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Democratic Conflicts: Japan, South Korea, and the Alignment of Distrust

In early August 2019, Japan decided to withdraw the trade privilege given to South Korea. Then, on 22 August, South Korea scrapped the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an intelligence-sharing arrangement signed between Japan and South Korea in 2016. Observers wonder how has it come to this point. While Seoul’s historical resentment, Tokyo’s nationalistic ambition, and other factors might have influenced the conflict dynamics, it must be emphasized that public opinion and other democratic mechanisms have played a key role in the perpetuation and escalation of bilateral disputes between the two nations.

Western intellectuals and policymakers worship the so-called “democratic peace” thesis, which posits that democratic regimes do not go to war with each other. Although the thesis has been criticized on various fronts, Western scholars generally agree that democratic regimes tend to trust each other because they share common values and political structures. When it comes to the troubled relationship between Tokyo and Seoul, however, the exact opposite has been the norm. Japanese policymakers find it hard to fully trust their South Korean counterparts precisely because South Korea’s democratic regime allows for (and in fact encourages) periodic rotation of power, which often results in radical shifts in Seoul’s foreign policy orientation.

In 2015, Tokyo and Seoul signed the “final and irreversible” agreement to settle the longstanding issue of comfort women, which entailed an official apology from Japan and the payment of 1 billion JPY in order to establish a foundation to support the living victims. At the time, some Japanese observers warned that South Korea could not be trusted because a change of government in Seoul (mainly through presidential elections) could easily result in a reversal of the “irreversible” settlement. And this is exactly what happened. As soon as Moon Jae-in came to power in 2017, his administration took a series of actions to undermine the “final” settlement, which has made Japan’s Abe Administration look like a foreign policy armature who had naïvely trusted the untrustworthy. South Korea’s civil society has also actively pressured the new government to take a tougher stance on Japan, making it easier for the new administration to reorient its foreign policy.

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Following these troubling developments, the current dispute emerged in late 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the Japanese firm Nippon Steel Corporation had to pay compensations for forced labor perpetrated under the Japanese Empire’s occupation of Korea. South Korea’s civil society welcomed this unprecedented ruling as a new step in the pursuit of international justice, and activists encouraged citizens to file similar law suits against other major Japanese firms. Alarmed by the ruling, Tokyo insisted that the matter of forced labor compensations had been “irreversibly” settled by the 1965 bilateral treaty (and other follow-up agreements). Moon Administration responded that, since South Korea is a “democratic” country, the executive branch cannot interfere with the independent decisions made by the Supreme Court. And he is right. Although most Japanese analysts blame President Moon for the escalation of the dispute, it must be recognized that he can afford to take a bold course of action precisely because many South Korean citizens (and in this case, even the Supreme Court) democratically support it. In turn, Tokyo cannot back down also because the majority of Japanese citizens democratically demand to punish South Korea for reversing the “irreversible” agreements.

Contra democratic peace, we may need a “democratic conflict” theory to understand the vicious cycle of dispute perpetuation and conflict escalation between Tokyo and Seoul. At the moment, Japanese policymakers do not foresee any possibility of settling the dispute by signing a new agreement. There is no point in doing so, as Tokyo now believes that any “irreversible” settlement can be reversed sooner or later when the government changes in Seoul. Indeed, it is ironic that bilateral agreements between Japan and China have been more stable, because Chinese leadership rarely changes, and when it does, the continuity is (more or less) assured by the hegemony of the Communist Party. This is one of the reasons why Tokyo is not so enthusiastic about the prospect of democratization in China, because Chinese democratization is likely to replicate the ongoing problem of Japanese-Korean relations in a yet larger scale (a democratized China, for instance, may more forcefully push for its territorial claim over Japan-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu island, since the overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens believe that the island rightly belong to China).

While we should not make a sweeping conclusion that democracy is the root cause of bilateral conflict between Tokyo and Seoul, there is ample evidence demonstrating that it is making it harder for both parties to trust each other and negotiate a diplomatic compromise. For the last decades, the United States has periodically intervened to ease tensions between Japan and South Korea, but Washington is yet to succeed in this. At the moment, Western observers, including the U.S. Department of State, deplore that the abandonment of the GSOMIA critically undermines trust-based alliance relationships in the Asia-Pacific. The reality, however, is that we have such a problem precisely because there has been no “trust-based” alliance relationships for the last seven decades. Given that it took nearly seventy years for Japan and South Korea to sign the GSOMIA in 2016, it is not surprising that the agreement fell off just after three years. Driven by historical resentment (which is legitimate considering Japanese Empire’s horrendous actions in the Pacific War), Seoul has always thought Japanese-Korean military cooperation as a pragmatic necessity rather than the demonstration of lasting friendship. For Tokyo, cooperation with South Korea has been predominantly seen as an instrument to contain the North Korean threat rather than a path to deepen amicable ties with Seoul. And this troubled alignment of distrust will continue unchanged unless we find a way to manage and domesticate hostile public opinions on each side, even though a total breakdown of bilateral relations is unlikely in the near future.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.