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Beyond Bilateral Approaches: Regionalizing Japan-Korea Tensions
Author: T.J. Pempel
Region: Asia
Location: Korea, South, Japan
Published May 25, 2011
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Security relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, like those of any other two closely entwined neighbors, glisten with the multiple facets of complexity. A number of structural conditions and recent political actions underscore areas favoring bilateral cooperation. Both countries are political democracies with sophisticated economies; they have numerous similarities in their policy profiles and political constrictions that spring from that mixture. The two were on the same side during the Cold War and each has a strong security tie with the United States that includes extensive basing of U.S. military forces on the two countries’ soil. Unlike most European democracies that were skeptical of the George W. Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq, Japan and Korea dutifully dispatched national forces as participants in America’s “coalition of the willing.” The two have a deep and broad trading relationship, and each country sends large numbers of students, tourists, and businesspeople to the other’s country. A prior ban on Japanese music, books, and films was lifted in Korea starting in 1998 while the Japanese public went through a crazed fascination with incoming Korean soap opera, including one of its leading men, Bae Yong- joon (Yon-sama to his bedazzled, largely middle-aged female fans in Japan). The youth of both countries are gluttonous consumers of the latest pop culture products from the other. In short, considerable connectedness across a range of military, economic, and cultural arenas could stimulate a positive security relationship.

And indeed, at their second summit following Korean president Lee Myung- bak’s inauguration in April 2008, he and outgoing Japanese prime minister Fukuda Yasuo pledged among other things “to build a future-oriented Korea- Japan relationship and a mature partnership based on pragmatic diplomacy.” They further agreed to enhance cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue and the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens, to expand bilateral exchanges with a particular concentration on the youth of both countries, and to hold working-level consultations aimed at restarting stalled negotiations toward a bilateral economic partnership agreement. Lee set aside a special economic zone for Japanese manufacturing investment while Fukuda invited Lee to participate in the July 2008 Group of Eight summit as he also expressed his hope to visit Korea in the second half of the year for additional summit talks.

Powerful contradictory evidence, however, underscores the frequently contentious security relationship between the two. In April–May 2006, for example, Seoul dispatched 20 gunboats to prevent a planned Japanese survey of the waters around the Liancourt Rocks (called Dokdo in Korea; Takeshima in Japan), islets claimed by both countries and currently under Korean administration (PINR 2006). Japan has signed on to participate in the controversial ballistic missile defense system being installed by the United States across Northeast Asia; Korea has opted out. Similarly, Seoul has declined to participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a sea-borne interdiction system led by the U.S. Navy and involving 11 or more countries. PSI is designed to prevent the secret transfer of weapons of mass destruction. Japan and Korea have typically taken dramatically different positions regarding the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions, with the ROK, under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, pursuing a decade-long Sunshine Policy focused on economic engagement. Japan, in contrast, has invoked harsh sanctions against the North, implementing restrictions often tougher than those called for by United Nations resolutions. Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines identifies the DPRK as a potential military threat, while the ROK has done all it can to treat the North less as a military threat and more as a potential partner for brotherly reunification. In the six-party talks, Japan has voiced regular and throaty demands for a “full accounting” of the status of Japanese citizens abducted by the DPRK during the 1970s and 1980s. In contrast, the ROK, despite having lost multiply more South Koreans to abduction by the North than Japan, has rarely raised the issue, fearing that to do so would worsen North-South bilateral efforts.

In short, despite many reasons why Japan and Korea should find themselves on similar sides of most issues, the reality is that they frequently view their respective security situations though completely contradictory lenses. Ironically, it has been during the post–Cold War years, during which both countries found themselves on the “winning side,” that the differences between the two countries have become even more contentious. The reasons for this are the contradictory directions taken by the two countries after the straitjacket of the Cold War gave each country enhanced strategic flexibility. And not surprisingly, the directions taken by each have shown the growing influence of domestic political factors, often overriding security considerations.

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