Norms and Values
Questions of the Past – Politics of the Future? Historical Issues in South Korean-Japanese Relations

The “fight for the past” easily turns into a zero-sum game, where any concession is perceived as a loss to an increasingly heated local audience. In the highly competitive, conflict-prone region of Northeast Asia, disputes over issues of the past are becoming an additional source of instability, and the ability to retain control.

The loss of independence by Korea following the end of the 19th century and the subsequent period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) have remained in the historical memory of Koreans as an era of national humiliation. This collective trauma has not been fully overcome even today; moreover, it has become one of the supporting structures of modern Korea’s political myth and national identity.

The Republic of Korea and the DPRK still perceive themselves as post-colonial states. At the same time, the pulling force of antipathy towards the former metropolis is so strong that the antagonistic North and South act from a unified position. Historical issues also outweigh political and economic conjuncture: Seoul, which is in the same regional pro-American “camp” as Tokyo, is ready to risk developed and mutually beneficial cooperation with Japan, in seeking recognition of its position on memory issues.

A general list of Korean historical claims is difficult to compile: it can be extended far beyond the colonial period to grievances dating back to the early Middle Ages. At the state level, there are often complaints about the content of Japanese history textbooks and the periodic visits of Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the Japanese military, including those recognised as World War II criminals, are revered. The issue of control over the Liancourt Rocks (their Korean name is Dokdo Island, while the Japanese call the rocks Takeshima), the dispute over “comfort women” (Korean women forcibly recruited by Japanese field brothels), as well as claims that Korean forced labour was used in the plants and factories of the metropolis.

In other words, political and economic closeness is not enough for unanimity. In the regional and global arena, the Republic of Korea and Japan still remain competitors, and their difficult shared past further exacerbates the rivalry. The use of issues of historical memory in foreign policy allows Seoul to create “managed instability” that is extremely inconvenient for its opponent. Japan’s influence is significant, and Koreans question the moral authority of a country that they believe is turning its back on its shameful past. Perhaps one of the goals of the Republic of Korea is to make Tokyo’s current and potential partners doubt the admissibility of cooperation with it.

The countries of Northeast Asia have long been competing over “historical nationalism”, arguing over who is more “ancient”, who “descended” from whom, and who influenced whom. This “competition” has been going on for many centuries, and the real and imaginary grievances accumulated during this time do not contribute to the rapprochement of positions. At the same time, questions of the past are interesting not in themselves, but in relation to the present: “seniority” in ancient times determines the current status for both “friends” and “strangers”.

Given the severity of regional competition, it is important to strengthen one’s own prestige and identity; “politics of memory” help to achieve this goal. The growth of group self-esteem and the discrediting of the opponent equally contribute to the spread of “soft power”, which is one of the key long-term tasks of South Korean diplomacy.

However, in conflicts over memory problems there is also a place for the classic “hard” approach: historically determined sanctions, counter-sanctions, fines and compensations are sometimes very sensitive. So, in 2019, Seoul seized the assets of Japanese firms that refused to pay compensation for the forced labour of Koreans during the colonial era. Japan responded by cancelling preferential treatment for the supply of chemicals needed to make semiconductors, pointing out in no uncertain terms to South Korea that its key export industry depends on Tokyo’s goodwill. The conflict continued as the Republic of Korea threatened to terminate the South Korean-Japanese intelligence sharing agreement. After the intervention of the United States, the document was saved, but the cancelled benefits were never returned.

On March 9, the presidential election in the Republic of Korea was won by conservative Yoon Seok-youl. During the campaign, he spoke of the need to build “normal relations” with Japan, criticising his liberal rivals for destroying relations with Tokyo under Moon Jae-in (2017-2022). However, it is difficult to say whether the new South Korean leader will be consistent in his promises to leave historical disputes in the past.

Any compromise on these sensitive issues is declared by the opposition and society both in the Republic of Korea and Japan as a national betrayal. A vivid example is the agreement on “comfort women” signed by Seoul and Tokyo in 2015 with American mediation as a “final” solution to the issue, but never implemented due to internal opposition. Politicians do not want to lose the support of patriots, and there is always temptation to use an effective means of domestic political mobilisation, again turning to historical trauma. It turns out that it’s tough to let bygones be bygones.

Not surprisingly, conservative President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), declaring, like Yoon Suk-yeol, a pragmatic approach to relations with Japan, increased pressure on Tokyo over memory issues. And the current crisis in bilateral relations began long before Moon Jae-in’s presidency. Seoul has been actively criticising Tokyo since at least Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). Successive Progressive and Conservative administrations since then have demonstrated a rare continuity in South Korean politics on this issue, and Seoul’s list of grievances has only grown.

The principled position on historical issues is one of the points of convergence between the positions of Russia and the Republic of Korea. Moscow and Seoul cannot accept Japan’s attempts to deny responsibility for its past. This is also manifested in particulars: for example, both Russian and South Korean diplomats, responding to Japan’s claims to the Kuriles and Dokdo, respectively, refer precisely to the fact that Tokyo should recognise the results of World War II. By the way, it is likely that the first ever visit of a South Korean president to the island of Dokdo in 2012 was inspired by the first ever visit to the Kuriles by a Russian leader in 2010 (Dmitry Medvedev and Lee Myung-bak are known to maintain warm personal relations).

It is noteworthy that in early 2022, the Russian Foreign Ministry supported the South Korean criticism of the Japanese application for inclusion in the UNESCO heritage list of a mine on Sado Island, where Korean forced labour was used in the colonial era. “Japan, apparently, is taking consistent steps not only in relation to Korea, in order to erase from the memory of mankind the crimes, criminal acts committed by the leaders of this country during the Second World War,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said; the Korean press quoted her statement with obvious approval.

The South Korean experience shows that the “politics of memory” makes it possible to successfully solve short-term tasks, such as mobilising support or organising collective pressure against an opponent. However, the risks are also great: the “fight for the past” easily turns into a zero-sum game, where any concession is perceived as a loss to an increasingly heated local audience. In the highly competitive, conflict-prone region of Northeast Asia, disputes over issues of the past are becoming an additional source of instability, and the ability to retain control.

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