Navigating Historical Tensions: Pragmatic Leadership, Empathy, and the United States Factor in Japan-South Korea Relations

The year 2015 was, arguably, an important turning point for Japan’s relations with South Korea. Since the advent of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration of Prime Minister Abe in 2012, and the election of Park Geun-hye as South Korea’s president in 2013, political relations between East Asia’s most vibrant democratic polities had been in the doldrums. Despite repeated importuning from the Japanese government, Park resolutely refused to agree to a formal bilateral summit meeting. This frostiness of ties was all the more surprising given that 2015 was the fiftieth anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. Despite both governments’ tendency to honor historical milestones with high-profile ceremonial events, the anniversary, June 22, received a low-key acknowledgement in the form of a visit to Japan by Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se. The muted commemoration showed that neither side was prepared to trumpet the importance of their relationship. With increasing pressure from the United States, however, a shift was under way.

By year’s end, in fact, the mood had changed dramatically. In early November, Abe visited Seoul to participate in a long-anticipated China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateral summit meeting. In a bilateral summit with Park, which lasted an hour and 45 minutes, the two agreed to accelerate efforts to improve cooperation on security, economic, and cultural issues, as well as committing to resolving divisive controversy over the status of the “comfort women.”1 By December 28, the two leaders had officially agreed, via telephone, to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue, with Abe both apologizing and expressing remorse for the suffering of the women, and Seoul establishing a foundation—funded by a one-off official Japanese budget contribution—to allow both governments to jointly restore the “honor and dignity” of the women and to heal the “psychological wounds” of the surviving victims.2 With the formal resolution of this long-running controversy it appeared as if relations were entering a new era with opportunities for the two to address urgent common regional security and economic challenges.

Cooperation between Japan and South Korea should be a straightforward matter. There has long been a host of factors that should encourage the two to work well together. They share an ally, the United States, with which they have enjoyed important Cold War and post-Cold War security partnerships; they face a common strategic challenge in North Korea, a state which, given its increasing military capabilities (whether its nuclear weapons program, stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, or increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile capabilities), constitutes a “real and present danger”; and they share liberal democratic values and are sufficiently developed economically to be complementary trading and investment partners.

Despite these powerful attractions, Japan and South Korea, rather than working towards mutual benefits, have all too often been at loggerheads with one another. Looking at the post-WWII period, from South Korea’s emergence as a formally independent state in 1948 to the ending of the Japanese Occupation in 1952, until the present day, the most salient features of their relationship have been the absence of cooperation and the conflicted nature of their coexistence. Like Conan Doyle’s dog “in the night-time” that famously failed to bark, the revealing element of their relationship is not what has happened, but what has not happened.3 How should one account for this curiously underdeveloped partnership, particularly since late 2012? Equally importantly, what measures might the two governments take to ensure that future cooperation is more successful?

Explaining the Limits to Cooperation

The failure of Seoul and Tokyo to work constructively might be explained by a number of factors. Oft-cited accounts include: historical tensions, cultural dissonance (jarring norms of political and interpersonal dialogue with the Japanese favoring a more indirect style of interaction than the sometimes blunt approach of the Koreans), personality clashes of the elites, deep-seated mutual distrust, hostile public opinion, systemic influences of the geopolitics of the East Asian region and competing strategic priorities along with the influence of outside actors. How much weight should we place on these factors in understanding the recent standoff?

History is an intractable issue. Japan’s failed colonial pursuit left the two countries with intense resentment toward each other precluding an early rapprochement after WWII. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru viewed Koreans (especially those residing in Japan) as a potentially subversive fifth column, sympathetic to communism and hostile to the Japanese state. Yoshida’s fear of the “enemy within” was coupled with a visceral dislike for Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, who reciprocated the dislike. Rhee demonstrated his enmity by creating a maritime exclusion zone, the so-called Rhee Line, in the contested waters between the two countries, and by routinely impounding the vessels of Japanese fishermen unlucky to have been caught in the disputes.

The advent of new leaders opened up avenues for potentially improved relations, but rarely in these early years was there much, if any, appetite on the part of public opinion in either country for thawing relations. In 1958, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke sent a private envoy, Yatsugi Kazuo, to Seoul in part to apologize for the excesses of Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first governor of Korea during the colonial period. Yet, the envoy’s words generated resentment back home in Japan, a pattern of “blowback” all too frequently associated with efforts at historical reconciliation and compromise. Kishi disavowed the ameliorative words of his envoy, making it clear that this was not the official policy and thereby limiting improvement in relations. 

It would take the advent of the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee in 1961 for a new spirit of pragmatism to begin to shape bilateral ties, albeit primarily between the elites rather than the public. Park deployed his personal envoy and influential political fixer Kim Jong-pil to engage in shuttle diplomacy with the administration of Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato, leading to the normalization treaty of 1965. For Park and the South Korean government, normalization was the key to securing Japanese financial assistance—some USD 800 million worth of aid (via a mixture of grants and public and private sector loans)—that would pave the way for economic modernization, development of heavy industry, particularly in the steel sector, and eventually ushering in the “miracle on the Han River” accompanied by rapid economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s. For Japan, normalization helped develop a viable export market in South Korea for Japanese goods, as well as promote a stable political environment to guard against Cold War ideological contagion and the challenge of North Korea, which in the 1960s seemed politically more unified and economically stronger than the South.

These initiatives reflected the creative diplomacy of senior elites on both sides, as well as the willingness of leaderships to take risks in the face of hostile public reaction at home. Figures such as Kishi, now a post-prime ministerial envoy, and Lee Dong-won and Shiina Etsusaburo, foreign ministers of the two countries, served as important intermediaries. In the cases of Lee and Shiina, a striking feature of their success in fostering rapprochement, was their use of public statements and gesture diplomacy—the promotion of symbolic, status-enhancing activities, such as honor-guard salutes and red-carpet audiences in presence of the Japanese emperor, as well as the emotionally-sensitive niceties of empathetic gestures and conversational asides, to demonstrate a sincere commitment to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.4 While the negotiations in 1965 were not without tension and involved disputes over the form and financial size of the normalization settlement, trust, it appeared, was carefully nurtured by both sides to the negotiations. This serves as a lesson to this day.

A similar regard for the public and ceremonial aspects of diplomacy can be seen at other important turning points in the post-1945 diplomatic relationship. In 1983, for example, Nakasone Yasuhiro, chose to make his first overseas visit as Japan’s prime minister to South Korea, arriving in Seoul with a package of USD 4 billion and speaking in Korean in his public statements as a way of showing good will and sincerity to his local audience.5 President Chun Doo-hwan was able to follow up with a visit to Tokyo in September 1984 at which the emperor expressed his “regret” for Japan’s colonial rule over the peninsula.6 In 1995, Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi broke new ground by issuing a statement characterizing Japan’s wartime aggression as a “mistaken national policy” for which he expressed “heart-felt remorse.” Similarly, in 1998, President Kim Dae-jung visited Tokyo for a pivotal summit at which Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo expressed “remorse” and “apologies” for the wartime period, while also providing a package of USD 3 billion in aid to South Korea. In 2001, Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro on a visit to Seodaemun, site of the prison used by the Japanese authorities to incarcerate Korean political opponents, offered his personal apology, noting: “When I looked at things put on display, I strongly felt…regret for the pains Koreans suffered during Japan’s colonial rule. As a politician and a man, I believe we must not forget the pain of the [Korean] people.”7

Leadership Rivalry between Park and Abe

There are plenty of exemplary leaders who have been able to look beyond the past to foster a positive bilateral relationship. Why then in the case of Abe and Park has this constructive approach been so demonstrably lacking, at least until recently? From the perspective of South Korea, including that of Park herself, the problem appears to have been a fundamental lack of trust in the reliability of past and present apologies by the Japanese political establishment. Specifically, there has been little confidence in Abe and those in his immediate political circle, suspected of harboring a revisionist agenda. As the grandson of Kishi, whose standing in the eyes of progressive observers is forever tainted by his involvement in Japan’s colonial expansionist policies in Manchuria in the 1930s,8 Abe is seen by his Korean critics as pursuing a backward-looking agenda, seeking to restore Japan’s national pride by deliberately white-washing or ignoring its war time excesses.

In some respects, Abe has not helped himself. Whether in public statements or in interviews in the Japanese media, Abe has at times aligned himself with a revisionist agenda. In 2009, for example, he appeared to question the merit and appropriateness of Murayama’s 1995 statement, and in a separate interview that same year, similarly cast doubt on the Kono Statement of 1993,9 which had paved the way for the establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995, a foundation that collected and distributed some 2 million yen’s worth of private Japanese donations to the surviving “comfort women.” By appearing to question the foundation of this agreement, Abe undercut the impact of the past apologies and reopened an issue that should already have been settled—problematic when many Koreans were already skeptical of the terms of the original 1995 settlement.

Japan’s motivation in setting up a non-official foundation was to avoid any formal admission of responsibility, claiming instead that under the terms of the 1965 normalization treaty, it had finally and irrevocably resolved any issue of responsibility or compensation to South Korea arising from the wartime or colonial period. To ordinary Koreans intent on securing an emotionally genuine admission of contrition from Japan, Tokyo’s unwillingness to admit formal responsibility seemed like bureaucratic hair-splitting and smacked of insincerity. Such culturally distinct approaches—the procedural narrowness of the Japanese approach versus the desire by the Koreans for an expansive admission of guilt—is at the heart of their differences. It explains why both in the mid-1990s and today it is difficult to design a settlement to the “comfort women” and wider historical issues that would genuinely satisfy opinion in the two countries.

Abe’s problems over the “comfort women” approach have been complicated by other controversies. His decision against the advice of some of his advisers and the United States to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 reinforced the notion that he was intent on turning back the clock. Yasukuni, an enshrinement of the souls of Class A Japanese war criminals and associated with a nationalist agenda, is emblematic of a new mood within the country’s conservative elite (most notably in the cross party group, Nippon Kaigi) to reject an unfairly “masochistic” view of the country’s modern history.10 Abe is a member of Nippon Kaigi along with many members of his cabinet, including his deputy prime minister Aso Taro, the son of Yoshida Shigeru and notorious for his undiplomatic public statements. In July 2013, he reportedly told a group of politicians that the government should promote constitutional reform by applying techniques similar to those used by Nazi Germany in overturning the Weimar Constitution in the 1930s.11 Critics feared that such covert if not extra-legal measures to side-step legitimate opposition to constitutional revision exposed an authoritarian instinct on the part of some in the Japanese political establishment. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Aso, in particular, is held in low regard by senior figures in Seoul, including Park herself.12

Abe has also had to contend with some of his senior officials dropping the diplomatic ball in other contexts. In October 2015, Defense Minister Nakatani Gen showed acute political and historical insensitivity when he suggested in a closed session with his South Korean counterparts that in the event of a security crisis on the Korean Peninsula Japanese naval vessels could be deployed without Seoul’s consent in waters north of the Northern Limit Line, which marked the maritime boundary between the two Koreas. Nakatani was implicitly indicating that he did not recognize South Korea’s sovereignty claim over the entire peninsula, a position that not only undercuts the South Korea’s longstanding diplomatic position, but also suggests a dismissive attitude toward Koreans reminiscent of the arrogant superiority of Japan’s colonial administration.13

Domestic Politics versus Foreign Policy

From Tokyo’s perspective, the problem is largely the responsibility of South Korea. In recent years, it has been commonplace to hear politicians and senior government officials complain (typically in private) about the inexperience and immaturity of their South Korean counterparts.14 Nothing better illustrates this than the willingness of President Lee Myung-bak to visit Dokdo (Takeshima) in the final months of his presidency. Under pressure from South Korea’s Constitutional Court to make progress on the comfort women issue and having been rebuffed by the Noda administration when attempted, Lee in a moment of pique decided to do what no other sitting Korean president had done and set foot on the island.15The decision was an enormous affront to Japan, which disputes South Korea’s ownership.As a result, Tokyo put bilateral relations into a deep-freeze while undercutting two pioneering security agreements intended to strengthen logistical and intelligence cooperation between the two militaries.16

In Japanese eyes, Lee’s intemperateness is symptomatic of a proclivity among Korean leaders to subordinate grown-up diplomatic relations to domestic political self-interest. President Roh Moo-hyun was seen as having frequently succumbed to this pressure, whether in sharply criticizing Japan in public over the Dokdo/Takeshima territorial dispute, or most strikingly in 2004 in selectively declassifying diplomatic documents from the 1965 normalization talks. Roh was accused of having released the files in order to discredit Park Chung-hee and his conservative followers (most notably Park’s daughter and incumbent president Park Geun-hye). By exposing Park’s decision to use the financial settlement from the 1965 talks to fund Korea’s modernization than to compensate those Koreans who had suffered under the Japanese colonial occupation, Roh accused conservative Koreans closely associated with the old Park regime as having colluded with the colonial occupier while also selling short the victims of the colonial era.17

It is not only the Japanese who charged South Korea with political opportunism. In February 2015, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman ruffled South Korean feathers by noting in a public speech: “It’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.”18 The statement was widely interpreted as a dig at South Korea and Park for spending too much time upbraiding Japan on sensitive historical issues. The suspicion was that Park took a hard line against Japan in order to counter the accusation at home that she was conditioned by her father’s legacy to be unduly soft on Japan. Park senior had served in the Japanese military during the colonial period, and had based much of his economic growth strategy in the 1960s and 1970s on the developmental state model that originated in Japan.

The evidence that either leader in Japan or South Korea has been ideologically or politically motivated to the extent of hurting bilateral relations is open to question. Park’s presidency has been marked less by narrow political calculation and more by refusal to engage in tactical politicking. Her style is much more of a remote chief executive than that of a seasoned political operator. She has been ill disposed to delegate decisions or engage in alliance building. On account of her political aloofness, she has been blamed for rarely taking counsel of others and for surrounding herself (in spite of public objections) with advisers from her father’s era.19 It is implausible, therefore, that her Japan-related policies would be based on the need to placate a public that may have seen her as unduly pro-Japanese. If anything, the hallmark of her style has been the stress on the importance of trust and honesty in diplomatic relations, rather than on political opportunism. “Trustpolitik” has been at the heart of her policy towards North Korea, and the same applies to Japan, a country whose current leaders she has been little inclined to trust. Most importantly, Park has shown, especially in the later stages of 2015, a willingness to compromise in order to secure a breakthrough with Japan.

In December 2015, a district court in Seoul acquitted a Sankei Shimbun journalist of having written a defamatory online article impugning the reputation of Park. The sudden dropping of the case appeared to have been motivated by the South Korean government’s desire to advance talks with Japan. According to press accounts, the Blue House had lobbied the court (a highly unusual intervention) to rule in favor of dismissal in order to remove any impediment to improving bilateral ties.20  The Park administration risked reputational damage in order to facilitate a deal on the comfort women issue, which remains politically contentious. Such efforts demonstrate that Park administration is not overly preoccupied with popular approval or inclined to place domestic political advantage ahead of a diplomatic breakthrough.

For his part, Abe has shown flexibility on issues of historical interpretation, which suggests that his initial instinct toward ideological and revisionist aims has been tempered by a pragmatic desire to mend fences with Korea and other neighbors. Mindful of the sharp reaction to his Yasukuni visit in 2013, including a rare public criticism by the US Tokyo embassy, Abe avoided any repeat visit to the shrine. Moreover, in April 2015, in his speech to a Joint Session of Congress, Abe was careful to express his “deep remorse” for Japan’s wartime actions—a repeat of the phrasing of the 1995 Murayama statement—and presumably an effort to dispel any doubts that he might still be pursuing a revisionist agenda. His speech also included an explicit commitment to “uphold the views expressed by…previous [Japanese] Prime Ministers…”21

On the seventieth anniversary of WWII, Abe went further and in a much anticipated statement referred to Japan’s past “aggression,” its experience of “colonial rule,” and his “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” for the country’s past actions.22 Here was a leader, revisiting virtually all the crucial issues to illustrate his government’s commitment to holding up past apologies and avoid any implicit repeal of earlier expressions of regret. While “comfort women” was not included in the speech, a reference to the sufferings of “women beyond the battlefields” appeared to be an acknowledgement of Japan’s practical (if not official) responsibility for the suffering of women in the conflict.

Abe’s cautious and deliberately reassuring rhetoric appears to have worked. Public reaction to the August speech was broadly favorable and, importantly, it elicited a relatively non-critical response from Park.23 This nuanced approach helped to pave the way toward improved communications between Seoul and Tokyo. As in the past, seasoned diplomats and national security specialists, such as Yachi Shotaro and Lee Byung-kee (presidential chief of staff), played a key role in laying the groundwork for reconciliation and the concrete terms underpinning bilateral agreements.24

US Influence

In the background to these important shifts in 2015 is the question of US influence. To some analysts, such as Victor Cha, Washington has been the pivotal influence in moments of reconciliation and rapprochement between Japan and South Korea. Cha’s Abandonment-Entrapment model assumes an inverse relationship between US involvement in regional affairs and the willingness of Japanese and South Korean officials to resolve their differences. In other words, any sign that the United States is minimizing its role in the region acts as a spur to reconciliation and compromise between Seoul and Tokyo; by contrast, when it is firmly embedded in the region, neither of America’s allies is willing to compromise, assuming instead that they can rely on their senior partner instead of one another when addressing their principal security and political challenges in the region.25 Cha’s model is intuitively appealing, but appears only partially supported by the historical record. There is a number of instances, including recently, when elite level compromise emerged at a time when fear of US detachment or withdrawal from the region seemed minimal.

US officials repeatedly urged both Seoul and Tokyo to look beyond their immediate differences and historical tensions to rebuild their relations. US involvement in the spat has been both high profile and behind the scenes, with even President Obama weighing in openly on the more contentious issues, such as the comfort women controversy, to express his sympathy for the victims of Japan’s colonial past.26 This portrays a highly involved United States, neither threatening to walk away from the region nor even hinting at a draw-down—a point exemplified by the new Guidelines for US.-Japan Defense Cooperation in April 2015.


The future course of Japan-South Korea relations will not be plain-sailing. Public opinion polls continue to show worryingly high levels of distrust on both sides. Anti-Korean sentiment has increased in Japan and, in some cases, has morphed into alarmingly xenophobic hate-groups, such as Zaitokukai—the Civil Association Against Privileges for Resident Koreans.27 Moreover, public opinion in South Korea remains skeptical about the comfort women agreement, in particular, the concessions on the part of South Korea. Interest groups are reluctant to see the statue moved; it remains unclear how the Park administration will demonstrate clear progress on this issue. There is also a risk that a future government might ignore the latest agreement. The main opposition party, Minjoo Party, has already criticized the deal and hinted that it might overturn it at some point in the future28—a suggestion that flies in the face of Tokyo’s assumption that the deal is final and irreversible, and which, if acted upon, would constitute a dramatic rupturing of trust between the two governments.

Sustained progress in bilateral ties will be best achieved by continued pragmatic cooperation between the two governments. This can be delivered through focusing on implementing the current commitment to share intelligence via General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). At the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April, US, Japanese and South Korean leaders agreed to work to strengthen trilateral security cooperation—a welcome expression of intent, but some distance from being realized concretely.29 Long-term success will require not only government-to-government contact, but also efforts to expand dialogue between politicians, civil society groups, media representatives, and students in both secondary and tertiary education.

Progress will also require politicians to remain alive to the sensitivities that exist over historical issues in both countries. Contemporary South Korea and Japan both, for very different reasons, remain societies with fractured and often competing historical narratives. In Japan, the conservative revisionist agenda, focused on re-legitimizing a strong, unapologetic Japan, frequently clashes with a progressive historical narrative that defines Japan’s modern identity in terms of non-traditional security initiatives, Article 9, wider culture of pacifism, and either a non-alignment or qualified support for the US military presence in Japan. In South Korea, Park’s clumsily executed effort to rewrite history textbooks to guard against pro-North Korean bias has evoked fears of a return to authoritarian politics associated with the Park Chung-hee era and clashes with a progressive civic activism agenda that has evolved from the popular democracy movements of the 1970s and 1980s.30 Ironically, in this pattern of divided history, the two countries have a common experience. It would be a shame if the intensity of past historical tensions were to blind them to this similarity, which, if properly and empathetically understood, might offer a valuable escape route from old, repetitive, and futile tensions.

1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-ROK Summit Meeting,” November 2, 2015,

2. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-ROK summit telephone call,” December 28, 2015,

3. John Swenson-Wright, “Assassination, Abduction and Normalisation: Historical Mythologies and Misrepresentation in post-war South Korea-Japan relations,” in Korea Year Book, Patrick Koellner, et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 95-96.

4. Ibid., 105.

5. “Nakasone in Seoul, seeks to strengthen Japan, U.S.-Korea alliance,” The Washington Post, January 12, 1983.

6. “Hirohito soothes Korean president,” The New York Times, September 7, 1984.

7. John Swenson-Wright, “The Limits to ‘Normalcy’: Japanese-Korean Post-Cold War Interactions,” in Japan as a “Normal Country, eds. Yoshihide Soeya, Masayuki Tadokoro, and David Welch (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 184.

8. John Delury, “The Kishi Effect: a Political Genealogy of Japan-Korea Relations,” Asian Perspective 39 (2015): 445.

9. Jeff Kingston, “The politics and pitfall of war memory and apology,” The Japan Times, July 12, 2015.

10. “Right side up,” The Economist, June 6, 2015,

11. “Mr. Aso embarrasses Japan again,” The Japan Times, August 4, 2013.

12. Interview with senior ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Seoul, December 20, 2014.

13. “Sovereignty question: Japanese defense minister’s view on North Korea riles Seoul,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, October 24, 2015.

14. Interview with senior Japanese cabinet official, Tokyo, Japan, July 4, 2014.

15. Buhbhindhar Singh, “Beyond identity and domestic politics: stability in South Korea-Japan relations,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 27, no. 1 (March 2015): 24.

16. Shogo Suzuki, “Can the ‘history issue’ make or break the Japan-ROK ‘Quasi-Alliance?’” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 27, no. 2 (June 2015): 208.

17. Swenson-Wright, “Assassination, Abduction and Normalisation, 107.

18. Jeff Kingston, “Celebrating 50 years of antipathy, recriminations,” The Japan Times, March 22, 2015.

19. “Queen of isolation: Park Geun-hye’s ‘Frozen’ image,” The Korea Herald, February 18, 2014.

20. “For diplomacy’s sake, S. Korean prosecutors won’t appeal Sankei journalist’s acquittal,” Asia and Japan Watch, December 23, 2015.

21. “Speech to Congress: Abe offers ‘deep remorse’ over World War II,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, April 30, 2015.

22. “Abe’s war anniversary speech will need follow up,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, August 20, 2015.

23. “S. Korean president mutes criticism against Abe statement,” Asia and Japan Watch, August 15, 2015.

24. “Abe held firm to attain ‘comfort women’ deal,” The Japan News, December 30, 2015.

25. Victor Cha, Alignment despite Antagonism: the US-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 49.

26. “New era/Use stronger bond with U.S. to improve ties with S. Korea,” The Japan News, May 6, 2015.

27. Daiki Shibuichi, “Zaitokukai and the Problem with Hate Groups in Japan,” Asian Survey 55, no. 4 (July/August 2015).

28. “Opposition calls for renegotiation of sex-slavery deal,” The Korea Herald, January 5, 2016,

29. “Abe, Park ties underscored/Japan, U.S., S. Korea united against common threats,” The Japan News, April 3, 2016.

30. “South Korea accused of rewriting history in new school textbooks,” The Guardian, November 3, 2015,