East Asia’s History Wars: South Korea and Japan (Yes, once again)


Newsweek Japan ran a story last week on the continuing history disputes in Northeast Asia. I love that cover (left). Here is internet link to that issue.

I was asked to contribute regarding South Korea. My essay, originally in English, is reprinted below. While the essay admits Japan’s many needed changes on this issue – Yasukuni, historical memorialization, etc. –  that stuff was more for the contributor on Japan. I was to focus on the South Korean side.

If you’ve read my work on this before, you’ll note some my regular themes. The debilitating competition with that mendacious, duplicitous regime to the North means that South Korea often feels compelled to try to ‘out-minjok’ the North by going over the top on Japan (read this, for example). The US alliance with Korea and Japan also saps any incentive for either side to compromise; there’s no external pressure to improve ties.

Increasingly though, I am thinking that the Korean NGO sector plays a big role too. By constantly pushing history issues to the front in the relationship with Japan, they insure that these issues effectively frame the relationship with Japan. This means little progress happens, and South Korean politicians are too afraid to take them on. No one wants to look like a friend of Japan in SK politics. There’s no upside to that. But recall that most Korean and Japanese actually want a working relationship – a cold peace, even if a warm peace is impossible, instead of the current cold war.

So increasingly, on the SK side I think (and probably on the Japanese side too), there must be some of kind reckoning with the NGOs. South Korea’s political class is going to have to say at some point that we will only go so far down this road, but no further. This will take some courage on the part of Koreans, to break with spell of unbounded nationalism. But I can’t see the relationship improving without more moderate voices, willing to call out stuff like this.

The interpretation of regional history in East Asia is hugely contentious. The area’s well-known international disputes – over territory, North Korean nuclear weapons, China’s dramatic rise and so on – have spilled over into the politicization of memory that makes local reconciliation even harder. Nowhere is this more bitter and disappointing than in the inability of two democracies, Japan and South Korea, to come to rights.

Traditionally, Japan’s historical troubles with China are given pride of place in these debates. Japan’s imperial behavior was much worse in China than in Korea, and China is of much greater importance to Japan. But as a nondemocratic oligarchy, China’s moral legitimacy to press Japan over historical interpretation is greatly compromised. The Chinese Communist Party is responsible for far more Chinese deaths than Imperial Japan – a fact well-known outside the region, but which communist China will never admit. (The same applies to North Korea.) It is also quite obvious that Chinese elites instrumentalize the Japanese empire for domestic regime legitimacy. Hence, most democratic leaders skipped China’s bombastic World War II commemoration parade last month.

Japan and South Korea – Fellow Democracies

But South Korea is different, because it is a fellow democracy. Much social science research suggests that democracies normally have friendly relations (NATO, for example). Japanese-Korean bitterness is genuinely unique among democratic states and attracts a great deal of attention. Last year, President Barack Obama himself stepped in to arm-twist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-Hye to sit next to each other.

The root of that tension of course is the Japanese colonial period and the continuing inability to Japanese conservatives to clearly say that the elimination of Korean sovereignty and cultural ‘japanification’ were morally wrong. Japan, like many western states, was never colonized, so perhaps the ferocity of post-colonial nationalism is surprising. But less Japanese waffling on the aggressive designs of the Empire would help.

But South Korea could help too, by focusing on just how much Japan and South Korea share – culture, political values, national security interests. The persistent emphasis on history in the relationship with Japan insures that the association is framed competitively. And while Korea has legitimate concerns with Japan’s remembrance of the war and the colonial period, western analysts, including President Obama himself, have encouraged a forward-looking Korean stance for decades.

Koreans seem to realize this too. Polling has repeatedly shown that Koreans want a better relationship with Japan. In my experience with Korean academia and policy figures, I have heard again and again that Korea and Japan should be working together on the really serious issues of the region, such as North Korea, or China’s increasingly capacious territorial claims. Whether Koreans and Japanese like it or not, there are allies of a sort in that the both share a formal treaty relationship with the United States. Koreans also are far more dependent on Japan, in the case of second peninsular conflict, than they might like to admit. The flow of US resources into Korea for that fight cannot take place without the Japanese ‘way-station.’

But three roadblocks stand in the way of historical reconciliation:

The Nationalist Competition with North Korea

In previous volumes of this magazine, I have argued that North Korea terribly distorts the teaching and use of history in South Korea. One outcome of that is an unnatural focus on Japan in the otherwise long span of Korean history.

North Korea poses not only a physical threat to South Korea’s survival, but an ideological one. It too claims to be the only legitimate government of the peninsula. It damns South Korea as the ‘Yankee Colony’ who has betrayed the minjok (the Korean race) to foreigners, globalization, the Americans, Japanese and so on. This forces South Korea to respond with its own loud nationalism. It too must demonstrates its nationalist bona fides in defense of the minjok. Given that both states were forged in the wake of Japanese imperial control, their origin nationalisms – especially North Korea’s – focus on independence from Japan. Such ‘anti-imperial’ nationalism is not unusual for postcolonial states (in Africa or Southeast Asia, for example).

What is unusual is the persistence of this anti-imperial – in this case anti-Japan – nationalism. It has not faded, because there are still – 70 years later – two Koreas competing against each other for Koreans’ allegiance. So long as each faces a national legitimacy competitor in the other, each is regularly tempted to reach for extreme rhetoric to de-legitimize that other. Given that Japan is the villain in the founding narrative of both states, ‘anti-Japanism’ is an easy, emotionally resonant instrument. North Korea routinely accuses South Korea’s conservative elite (with some justification) of collaboration in the colonial period, while it lionizes its own founder, Kim Il Sung, as an anti-Japanese fighter (he was somewhat, but not as Pyongyang advertises him). This, in turn, puts enormous pressure on South Korean elites to respond. Elevating the comfort women and Dokdo to the center of relations with Japan blunts the North’s collaborationist critique of Southern elites. So essentially this is a nationalist contest: who can ‘out-minjok’ the other? In this, Japan functions as a national identity whipping boy for South Korea, a national ‘other’ against which South Korea can build a nationalist identity to compete with North Korea

The US Alliance with Korea and Japan

The US alliance with Japan and Korea serves the security of both countries. But it almost certainly has the curious, unforeseen effect of freezing Japanese-Korea historical tension in place.

Social science research has suggested that in periods where the US threatened to leave the region – the 1970s especially – Japanese-Korea relations improved. Conversely, when the US sends strong reassurance signals, relations slip. The odd logic here is what the insurance industry refers to as “moral hazard”: when a person is insured against the consequences of his bad behavior, he is, ironically, less likely to avoid that bad behavior. Car insurance, unfortunately, makes reckless driving more, not less, likely. In this instance, the metaphor means that when the US commitment to Korea and Japan is very clear and strong, Japanese and Korean elites feel comfortable enough to indulge their worst instincts about each other, because they do not need one another.

In the Korean case, the US alliance means there is little pressure to improve relations with Japan. So long as the US is providing for national defense, why get along with Japan? There is no need. Were Korea standing alone, it would need Japan to help with North Korea and China. But the American alliance obviates there; there are no costs to South Korea’s occasionally extreme rhetoric, and no incentive to carry the political costs of reining the nationalist groups (below) who thrive on the conflict.

Korean NGOs

Finally, in recent years there has been a growing research focus on the (rather toxic) role that Korean NGOs play in this debate. As Korea has democratized, third sector non-profit groups have exploded. While many fit the traditional, liberal-humanitarian NGO mold, enough nationalist groups have also arisen that they now provide substantial political opposition to Korean-Japanese reconciliation. The NGOs, for example, sank the 2012 Korea-Japan military intelligence pact (GSOMIA); they have relentlessly pushed the comfort women issue, both at home and increasingly abroad; they provide the explosive op-eds in Korean newspapers that provoke heated news coverage in Japan. The nationalist who recently attacked the American ambassador to Korea with a knife came from this activist-patriotic hot-house milieu. Due to the American alliance though, there is little need to rein these anti-Japan groups. So long as South Korea does not need Japan, no politician will take the risk of calling out these groups. (Lamentably, the same applies in Japan.)

Moving Forward

The first two points developed above – the competition with North Korea and the American alliance – are structural factors. These are large, deeply institutionalized dynamics, and their effects are not easily tied to one individual or group. Nor are they easy to change (which is why the Korea-Japan historical debate never seems to go away).

On the other hand, the rising NGO sector in Korea has far more ‘agency.’ That is, the role of individual choice, and the possibility of change, are far more evident. And here the Korean government could genuinely change the dynamic if it stood up to these groups and argued for less competitive relations with Japan. Should Korean elites wish a better relationship with Japan – as I believe they do – they will eventually need to go public against the nationalist NGOs. Japan has its own role to play – on Yasukuni, history textbooks, and so on – but on the Korean side, there must, at some point, be a reckoning with NGOs. The Korean political establishment must delineate a point beyond which NGO demands are a bridge too far. But I do not see that happening soon.

5 thoughts on “East Asia’s History Wars: South Korea and Japan (Yes, once again)

  1. I tend to differ slightly with Professor Kelly on Korean NGOs.

    This is not a recent phenomenon at all, and the one that is causing trouble isn’t ‘natinalist.’

    More specifically, the leftist group with close ties to North Korea called Chong Dae Hyup (정대협) is the one that has prevented South Korea-Japan reconciliation for over 20 years. Some of its members have arrest records as North Korean spies.

    Chong Dae Hyup was formed in 1990 and has been conducting Wednesday protests in front of Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

    When Asian Women’s Fund was offered by Japanese government in 1995, the South Korean government and Korean women wanted to accept it, but Chong Dae Hyup threatened Korean women not to accept Japan’s apology and compensation because obviously the reconciliation between South Korea and Japan is the last thing North Korea wants.

    Still 61 former Korean comfort women defied Chong Dae Hyup’s order and accepted Japan’s apology and compensation. Those 61 women were vilified as traitors. Their names and addresses were published in newspapers as prostitutes by Chong Dae Hyup, and they had to live the rest of their lives in disgrace. So the rest of the women were terrified of Chong Dae Hyup and wouldn’t dare to defy again.

    Since the late 1990’s, Chong Dae Hyup and its U.S. affiliate have appealed to the world by dragging former Korean comfort women (now in their 80’s and 90’s) around the world as exhibitions. UN reports such as Coomaraswamy Report and U.S. House Resolution 121 were issued based solely on materials provided by Chong Dae Hyup. (False testimonies of women who were coached by Chong Dae Hyup)

    As Professor Kelly says, the man who recently attacked the American ambassador to Korea with a knife is closely related to Chong Dae Hyup as well.

    The South Korean government must somehow distance itself from Chong Dae Hyup if the comfort women issue is to be resolved. After all, Chong Dae Hyup has no interest in the welfare of former Korean comfort women.

    For more detail, read the following summary English translation of a book titled “Comfort Women of the Empire” by Professor Park Yuha of Sejong University.



  2. Pingback: Moral Hazard and the US-ROK Alliance | World News world affairs

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  5. S Korea is surrounded by 4 autocratic countries and Japan is one of them. If you think my statement absurd, Please refer to NYTimes as you can google it. Of course, S Korea was almost the same as them, but not anymore. Please update yourself referring to the recent news articles from media such as Bloomberg, NYTimes, etc.

    It is impressive that you, as an expert about East Asia, not knowing – or ignoring – Abe’s try to connect with China behind the scene.


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