Guest Post by Esther Brito, member of the IAPSS Conflict, Security & Crime Student Research Committee.

Japan and South Korea have a relationship worth examining in detail; as despite the natural inference of foreign policy realists regarding the fact that these nations, due to their close geographic location, shared democratic and market economy system, and common values, would be inherent natural security partners, this has often been a very tentative reality, or not a reality at all.

In contrary, these countries often clash in the international arena and have faced various diplomatic tensions in recent years. The extent of this difficulty in cooperation has become such that it compromises much needed strategic, diplomatic and security cooperation in the region; specifically in the face of growing North Korean aggressiveness and Chinas rise as a global power.

Certain conditions have defined the complex relationship between Korea and Japan, and have put both nations in an almost contradictory competition-cooperation nexus. The issues which shape this particular relationship stem from recent history, economic dynamics, territorial disputes, and security issues. While it is important to understand how these elements shape current relations, it is even more vital to assess how they will condition future cooperation or competition between Japan and South Korea, specially given the geopolitical and economic importance of the region where they operate.

Firstly, in order to give a rightful explanation of the sociological and political consequences of Korea and Japan’s tumultuous history, we have to look back to the role of Japan in Asia during the last half of the twentieth century. The war crimes the Japanese imperial army committed during the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II are one of the main points of conflict between both nations, and remain a cause of tension and clashes in diplomacy and foreign policy.

The role of national identity and collective memory in regards to South Korea´s assessment of its neighboring nation is critical for its foreign policy. South Korea’s national identity has often developed around opposition to Japan, and their identity; with the realities of attempted cultural assimilation, forced recruitment, and sexual assault still being deeply engraved in Koreas remembrance of Japan as a nation. This of course continues to define their bilateral relations.

Of particular significance is the “Comfort Women” system; a Japanese crime which consisted on the systematic abduction of women into sexual slavery and/or forced prostitution, and victimized an estimate of two hundred thousand women. This historical event is key to understanding the strain in Japan-Korea relations. South Korea has strived for fair compensation for the victims for many years; yet the Japanese court system rejected these claims. Japans position regarding this issue has harmed international cooperation in favor of domestic politics, preventing collaboration between both nations, despite the fact they strive to manage similar geopolitical challenges. Within these common goals the containment of North Korean belligerence and rise against Chinese increased assertiveness are specially pressing matters.

However, these two countries have attempted to put this issue “behind them”, with an agreement where Japan apologized and introduced a compensation fund of 1 billion yen to victims. In return, Korea agreed to no longer pursue this matter and “address” statue of a young girl, representing the victims, which is currently stationed facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul. While a stride in international politics, this agreement has created domestic controversy in Korea, and remains an insufficient settlement to victims and human rights associations. How this reflects on Koreas public opinion and politics in coming years will continue to shape the relationship between both nations.

Adding to historical tensions, Korea and Japan also find themselves at odds with regards to more traditional security competition: territorial disputes. The main point of conflict would be the “Liancourt Rocks”, named Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. This group of small islands in located the Sea of Japan, and are currently occupied by South Korea.

Nevertheless, Japan claims ownership to them as well; which has created tension, as these islands possess valuable fishing recourses and potential reserves of methane clathrate. This dispute continues to be a major reason for nationalist tensions between the two neighboring nations, and remains unresolved.

Japan and South Korea are a also a curious case of paradox in terms of economic cooperation. While both nations have evidently benefited from their common market and parallel economic rises in global value chains, they are also fierce competitors. This is due to the facts that both countries specialize in much of the same sectors, and thus compete directly to place their products at a regional and global level. Ultimately, Japan and South Korea find themselves in the somewhat delicate position of being direct competitors for innovation and recognition in technology sectors, while depending of their respective markets for significant trade relations and co-development as a means to confront the rise of China.

The imperative ties shared with the United States as a common alliance partner are a also defining key to ROK-Japan security collaborations, as well as their diplomatic efforts. The evaluations of US commitment and involvement in the region have influenced Korean and Japanese estimations of their own relationship. Precisely, the perceived distancing of the United States from the region in the height of the Cold War was a major factor in encouraging South Korea and Japan to work together.

Another rationale that abodes cooperation is the so called “China threat”; as the nation rises in global politics and develops a more assertive position within East Asia. The emergence of China may directly result in enhanced bilateral cooperation between Japan and Korea; nevertheless, it may also drive disagreements. It has become clear both nations have very different preferences in terms of how to manage Chinas rise and its geopolitical implications, stemming from their particular geographic conditions and historical experience. Thus, we can affirm that ROK-Japan cooperation, while desirable for development and US interest, strongly clashes with each nations geopolitical strategies and may encounter various difficulties along the line, which will be in turn affected by the international reorganization of the region caused by the political rise of China.

After detailed analysis of the relationship between Japan and South Korea, taking into account their delicate historical context, unresolved territorial disputes, dependent and complex economic relations, and mutually significant security issues and politics; we conclude that both nations share a mainly threat-based and alliance-based cooperation. Nevertheless, these circumstances may be in themselves insufficient to truly overcome psychological, emotional and perceptive differences in perspective between them. Furthermore, the fact that these brakes are reflected in the citizens public opinion difficult the implementation of solely political based cooperation without backlash. The cooperation system established at the moment remains tentative, and is fractured along different lines which foster opposition or competition between both parties. Work remains to be done to bride these gaps before a concrete and stable partnership, born not out of necessity or temporal interest, but of common values and characteristics, can be fully developed between Japan and Korea.


Esther Brito is finishing a double degree in International Relations and Business Administration at ICADE Business School. She is currently a researcher with the International Women’s Think Tank, covering issues on economics and gender, and has conducted studies on genocide and war crimes in Stanford. Her current work centers on security issues deriving from sexual trafficking in South East Asia.