Korean protesters tear a flag depicting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a rally in Seoul to demand an official apology for Japan's war crimes during World War II, March 28, 2013.

Relations between Japan and South Korea after World War II have ranged from cool to toxic. Recently, South Korean President Park Geun-hye refused to plan a summit with her Japanese counterpart unless Tokyo made concessions on their historical disputes. An agreement in December to share military intelligence (but only indirectly, via the United States) merely revealed their reluctance, rather than eagerness, to work together. The tension between these two countries, which seem to have so much to gain from closer ties, puzzles many observers and frustrates Washington as it seeks to foster closer trilateral cooperation.

Many observers blame history. As The New York Times editorialized in 2012, “Old animosities are still making it difficult for South Korea and Japan to establish a reliably productive relationship.” But this oft-heard claim is unsatisfying: It begs the question as to why at other times in the postwar era, Tokyo and Seoul were able to forge more productive relations. Furthermore, plenty of bitter history with other nations has not prevented Japan from establishing friendly and productive partnerships with them, such as Australia, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and of course its closest ally, the United States.

The common claim—that history stands in the way of reconciliation—mistakes a symptom for a cause. Disputes about history between Japan and South Korea, and any two countries for that matter, are largely a result of and not the reason for their poor relations. Rather, certain strategic conditions—such as security or economic interests—push them together or apart, and in turn shape their narratives about each other.

Generally, among nations with distant or hostile relations, national narratives gloss over a country’s own past violence and ignore the suffering its enemies might have endured. But sometimes a shared security threat, or the view that a country is an indispensable economic partner, may prompt leaders to seek cooperation. At such times, leaders craft more affable narratives—acknowledging past violence and showing empathy for the other country’s suffering—to persuade the public that the other country is a reliable partner.

Crafting a reconciliatory narrative, however, is easier said than done. It encounters domestic pushback because victims, who often have searing memories of loss and abuse at the hands of their former enemies, simply do not want to hear about what their tormentors endured. They want to mourn and seek justice, not to move on. On the other hand, the perpetrators of violence tend to see their actions as self-defense and thus resent being asked to apologize for behavior that they believe was aimed at protecting their country. As a result, many people denounce reconciliatory narratives and consider them traitorous. Leaders who advocate for friendlier tones assume enormous risks with their political futures and even their lives—many peacemakers have been targeted for assassination by angry rightists. So the stakes must be very high indeed for leaders to pursue reconciliation. 


The reconciliation between France and Germany shows how two formerly hostile countries decided to cooperate and transform their narratives in the process. In the 1950s, France and West Germany faced a dire threat from the Soviet Union, but blanched at the solution presented by a U.S.-led NATO—one that called for immediate escalation to nuclear war over their respective territories if war were to break out.

As French leaders pursued reconciliation toward the formerly hated Germans, they softened what had been a deeply antagonistic narrative. In a visit to Bonn in 1962, Charles de Gaulle addressed an audience of young West Germans as the “children of a grand people, who at times committed in the course of their history great errors but who also enriched the world, who bequeathed it a rich spiritual, scientific, and philosophical heritage.” In 1984, Francois Mitterrand referred to the Wehrmacht soldiers that had been defeated by the Soviets as “four million fine, brave Germans.” Nicolas Sarkozy, on Armistice Day in 2009, described the war as “equally terrible on both sides.” He further stated, “German orphans wept for their slain fathers in the same way as French orphans. German mothers felt the same pain as French mothers as they stood before the coffins of their fallen sons.”

For their part, the West Germans acknowledged and even apologized for their wartime aggressions and the atrocities they committed, through political speeches, historical education, and memorialization. French and West German leaders also staged joint commemorations, such as with De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer at Reims Cathedral in 1962, Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl at Verdun’s Douaumont cemetery in 1984, and numerous shared commemorations on the anniversaries of the Normandy landings.

Similarly, after World War II, the United States and Japan also transformed their relationship and their narratives toward each other. During the Cold War, the formerly bitter enemies decided they needed each other. Each country had an abundance of material to create fierce divisions over their past hostilities, had it served their interests to create one. But because of their mutual gains from an alliance, Japan and the United States adopted narratives that facilitated the profound reconciliation we continue to witness today.


South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (L) reaches out to shake hands with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at the foreign ministry's Iikura guest house in Tokyo June 21, 2015.
Issei Kato / Reuters
When it comes to the present day, it might seem at first glance that Japan and South Korea’s numerous shared interests would have already brought the two together. After all, the two countries are both liberal democracies, longtime U.S. allies that share a North Korean threat, and are apprehensive about the growth of China’s power. Japan and South Korea trade extensively; they cooperate in education, science, and technology, and delight in each other’s popular culture. Given all of this, closer ties would seem natural. 

In many respects, however, the two countries’ strategic conditions are pushing them apart rather than together. South Korea’s security situation is not dire; North Korea is far weaker, and the South is allied with the United States. As a maritime power, Japan offers little additional protection. From Japan’s standpoint, alliance with South Korea would not only do little for Tokyo, but would also bring a huge risk of entanglement in a war on the Korean peninsula, a nightmare Tokyo has tried to avoid since the 1950s.

It would also seem that China’s rising wealth and military power might encourage Japan and South Korea to cooperate. Instead, it has elicited opposing responses from Tokyo and Seoul. In the wake of Beijing’s assertiveness over the Senkaku–Diaoyu islands, which are claimed by both Japan and China, Tokyo increasingly views China as a serious security threat. Seoul, on the other hand, does not. Seoul is wary of China’s rise but for the most part, enjoys warm and productive relations with Beijing, and the two countries have no territorial disputes.

Furthermore, as I have previously argued, South Korea distances itself from Tokyo in part to appease Beijing, which fears its liberal neighbors will join a U.S.-led, anti-Chinese balancing coalition. As part of this distancing, Seoul promotes a narrative (as seen in its recent monuments and museums) that emphasizes Japan’s wartime violence and highlights Korean amity with China. Unless Seoul begins to see China as significantly more threatening, South Korean leaders have little incentive to improve relations with, and soften its narrative toward, Tokyo. 

In the coming years—just as some winters are colder or milder than others—relations between Seoul and Tokyo may be somewhat better under some governments and somewhat worse under others. (The current period, under leaders Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye, has certainly been one of the worst.) But the bottom line is that strategic conditions have created a persistent winter in Japan and South Korean relations.


Despite the pessimistic forecast, spring may someday warm relations between the two countries. Should South Korea grow more alarmed about a Chinese threat, it may seek to foster closer relations with both the United States and Japan. Japan, too, may see gains in such an alliance. And, if Tokyo and Seoul were to reach such a point, they would need to craft more reconciliatory narratives.

Japan, for its part, would need to acknowledge the past violence it committed against the Koreans. To this, the Japanese people would probably reply in exasperation, “We have apologized to South Korea many times!” And they’re right. Over the years, several Japanese leaders have tried, in good faith, to express regret for Japan’s wartime actions.

But at the same time, Tokyo has sent confusing signals that seem to undermine those apologies. Abe has at times expressed regret and empathy about the tragedy of the “comfort women” who were forced to work in brothels by Japan’s Imperial soldiers. His government says it endorses previous expressions of contrition, such as the Kono Statement in 1993 and Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi’s apology in 1995. But at other times, Abe has denied that the women were coerced, thus implying that they were willing prostitutes. Such a claim contradicts his endorsement of Tokyo’s previous apologies. Abe also selected cabinet members who have denied past wartime abuses. These moves outrage South Koreans and inhibit bilateral cooperation. To promote reconciliation, Japanese leaders would have to both craft and defend a narrative that acknowledges Japan’s wrongdoings and recognizes South Korea’s past suffering.

Seoul would have to change its narrative as well. South Korea currently depicts the Japanese as brutal oppressors and the Koreans as perpetual victims. If they wanted to reconcile with the Japanese, South Koreans—like the French toward the West Germans—would need to acknowledge the threats that Japan perceived in the early twentieth century and the suffering of the Japanese people during the war. South Koreans would also need to recognize Tokyo’s repeated apologies—their failure to do so has inflamed resentment and “apology fatigue” among the Japanese.

Seoul and Tokyo—like Paris and Bonn—could also promote reconciliation by holding joint commemorations. This year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic normalization between Japan and South Korea. Given current strategic conditions, we will probably not see a joint ceremony where their leaders clasp each other’s hands. But perhaps in the future, things will be different. History is not standing in the way. A path toward reconciliation is there, should Seoul and Tokyo decide it is in their interest to take it.

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  • JENNIFER LIND is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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