Japan from the inside out

Japan-South Korea ties: Growing worse instead of better?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 5, 2012

THE Nikkei Business Online website recently presented a discussion between Kobe University Prof. Kimura Kan and Suzuoki Takabumi of the Nikkei Shimbun that was moderated by Ito Nobuhito. It was titled, “Japan – South Korea Relations Will Continue to Deteriorate in the Future”. While the ideas expressed might be new for some, they are less so when seen from the ground in Northeast Asia.

Because it’s much better to go straight to the source than it is to rely on second-hand views and opinions, here it is in English.

Japan is a Troublemaker

Ito: South Korea is now increasingly seeking dependency on China. How should Japan handle this?

Kimura: Japan is in an extremely difficult position. Within the South Korean schema of the potential rapprochement between the United States and China, Japan is viewed as a troublemaker.

A view that frequently emerges in current South Korean public opinion is that Japan is leading the opposition to China. Growing numbers of newspaper articles assert, “The Japanese are insolently causing a problem, even though they’ve lost their strength.” The issues of historical awareness and the Senkakus epitomize this.

This is connected to the thinking that “Japan’s existence is complicating Sino-American relations”. Thus, South Korean public opinion and politicians, particularly the “progressives”, will look for ways to reduce Sino-American friction by separating the United States and Japan.

I’ve stressed this on many occasions, but South Koreans have the idea that skillfully jockeying between the United States and China is the way for them to survive. One easily understood way to do that is to make Japan the scapegoat. They’ll win bonus points from the Chinese, and they’ll be able to offer “explanations” to the United States by bringing up the problems of the past.

South Koreans Seek to Survive by Becoming Good Boys for the Chinese

Suzuoki: Speaking of explanations to the United States, the reason for the negative (South Korean) attitude to the Japanese-Korean military agreement stemmed from deference to the Chinese. Yet somewhere along the line, the reasons changed to “Japan is becoming a military power” and “The comfort women and other historical problems”.

Kimura: What we should realize is that if South Korea is successful in separating Japan and the United States, it will negate the idea in Japan that “South Korea will maintain its relationship with the United States even if they approach China, so Japan can maintain its relationship with South Korea by following the United States.”

Suzuoki: From the Japanese perspective, South Korea looks like the troublemaker by betraying the United States, but that’s how the South Koreans want to view Japan. The South Korean newspapers now love to write articles about the intensified antagonism between Japan and China. I think that’s because the South Koreans want Japan to be what John Mearsheimer termed their “buck-catcher”. (In “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, Mearsheimer presents the idea that one option for states seeking to deter a rival is to pass the buck.)

When a latent hegemon emerges, the surrounding countries have two choices. One is to create an alliance and contain the latent hegemon. The other is to divert the threat to a different country without opposing the latent hegemon oneself. By creating a “bad boy” — in other words, a buck-catcher — they become the “good boy”. I think the South Koreans intend to survive by choosing the latter path.

Let’s Use the Comfort Woman Issue

South Korea under the leadership of Roh Moo-hyon made a proposal to the United States to make Japan their common enemy, though the South Korean government officially denies it. Based on your argument that South Korea is trying to separate Japan from the United States, that would be their proper course, and the precursor phenomenon.

That mood is growing now. The thinking has arisen among South Koreans that whenever they pick a fight with Japan over the comfort women or some other issue, whatever they say has no effect, so they’ll have the United States scold Japan for them. There’s been a subtle change lately, however. Now some newspaper articles have appeared arguing that Japanese-American relations deteriorate whenever they shout about comfort women at the top of their lungs, so they should use that tactic more often.

Also, there is a reflection of the South Korean state of mind that the Japanese-American alliance would be shaken if Japan lost the Americans’ trust, though there are still too few examples of the manifestation of this attitude to draw a conclusion. That would result in fewer incidences of Japan-driven friction between the United States and China, which is desirable for South Korea. If you say that to the average Japanese, however, they would probably laugh and wonder whether there was a country in the world that could conceive of such a childish plot.

At any rate, a new type of anti-Japanese sentiment is arising in South Korea. In the past, their objective was to obtain something through diplomatic negotiations, to provide an outlet for their people’s frustrations, or to create a foreign enemy for a lame-duck administration at the end of its term.

The day that South Korea orchestrates U.S.-Japan disaffection

Now, they’ll promote the idea around the world that Japan is the enemy of peace, which will win them the affection of the Chinese and implant a sense of distrust of Japan among the Americans. It is possible that this anti-Japanese objective will enable them to overcome Sino-American conflict.

Kimura: The South Korean government — perhaps the next one, or the one after that — might regard Japan more seriously as a virtual enemy on the level of North Korea. “We have an alliance with the United States, but we regard North Korea and Japan as enemies. China is not an enemy.” If they start talking like that, they’ll work with the Chinese. Whether it’s the issue of historical awareness, or territory, or the continental shelf, signs of that have already appeared.

If that trend strengthens, an attitude will have developed toward Japan of “strike the dog that’s fallen in the water”. (The origin is a Japanese proverb that suggests it’s best to strike a troublesome dog harder when it’s fallen in the ditch and is weak, rather than pull it out.) Put another way, some South Koreans already dissatisfied with Japanese historical awareness would fall into a state in which they thought that Sino-American discord would be an excellent chance to isolate Japan. They can score points with domestic public opinion by bringing up the issues of historical awareness and territory. We should be aware that Japanese-South Korean relations will most certainly grow worse if we do nothing.

An American-centered system is bad

Ito: What should Japan do?

Kimura: The emergence of China in Northeast Asia is a serious issue both now and in the future for South Korea. It will be important to maintain a military balance in the region, and it is also important to convince them that Japan, which has the world’s third-largest GDP, is indispensable for this. The persuasion would be effective if it were done together with the United States. It is perhaps important to hurry a little, and a good time would be when the government’s rate of support is relatively stable, or just before or after the next president is inaugurated.

Suzuoki: But South Koreans have stopped listening to American opinion. They’ve found a new patron in China, and I have the feeling that the complicated emotions toward the U.S. buried deep in their hearts will spill over.

Kimura: That’s certainly true. What’s important is that the South Korean experience during the Cold War was very different than the Japanese experience. For example, if you ask South Koreans whether they dislike a China-centered global system, more than a few would answer that what they really dislike is an American-centered global system.

That’s only natural if you think about it. They were pressured into sending troops during the Vietnam War, and there are many American bases in the country. There’s also the financial burden of the bases, and the Americans are even interfering with the country’s economic system. Hereafter, they’ll start talking about what is tribute, rather than tribute to the Americans.

South Korea warming up to the revival of the tribute system

They’ll also say, “For many years, we’ve lived under the influence of China, Japan, and the United States. We’ve put up with a lot of insults, and we’ve often bowed our heads to other people. Japanese say they don’t want to live under the dominance of the Chinese, but that’s because they’ve never experienced real hardship. But we have a basis for comparison. Today’s Chinese are not that much worse than the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese empire, the Americans, who once couldn’t be bothered to hide their discrimination, and the arrogant IMF.” That’s an extreme opinion, but we mustn’t forget that there are people who talk like this in South Korea.

Suzuoki: Does that mean the Chinese are the same as the Americans, in the sense that they are a colonial power? Besides, South Korea has a great deal of cultural affinity with China.

Kimura: China specialists are among the foremost of growing numbers of those (in South Korea) who are saying that the tribute system is different than the modern international order. It was a harmonized, beautiful international system. They assert, “China received tribute from its vassals, but they sent those emissaries back with gifts of much greater value. If there were no sharply delineated national borders as there are today, there was also no ethnic conflict. No one tried to force their culture on others. The tribute system was a peaceful, free international system.”

Disappointment in the American model creates admiration for China

What is most interesting is that while this theory doesn’t get much traction in Japan, it is well received in South Korea. There are probably a lot of people in South Korea who think that the American model is a failure and the next model will be the Chinese one, and they brought it up before the Chinese did.

Japanese are also less likely now to praise the American model, but that doesn’t mean they’ve switched to the Chinese model. The big difference is that South Korea, which has pursued neo-liberal policies, is very disappointed in the American model. There are strong demands for the need to change direction. That’s why the presentation of something that seems to be a new model from China looks appealing.

Ito: Some people think that Japanese-South Korean relations have a bright future because of the cultural and personal interaction is progressing.

Kimura: As before, many people still have that opinion, but I wonder if it has any basis in reality. To be sure, interaction between Japan and South Korea, and Japan and China, has risen dramatically over the past 20 years. It’s no surprise at all to see Korean and Chinese tourists on the streets, and it’s easy to find something from South Korea or China in bookstores or rental video shops. It is true that they have popularity.

More people bash when bashing gets easier

But what’s happened to Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relations over the past 20 years? The issues related to historical awareness and territory have gotten much worse, and there has been no improvement in mutual feelings. Why haven’t relations improved despite the increased interaction?

That’s because this way of thinking omits points of critical importance. One is what Japan looks like when seen by the other party, and how changes at the macro level are progressing at the same time as the micro level. Those viewpoints are missing.

What’s important about the first is that Japan’s value has declined militarily, politically, and economically. Japan is no longer the only economic giant in Asia as it once was. Its presence has only grown smaller from the South Korean and Chinese perspective. That’s why, as I said before, it has now become easier to bash Japan. Further, because the issues of territory and historical awareness aren’t resolved, it is natural that more people will bash when bashing gets easier.

Relations will not improve with the Korean Wave

The increased interaction between South Korea and China and the position that will occupy in international interaction overall is a different issue. For example, the amount of trade between Japan and South Korea is rising, but the share of that trade as a part of overall South Korean trade is declining. The reason is simple — South Korean trade with other countries is growing. If these two points are not fully grasped, that view (about improved relations) will never be anything more than a mere impression.

Suzuoki: You recently said that you were disheartened when your graduate students told you that Japan-South Korea relations will improve because of the Korean Wave.

Kimura: That’s right. The status of South Korea has risen in Japan, but the status of Japan in South Korea has fallen. Unless people realize how Japan is viewed from outside, they will make serious errors in their judgment.

For example, immediately after he took office, former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio rather ostentatiously talked about an East Asian entity. If it were the 1980s, when Japan had a larger presence, other countries might have gotten behind the idea. But now, when Japan has gotten smaller, no one responded. There’s no benefit in it for them, so of course they didn’t.

Ito: What points we should we be most aware of when considering South Korea and East Asia in the future?

In South Korea, there is a “Truth” that is different from “Fact”

Kimura: What is important about South Korea is that they have a distinctive view of society. As a backdrop, that view is the Cheng Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism which has been espoused in South Korea since the days of the Joseon Dynasty. There are two points to remember about its relationship with contemporary South Korean thinking.

1. There is a universal truth that is different from the facts of the world.

2. Because this truth is absolute, it must be obeyed.

What is important is that this truth was not brought out inductively from their individual circumstances, but is presented as something universal. Or, to look at it from a different direction, once it has been successfully presented and people believe in it, it is for them an immovable reality. It will be imposed regardless of external circumstances.

This truth is expressed in South Korea (using a term that translates) as zeitgeist. Of course, in the past, the U.S.-Korean alliance and globalization were the zeitgeist, but now that is changing. Where they discover the zeitgeist will be the decisive influence on South Korea in the future, so we should be aware of that.

The presidential election is a change of dynasties on a small scale

One of the roles of South Korean leaders is to present this zeitgeist to the people, and to bring this up as a public issue. In that sense, presidential elections are dynastic changes on a small scale. As was the case with the change from the Goryeo to the Joseon dynasties, this will be an indicator of their path in the future.

One more aspect that must be watched is investment in South Korea and trade. The South Korean reliance on exports to China (not including Hong Kong) is close to 25%, and is being expressed now as exceeding the scale of (exports to) Japan and the United States combined. This trend will likely continue in the future, so we should pay attention to how much South Korea’s economic reliance on China rises in the future.

Turning the data inside out, the extent of Chinese reliance on trade and capital with South Korea is also important. The Chinese economy is much larger than that of South Korea, and if the extent of trade remains the same, China will have a smaller degree of reliance. Put simply, the difference in the degree of reliance on trade for both countries will be expressed as the difference in negotiating capability.

Excessive loyalty to China

At the same time, we must also pay attention to data from the past. For example, the South Korean reliance on trade (exports and imports) with China is growing, but the ratio is still about 20%. At the end of the 1960s, the South Korean reliance on trade with Japan and the United States was 40% and 30% respectively.

Thus, the combined share of trade with Japan and the United States was more than 70%. The current share of trade with China is not very large compared to that. In that sense, we should keep in mind that the current South Korean deference to China is a case of excessive loyalty.

Also, to understand the sense of our presence in South Korea and China, Japan should always keep in mind what share we occupy in those countries in terms of trade, investment, the flow of people, and even culture.

People in Japan sometimes talk about the expansion of trade, the human flow, and cultural interaction with the countries of Asia, but the movement of goods, money, people, and culture is growing everywhere in the world. Just because there is a growing interaction with our country does not mean that our importance is growing. The presence of Japan in both South Korea and China is clearly declining, regardless of the indicators used. We should always keep this in mind.


This article has attracted attention in Japan, and Prof. Kimura has made some followup comments on Twitter. Here’s one of interest:

When the standards for making judgements in the real world change, real valuations change. Typifying that view is that the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement and the General Security of Military Information Agreement proposed by the Lee adminstration for Japan were viewed as demonstrating a full commitment to the United States. President Lee’s policy initiatives include a much greater deference to China than they did at the start of his administration, but the standard of public opinion has become more China-oriented. That meant the proposals were viewed as a full commitment to the United States.

6 Responses to “Japan-South Korea ties: Growing worse instead of better?”

  1. Harry said

    Very insightful comments.

    They seem convinced that China is destined to become the next superpower. I’m afraid they misread the current economic and geopolitical situation.

    The South Korean economy is heavily dependent on exports to the three biggest markets, America, Europe, and China. They recognize that they are vulnerable to recessions of these economies. Unfortunately, China is heading for an economic crisis and dragging South Korea into a recession. In addition, South Korea’s own real estate bubble is bursting. Some analysts are worried about household debt and a Korean subprime loan crisis.

    I would say that developing energy technologies and undersea resources could reinvigorate our economy. Cooperation with us would help their economy. After all, their manufacturing sector needs our capital goods and intermediate goods.

    I feel that there are other reasons for Japan-South Korea divergence. We care about maritime interests in the Pacific Ocean. They would like to partner with the Chinese and the Russians. They seem to fear that a close military cooperation with us (ACSA and GSOMIA) could trigger a Second Cold War in and around the peninsula.

    [North Korea]
    * They need to coordinate with China, rather than America, to achieve North Korea’s soft-landing.
    * The Chinese are insensitive to South Korea’s demands but are influential.
    * We are a stakeholder but not a central player.

    * Some Chinese generals call for military action against Taiwan. They believe that Taiwanese self-rule is a de facto independence.
    * The Taiwanese like the status quo and distrust the mainlanders. They have an unofficial alliance with the Americans and a special partnership with us.
    * The Koreans support the One China policy and regard Taiwan as a troublemaker.

    [The South China Sea]
    * The ASEAN members, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and India (and even Russia) are worried about Chinese maritime expansion.
    * Like Taiwan, our relations with these nations are very important.

    The progressives are more tolerant to the current regime in Pyongyang. If they win the next election, their relations with America and Japan might get worse.

  2. Marellus said

    … I’ll say it again, the Japanese are the Jews of Asia …

  3. toadold said

    As it is said in many instances in the US,”The Koreans are the Irish of Asia.”

    It seems the most common mistake by academics and media types is that the culture and politics of any nation is monolithic.

    I read some Millblogs and from them I get the idea that the military and conservatives of S. Korea are not happy with the reflexive Japanese bashing by their “progressives” over S.Korea and Japanese military co-operation.

  4. Whilst I agree this rhetoric is doing the rounds in South Korea, having heard it first hand from a number of Koreans, I do have a certain amount of scepticism that this will interfere with actual policymaking in the ROK. Whilst the Japanese academics cited are first-rate, I would like to know who these ‘Koreans’ they were quoting? If it is the press, then you will find that stuff littered all over op/eds the world over. If it is actual Government approved think-tanks and policy research bureaus of the major parties then I am certainly alarmed (although Japan has demonstrated that both extremists and moderates can run a country without disrupting the peace). Witness the Chinese columnists talking about the liberation of Okinawa, pretty much any policy maker said that this was a) fanciful and b) unlikely to even remotely enter discussions in the wider politburo.

    Under the Lee Myung-Bak administration there has been greater intelligence sharing between the ROK and Japan. The Japanese are not stupid and certainly would not sign something like that if they believed there was a remote possibility for such an agreement to be abused. Secondly, Japan has more than enough Military Hardware to compensate. This idea of an actual face-off between Japan and ROK/China would be bad for business for everyone. Their supply-chains are far too interlocked, Korean businessmen I have spoken to widely acknowledge this.

    The revival of the tribute debate itself is not new, everyone is wondering what the heck this ‘third-way’ that China speaks of is about. South Korea, naturally is trying to find where it fits in all this, as is Japan. The other hole in this debate is over the American bases. The reason partially why the Americans are in Okinawa and are not keen on moving is due to the way the base plugs into the wider military logistical machine. If the Koreans willingly did something destructive to the US/Japan Security agreement, it is they who will suffer.
    E: Thanks for the note.

    Witness the Chinese columnists talking about the liberation of Okinawa, pretty much any policy maker said that this was a) fanciful and b) unlikely to even remotely enter discussions in the wider politburo.

    It’s gone beyond columnists now to senior military personnel, and the extent to which the CP impacts or is impacted by the military is, as I’m sure you know, a question many people wonder about.

    There are now professional-looking Chinese websites with the specific aim of Okinawan “independence”. It is not out of the question that they are quietly receiving public-sector funding in whole or in part, giving the government plausible deniability. After all, the South Korean government partially subsidizes VANK, with its chauvinistic tone.

    Besides, even if they are just “op-eds”, they are appearing in newspapers affiliated with either the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. If they thought these op-eds were counterproductive, do you think they would be allowed to appear in those publications? Which, of course, are read and digested by the public.

    – A.

  5. Harry said

    Umm, I know there is an Israeli Japanologist from Poland, Ben-Ami Shillony, known for comparative studies of Japan and Israel. He is the author of the book “The Successful Outsiders: The Jews and the Japanese” .

    Yes, President Lee has done a lot to enhance relations with Japan: security cooperation, free trade, disaster relief, etc. However, that doesn’t mean that the next political leadership in Seoul continues the policies of his
    administration or affliated think tanks. It would be more like Roh’s. The conservatives are worried about the progressives’ “subservience” to Pyongyang and advance into the political mainstream.

    Before the “secret” GSOMIA negotiation fell apart, the Global Times had warned the Koreans against signing GSOMIA with Japan. “Don’t side with the Japanese and the Americans. Or you will become a frontline sacrifice stone in Northeast Asia.” The Chinese said something like that and the Korean media outlets and opposition parties basically agreed. On the other hand, they are negotiating a similar arrangement with China. Why is that? Do they support China’s policy regarding human rights, North Korea or US-Japan relations?

  6. Tony said

    I don’t think Ben-ami Shillony is making the comparison so much as they are both regionally targets of hateful and aggressive neighbors. He does say some interesting things about Japan such as;

    “One of the most difficult aspects of the entire situation is the fact that the concept of humanity lying at the heart of Nihonism cannot be expressed in words; it too relies upon implication for definition. Since a mastery of implications is impossible for foreigners, only Japanese can become Nihonists. When Rome destroyed Jerusalem, imperial soldiers broke into the Holy of Holies, but nothing, not even a nuclear bomb, can break into the inner sanctum of Nihonism. No foreigner can so much as approach it; all he can hope to do is to apprehend the world of words surrounding and protecting it. Something of its shape and texture can be grasped by looking closely at the Japanese, who are one people and one nation bound together by a single religion; by studying the lives and actions of historical figures who embody the meaning and practice of Nihonism; and by discerning the characteristic ways in which the followers of Nihonism interpret other religions.”

    A breakdown of the book can be found here

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