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
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