist powers, or even the union of the politically opposite Allied powers US and USSR against Nazi Germany were formed in extreme wartime/standoff circumstances under which the threatened countries were warding off against an aggressively expansionist enemy with which they held almost no economic or political connections. Maybe this threat perception might have worked for Japan and South Korea during the Mao era in China, but since the opening of China in the 1980s increasing trade and relations between all the East Asian countries have lessened the perception of imminent attack. Maybe the threatening expansion Chinese influence may push for the alliance between SK and Japan, but again, I think the convenience and the familiarity of the US bilateral security structure has prevented this from occurring.

        If anything, I would believe the hub-and-spokes presence of a superpower ally in the region as well as closer economic integration with the potential competitor power would feature most prominently in any progressive realist and liberal theory explaining the gap that exists between SK and Japan, despite other favorable factors that would seem to pull them together.

        You also mention cultural and political similarities between SK and Japan should encourage closer cooperation. Here is my take on that issue. Perhaps citing their democratic institutions, according to democratic peace theory, as a reason for building an alliance between the two countries is the wrong place to start because modern democratic politics is not indigenous to either country and does not likely compose their core self-identity and values as they seek out relations with a would-be ally. The United States, for example, does not have thousands of years of history as a nation or people. Naturally, its political ideals and philosophy are the biggest attributes it can fall back on for projecting its image to the world. This is hence how it relates to and builds strong relations with other new nations like Canada and Australia, as well as Western Europe where a shared cultural identity further cements its friendships. The democratic peace theory has been crafted to conveniently fit the Western experience. However, other parts of the world form alliances and identities in other complex ways. Take the middle east for example. There are a mesh pot of different governing systems throughout the region, mostly kingdoms and autocratic governments.Yet many of them share strong government-to-government, and public-to-public relations, not because of their political systems, but rather by dint of their shared religious identity and shared empathy for Palestine, etc. Following this reasoning, I would argue that the modern East Asian states have not yet found their own indigenous identity and values to unite upon. Their political systems, alliances, and ways of thinking have basically been artificially forced or strongly influenced by Western powers and interests. I would imagine as a possible source of an East Asian identity might follow something like the basic premise of China’s foreign policy outlook. China frequently vetoes many UN resolutions based on its opposition to non-intervention in sovereign affairs. While this may be considered purely acts of self-interest, it may also reflect China’s earnest desire to avoid force as a means to resolve disputes, its emphasis on maintaining harmony, as well as base its foreign policy off of strategic patience and dialog (though it has lost its cool in recent years and inflamed relations with its neighbors). Sorry, I know there is a lot to be said and debated about that last example, but I just raise it as one possible trait that South Korea, Japan, and maybe China and Southeast Asia may find themselves sharing and basing their foreign policy off of, enhancing cooperation and really merging institutional practices into a functioning alliance, independent of the system that the US has built.

        I have written a lot, but one more word. I feel confident that South Koreans and Japanese are having much better relations than what their top-level may project. I have traveled to both countries and seen genuine interest and curiosity from both sides in one another’s language, pop-culture, and traveling to the other side. There are many encouraging developments in such track II exchanges that simultaneously exist alongside the dampening sights of the thorns that still exist. The question is which development in bilateral relations will feature more prominently in the media and public imagination in the future, as well as in which direction public opinion will tip toward? I think a lot of that answer will truly depend upon the continuing efforts and choices of public and top-level actors in both countries. I hope that something here might lend some aid to your search for a progressive theory. Thank you very much for letting me have my say and do a great work with this blog.


      • I continue to be amazed at how traffic and interest this post has genenerated, here, at the Duck, and Busan Haps. Wow. I’ll have to write on Japan again! I guess no wants me to bore them to death with game theory, huh? 🙂

        I expected this would be read just be some wonky IR types at Duck of Minerva, the intended audience. But it has spawned so much comment, I should have just written the whole article to begin with.

        You’ve written a lot. Thanks for so much interest in my work. I am grateful. I saw your website from your name. Can you tell me a little about yourself and what you do? You seem to be an area studies guy, but more detail would help.

        I don’t want to dispute you too much on the case portrait you put forward. You see a lot, and I agree with most of it. I tried to say in the post that I familiar with a fair amount of the actual empirical story beteween Japan and Kroea, but many reviewers didn’t buy that. So your pushback, like Sams’ below and Nedal’s, fills in those details, which I guess I should have done.

        Your methodological argument, at the beginning, is the most important I think. Patrick Jackson (PTJ) at the Duck is making a similar argument to yours, and I think it says more at the theroretical level than Nedal. So let me just say that I do think that what we want to do in social science is try to build general theory that is as little context-sensitive as possible. The idea is to create explanations that transcend time and space constraints as much as possible (e.g., 2+2=4 whether you are white or Asian, Muslim or Hindu, a Martian, etc.). As I said, historians and area studies folks hate that stuff, but I would defend this as central to ‘theory’ as we know it. We can’t just include endless reams of data in theory; the world would simply overwhelm us with data points. We need to be able to cut away the chaff, to reduce, to simplify, to generate parsimonious statements of case and effect. So a general theory of states balancing against threats works pretty well in explaining WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, but why isn’t it working here?

        I’m not a great philosopher of science, but I would say that theory’s job is to make the huge mass of data in the world more intelligible, by saying some things are more important than others, that many data points can be safely ignored, and that regularities across otherwise diverse cases can be seen and abstracted somewhat.

        Patrick jumped all over me for impying that, arguing for more case-specific theory, but I think if we go that route we are no different than historians, and more importantly we have no way to cut down all the data points in the world to just those that are most important. To my case-specific theory isn’t ‘theory’ at all. It’s data. Without general theory, we are simply left with the huge mass of data in the world with no way in, no cause-and-effect statements.

        This is what I was trying to say by ‘progressive’ – to integrate new data into extant theories in a rich way, not just some tacked-on addendum. The Asia studies scholar’s retort might be that Asia is just too different to be theorized-in like this; I am shoving round pegs in square holes. I am reluctant to go down that route, hoping instead that we can integrate Asia into theory while reformulating theory to be more robust. Here are my brief thoughts on that: http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/what-i-learned-teaching-ir-in-asia-2-show-me-the-policy-relevance/. I would also recommend the work of Dave Kang (linked in the OP) on this. He teaches IR and Kroean studies at USC and has been around and around on this issue too.

        Thanks for coming back for yet another round ! 🙂


      • Thanks Robert for your detailed and considerate responses to my questions on theoretical modeling. I would definitely second Andrew Logie’s comment about your blog’s usefulness and interest among people who follow regional studies. I have been following your blog over the past year and linked to it on my own website, Koreastudies.com.

        You asked to know about me, and I’ll briefly introduce myself. I live in San Diego, California and I received a B.A. last year in International Studies at the University of California, Irvine with an emphasis on national security in East Asia. I speak Japanese and Korean and have studied abroad in Tokyo. I would like to consider myself more of an IR guy who reinforces his studies with cultural and regional studies in order to better inform his knowledge of politics and interstate relations in the region. However, I realize that I have so much more I need to study and polish up on before being able to cogently articulate my ideas and converse with greater credibility with other scholars and professionals in the field. I aspire to a career in foreign relations—in particular the U.S. Foreign Service—and I follow current events closely. You mentioned David Kang, who is the director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. I have read his book “East Asia Before the West” and other works made in collaboration with CSIS Korea Chairman Victor Cha. I have even had the tremendous fortune of traveling to USC for separate KSI-hosted discussions on the Six-Party Talks by ambassadors Robert King and Stephan W. Bosworth, with whom I was able to shake hands and share my website.

        My website on Korea Studies is kind of my personal project that I am building in my spare time to really challenge myself to keep reading, researching, and writing on a crucial region while I am out of school and searching for the doorway to my desired career path. Everything on the website was created by me from the ground up, including the HTML code, web design and articles. I find the website in need of some serious clean up, but the challenge of juggling the website editing with my job, volunteer activities and hobbies has made it difficult to update as often as I would prefer. But basically my overall goals for the website are threefold: 1) inform about and draw interest in Korean and East Asian affairs from an audience that otherwise is unfamiliar with the region; 2) offer a rich compilation of quality, easily-accessible resources (external website links, online academic papers, videos, book lists, etc.) in a wide variety of fields (language, politics, culture, history, etc.) that casual and serious readers alike can easily refer to and use as a central hub or starting point in their research on Korea; and 3) try to challenge my own growth and understanding on the region and offer my own insights on various relevant issues.

        My site is still in its beginning stages, lacks organization, and is difficult to navigate. Ideally I would like it to focus on IR issues in regards to the North-South conflict, but with an appreciation for regional studies that will further inform and enhance one’s understanding on the political aspects. I believe most of my articles reflect more of the latter half than the former, and I would like some advice on how to better channel and allocate my resources to make a coherent and valuable website for all. I also want to focus on providing many external links, reports, videos, etc. to fill in on all the vast categories related to Korea that I cannot possibly cover by myself and have them readily available and easily navigable for the readers.

        Anyways, I did not mean to write all about me and my site, but I really want to thank you for writing your blog and really pushing me to think and challenge myself on this topic. I really enjoy these exchanges and I hope that you can realize the impact and inspiration your efforts have on readers like myself. Thank you and I look forward to following more of your research.


      • Well, thanks for your kind words. I am glad you like the site. And good luck with your own.

        I am glad you know Dave’s work. He is much better at this than I am. I would recommend his work on Korea over my own. If you have the IR training and interest, I would recommend his journal research (start with the one linked in this post). His book on China is good too.

        Thanks for reading me regularly. You are very kind.


  4. Hi Robert. I find it perplexing that you completely left out the issue of Japan’s territorial claims out of your essay. I think a lot of Koreans would really like to have closer relations with Japan, but frankly, Japan is the problem–all the way. Japanese politicians are famously conservative, right-wing, militaristic, and war apologists (not to mention corrupted, but that’s omnipresent in just about any country).

    I think the issue of Dokdo island is obviously the thorniest rose in the bunch, but plenty of others should not be left out. For example, the issue of the naming of the Sea in between Korea and Japan (i.e. East Sea and/or Sea of Japan, of which the talks have just fallen through last week due to week Korea diplomacy); the issue of government-issued/controlled Japanese school textbooks which refuse to acknowledge war crimes such as “military comfort women” (i.e. thousands of Korean and other Asian sexual slaves during WWII); the Yasukuni Shrine, as you mentioned, and the list could go on.

    What I find funny is that the international community does not find it repulsive that Japan totally fails to acknowledge the war crimes it has committed during the Pacific War. Most people are ignorant of the fact that Japan actually killed more humans than the Nazis during WWII. I may be wrong but I think the toll is around 30 million, a pretty staggering number if you ask me. Yet how many movies have been done about Japan and its war crimes during WWII? What? Hard to think of any you say? Now think about the amount of movies produced about German war crimes during WWII?

    Not only Japan refuses to formally recognize its wrongdoing–as Germans have been doing ever since the second half of the 20th century–they even had former A or B class war criminals as Prime Ministers following the end of the war. Now that is hardcore. And, of course, not to speak of the Yasukuni shrine where hundreds of souls of class A,B and C war criminals are “enshrined”, and where Japanese Prime Ministers, among others, pay their respects to such souls every year or so. It’s just like if Angela Merkel went to a cemetery where Joseph Goebbels and other igneous characters were buried, and then she’d begin praying for their souls. Quite an unfathomable scenario isn’t it?

    Now, if we looks at Korea-Japan relations from this perspective, it is no wonder that in Korea, it is simply political suicide to try to warm relations with Japan without a priori dealing with such thorny issues. But again, the problem remains Japan; it refuses to budge, refuses to compensate former comfort women; refuses to recognize the war crimes its generals committed; refuses to back off from its ludicrous territorial claims.


    • I have taken a beating on this issue. You are now the third person to hit me with it :). I should have put more in. Thanks for pushing me.

      First, the commenter before you mentioned similar concerns, so I would send you there first.

      Second, this post was written with primarily an international relations (IR) theory audience in mind, and I am surprised it has gotten so much traffic. I also post at the IR site Duck of Minerva, and the comment thread there might interest you too (similar points to yours were raised): http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2012/04/why-dont-korean-and-japan-align-even.html. I was genuinely surprised when Busan Haps picked this up (http://busanhaps.com/article/why-don%E2%80%99t-korea-and-japan-align), because it is written in a jargony, inside baseball style. It was really more intended for IR types, where bracketing domestic characteristics, like the ones you emphasize, is often done in the name of building general theory. And you’ll notice in the Duck comment thread, a person saying my effort to retain general theory is the whole problem. I should focus on the region’s realities instead, which I think is likely your concern too. If I did, there would be no puzzle, as you are saying too.

      Third, in trying to write for an IR, as opposed to Korean studies, crowd, I was trying to hew to bodies of IR general theory that purport to explain alliance formation. 3 big bodies of theory make claims that would broadly predict a Korean-Japan alliance. As I said to the commenter above you, frequently in history, countries that don’t like each other much have nonetheless aligned. The coalitions against Hitler, the Kaiser, Napoleon, and the USSR are good examples. By that logic, Korea and Japan should be balancing at least NK, if not China too. But Korea and Japan are not responding to these structural or geographic imperatives, but instead to domestic politics, as you point out. That is somewhat puzzling in IR theory.

      Finally, I think you analysis is of the territorial and historical issues is correct. They are what sabotage the relationship. The trick, from an IR theory perspective, is to integrate this into our theories in a progressive way. In passing, it is this sort of general theory talk that drives historians and area studies scholars up the wall in dealing with political science. It looks like we care more about models than data. From your comments, I am guessing you are historian or Korean studies guy.

      Thanks for reading.


  5. I’m very much a Korean Studies person but here I think the IR answer we’re meant to be discussing is about threat perceptions not aligning.

    Both Korea and Japan are thriving countries. Even with Japan’s economic stagnation, the domestic population is content and not even on the street demonstrating like in Europe. Japan is under no imminent threat of invasion. It’s nearest enemy is North Korea. The only thing North Korea could do against Japan is use a missile to which Japan could militarily respond with its own arsenal (independent of SK) and if desperate (a nuclear strike – which isn’t even yet technically possible) call on help from the US; but North Korea’s “sea of fire” rhetoric is in any event mostly aimed at Seoul and the US. North Korea is so minor a threat to Japan, it’s right wing has to actively stir up any sense of danger which benefits the (quiet but not insubstantial) Japanese industrial-military complex.

    Chinese nationalist rhetoric is anti-Japanese, but there’s no immediate territorial disputes between them. China is barely militarily aggressive: it has not yet even invaded Taiwan and struggles just holding down Tibet and Xinjiang.

    South Korea does not have any immediate territorial disputes with China either (apart from academically over Goguryeo, Balhae and, for romantic irredentists, Jiandao.) China has never threatened to do anything to South Korea. Even if it wanted to invade Korea, it needs to secure Taiwan first. South Korea won’t come into potential conflict with China unless North Korea collapses: but if the collapse were peaceful (at least not a second all-out war) they are just as likely to cooperate.

    Meanwhile South Koreans are highly conflicted on North Korea: but a stronger alliance with Japan would not help make North Korea less dangerous. In fact it would further provoke North Korea whilst giving credence to North Korea’s (not inaccurate – that’s why they hurt) claims that South Korea is a continuation of the colonial period. An alliance with Japan would not make Seoul’s population any less in range of the North’s artillery.

    China is not immediately threatening to Korea or Japan. All three countries are focusing on capitalism together. You say that Korea and Japan are culturally close, but they are almost just as culturally close (both traditionally and now, minus Maoism which has receded) to China as well. In many cultural aspects Korea is closer to China than Japan.

    So I think the conditions you suggest aren’t there for the IR theory to kick in.


    • Ok. I think we could debate this. I do find that Koreans don’t worry about NK or China the way I do, and more generally, the way American and Japanese analysts do. I will admit to be flummoxed by this. NK has the worst human rights record in the world – worse than the Taliban. It has asymmetrically attacked both SK and Japan repeatedly. It has revisionist claims on SK and threatens both with nuclear weapons. If that wouldn’t make a country balance it, I don’t know what would.

      But I do get the vibe that SKs don’t think their ethnic compatriots to the North will nuke them. And maybe Japan just couldn’t care less.

      Still seems pretty weird to me though.

      Finally, I will agree that threat assessments on China are all over the place. But the sheer fact it is rising so fast should be unnerving, no? (Not to mention that they have been bailing out NK for who knows how long). I find it curious that the Japanese are freaking out about China, but the Koreans are sorta, ‘meh,’ on the whole thing.


      • Thanks for the reply. I think you underestimate how popular your blog is with Korean Studies people!

        North Korea’s atrocious human rights violations does not make it more of a threat to South Korea or Japan. It does evoke Responsibility to Protect dilemmas (which I would love you to address sometime), but Japan has a pacifist constitution whilst South Korea is largely in denial (and even if it wasn’t, still can’t do anything for the reasons you regularly state that it can’t afford military escalation against the North).

        The asymmetrical attacks against Japan (kidnappings in the 70s and.. pachinko?) and South Korea are still minor. In contrast to South Korea, Japan is more likely to overreact to an overt provocation on the scale South Korea has learned to endure (airplane bombing, Cheonan, Yeonpyeong, recent jamming of domestic airplane signals etc), but there hasn’t been a single one. The ones against South Korea are infinitely larger than against Japan, but not considering the context of the post-armistice military stand-off: there’s been nothing on the scale of 9.11 or Pearl Harbour.

        Whilst the IR theory itself doesn’t have to acknowledge historical or cultural context specifics, I think the justifications for applying the theory to a specific case (your realism, liberalism and constructivism points) inevitably have to.

        Incidentally, are there not plenty of other examples in the world where the theory of alliances has not been manifested? eg Scotland, Wales and Ireland vs England throughout history and still today; Soviet Russia not supporting North Korea during the Korean War; the Sino-Soviet split itself (when they should have been holding an alliance against US).

        No number of positive identifications can prove a theory correct, but just one black swan can prove it wrong! But that is not an argument against the quest for theory, only the danger of “greedy reductionism.”

        Incidentally, I am appreciative of your previous Game Theory articles – they are certainly not boring.


      • You are very kind. Thank you. Do you actually work with a community of Korea studies folks with whom this blog is popular (are you a grad student for example?), or were you just being polite 🙂 ? I ask, because I have no good sense of the impact of this blog. I really have no idea who, if anyone, uses it. So if you really mean that, I would be curious to know more.

        We could go and forth on this all day. I’ve ended up writing more in the comments than in the OP. My goal was to motivate someone to write the full version, and here I am doing it in bits and pieces in commentary. I think your and SK threat perceptions of the North vary substantially from those of Japan and the US on NK. I would think that the drip-drip of NK provocations would slowly alter threat perceptions more than a big, yet only one-shot event, like 9/11. Maybe not. That’s actually a good political psychology question. Most of the Korean security folks I interact with think the inter-Korean relations are in the worst freeze in a really long time. You seem to disagree. We could argue this forever I think 🙂

        Did you really read the NK and the stag-hunt posts? I actually like those. I should write those up too.

        Thanks for reading so loyally.



      • Hey Andrew, thanks for all the detailed comments you contributed. It’s nice to find other people deeply involved and knowledgeable in these studies. Hopefully you read the comments I wrote above, but I also invite you to check out my website http://www.koreastudies.com. I am endeavoring to make a top class site that can point people toward relevant resources of their interests in regard to Korea. It could use a lot of cleaning up right now, but any feedback or ideas would be greatly appreciated. Keep writing and good luck in whatever you seek to do!


      • Thanks for the replies. (And thanks for the link, Fred H).

        As guessed, I am a PhD candidate based at Helsinki University where I lecture in Korean history and culture (I visit South Korea quite regularly). I was largely representing myself when I said your blog is popular with Korean Studies students, but I think it is a reasonable assumption. If it’s not, it should be!

        The reason which would make it popular, and at the same time perhaps also the reason it isn’t more popular, is that you address head-on many of the topics which are sensitive or (slightly) “politically incorrect” for mainstream Korean Studies, ie current peninsula affairs and especially strategic and military thinking (without being gung-ho militaristic about it). The fact you do work with theory makes your analysis usefully objective. And your jargon-free English makes the articles accessible to non-IR specialists. But mainly, you often discuss key topics no other Korea blogger approaches with any level of expertise.

        Anyway, I think it could be argued that the same drip drip of provocations has desensitized the South Korean public to North Korea (relative to the actual threat, as opposed to perceptions). The English public endured IRA bomb campaigns over a long period – it didn’t change people’s lifestyles.

        Inter-Korean relations are the worst they’ve been since the ’80s perhaps, but Kaesong Industrial Zone is still functioning (a sign they’re not dead) and they’ll likely recover once the fervour of the centenary celebrations and succession have calmed down and after Lee Myung-bak leaves office. Pyongyang went out of its way to vilify Lee Myung-bak’s ‘hardline’ posturing, but even then they were willing to discuss pipelines!

        I very much enjoyed the Stag Hunt articles. I think they went a long way in explaining the Six Party Talks.


      • Well you are very kind to say so. I am glad you like the material. I do try pretty hard to limit the jargon, so I am glad you caught that.

        Good luck with your dissertation. It’s a helluva lot of work.


  6. Pingback: The World Does its Duty & Conforms to Social Science: More on Korea & Japan | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  7. Can I put in a kind word for historical contingency and empiricism? I can’t help but feel, reading your post – indeed your blog on a regular basis – and the replies, that I am reliving the addiction from the vantage of the addict’s friend. Like you I’ve gotten into verbal fights arguing for Korean-Japanese friendship. My wife refused even to visit Osaka just for a vacation. Fortunately, my penchant for getting lost revealed for her how a few Japanese people really live, and then she gave up her talk of hating every Japanese person on the planet. I’m hoping I’m can pull off the same trick on a trip to China or India. This and my experience with ROK officers is, that conversion for Koreans will only come unexpectedly, through some contingent event, like war. The past only holds sway because of its firm hold on the national education establishment.

    Which brings me to my overall criticism. What about Graham T. Allison’s organizational process and bureaucratic politics models. As you have argued in defense, what you have laid out is theoretical. I would call it Allison’s rational actor model. It’s easier in the States both to study how various pols and bureaucrats have made policy and history and to discern how contemporary pols and bureaucrats spin rhetoric in current debates. What I really lack is the same feel for Korean and Japanese domestic politics.. But, my instinct and my experience with military politics is, that corporations, bureaucracies and leaders in both countries could be at loggerheads on some fronts and in lockstep in others both nationally and internationally, and the result is not principled opposition, but a frenzied clusterfuck that results in policy drift. And, for whatever reasons of the same sort, the US has not knocked heads together in either country. The last point might well be the greatest dereliction of duty among all the rest. I experienced as much in my humble capacity in MI. “Don’t worry, they’ll (ROKs) get over it.” (uttered like with thumbs joined like a chant) was a daily rejoinder to anyone’s criticism of what the ROKs wanted or criticized. I could tell colonels “FU!” then, but I can’t now. I wonder how much of this goes on at any given level on any given day, and how I survived with so little booze, to get through the day.


    • Well this is back to the same point I made in the post today: http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/the-world-does-its-duty-conforms-to-social-science-more-on-korea-japan/. You’re arguing for case details, probably correctly, that muck up the general theory – in this case that states act rationally, especially when it comes to security because they might get eliminated otherwise. I was trying to save parsimony, and area studies people can’t stand that impulse.

      I like the idea that the past plays an overlarge, even crippling role, in a country with a long history. They can’t escape it. But I also think that some of that is constructed in the nationalist textbooks that also invoke the dubious ‘minjeok.’ The whole idea that Japan invaded Korea hundreds of time is not correct, unless you include pirate raids (‘wako’). In fact, before 1910, Japan only invaded Korea once in a big way, in the Imjin War. But I really, really don’t want to get pulled into that one either. We could be here forever. So here is my article on this: http://ejt.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/07/15/1354066111409771.abstract.

      And with that, I think I am burned out on this topic. This comment thread is now so long, I should have just written the article to begin with. 🙂

      Thanks for being a regular reader.


  8. Pingback: Going to IQMR – Some Summer Asian Security Reading – Back in August | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  9. Pingback: (Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog) Why don’t Korea & Japan Align? « Diaoyu Islands

  10. Pingback: The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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  12. Pingback: A Little Korean Government Arm-Twisting of my Blog on the ‘Sea of Japan/East Sea’ Spat – How Unintentionally Flattering Actually | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  13. Pingback: Why Does South Korea View Japan as a National Security Threat Worse than China? My Hypothesis: Competition with North Korea » Duck of Minerva

  14. Pingback: Moral hazard: Japan-South Korea relations and international relations theory

  15. Pingback: My Expanded Lowy Post on Moral Hazard in US Alliances: Explaining Japan-Korea (and Greece-Turkey?) | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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