Photo Source:  Kim Kyung-Hoon, Bloomberg

Promoting Reconciliation Between Japan & South Korea to Foster Strategic Cohesion

by Bennett Hawley & Alex Leopold
         October 8th, 2021

The United States (U.S.) faces many challenges in the Indo-Pacific, headlined by an evolving geopolitical rivalry with China stemming from notable economic, security, and human rights concerns. Yet despite perhaps the most significant strategic rebalancing since the Cold War, the U.S. remains unprepared to adequately confront this challenge as regional allies lack adequate strategic unity. Most concerning is the breakdown in trust and cooperation between Japan and South Korea, the third- and tenth-largest economies respectively, who together house tens of thousands of U.S. service personnel. Despite robust bilateral ties with the United States and mutual concern on key issues including China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclearization, a failure to sufficiently reconcile imperial Japan’s past atrocities has continued to mar relations. Thus, the Biden Administration should prioritize a just and comprehensive resolution that brings closure for the victims’ families and promotes deeper trilateral strategic cohesion between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. This opinion essay will first explore Japan and South Korea’s ongoing dispute before proposing a path towards reconciliation. This piece is meant to serve not as a detailed strategy paper but as a call to American policymakers to take action.

Japan's Wartime Legacy

Japan and South Korea share a long history of confrontation. In 1910, Japan annexed the Korean peninsula and established military police rule. Japanese colonial rule resulted in control of the media, law, and government and the active suppression of Korean culture in favor of the “Japanization” of the population. The expansive and invasive colonial government seized and destroyed hundreds of thousands of books and other documents discussing subjects such as Korean history, independence, and revolution, while the colonial education system purposefully kept Koreans illiterate. The Japanese government furthermore sought the total extraction of Korea’s natural resources to support the war effort, developing infrastructure for the sole purpose of most efficiently extracting and transporting raw materials, foodstuffs, mineral resources, and industrial products. Japan’s mobilization for war in the late 1930s resulted in further and more systematic exploitation of the Korean population as people were forced to work in factories, mines, and serve in the Japanese military. Furthermore, countless Korean women were forced into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers. Becoming known as “comfort women,” these victims have remained a source of outrage for many in Korea. Japan’s wartime atrocities are numerous and of significant importance to many in South Korea who deplore Japan’s reluctance to fully address its past.

A Diplomatic Dispute With Strategic Consequences

Japan and South Korea remain locked in a diplomatic-economic dispute regarding Japan’s imperial and colonial WWII legacy. Tensions escalated after South Korean President Moon Jae-in (liberal) took office following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye (conservative) in 2017, and subsequently closed the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a Japanese-funded charity tasked with dispersing $8.8 billion to the victims and relatives of “comfort women” used by the Japanese military during . The foundation was established in a 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea in which Prime Minister Abe issued an apology for Japan’s use of comfort women (but not forced laborers), but did not go as far as to accept legal responsibility. Japan’s conservative government further claims a 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea, which stipulated that the Japanese government pay reparations to fund South Korean development projects, had already addressed the legacy of Japan’s imperialism in South Korea. While the deal succeeded in normalizing relations between the two nations, critics argue Japan failed to apologize and the reparations were not paid to the victims of Japanese imperialism, namely the victims of forced labor and prostitution.


South Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung Nam, then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama at a press conference in Washington reaffirming trilateral cooperation on North Korea.

Source: Getty/Kyodo

Then, on October 30th, 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling requiring Japanese firms to pay reparations to the relatives of victims harmed by forced labor for Japanese companies during WWII. The ruling would have affected many of Japan’s largest companies including Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Nippon Steel, and others. This initial ruling, along with the Democratic Party of Korea’s rise to power reopened old wounds resulting in the ongoing breakdown of relations between Japan and South Korea.

In 2019, Japan and South Korea subsequently removed each other from their “whitelist” of preferential list of trading partners, leading to the outbreak of an ongoing trade war. Key intelligence sharing between the US, Japan, and South Korea was also jeopardized when South Korea –– citing the trade war and Japan’s inadequate handling of its history –– threatened in 2019 to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). As an invaluable vehicle for trilateral intelligence sharing, GSOMIA continues to serve as an integral part of American security in the Indo-Pacific; its disintegration would have dire impacts for the US-aligned coalition’s ability to counter emerging threats.

This tension comes at a time when strategic cohesion among U.S. allies and partners is increasingly more important given China’s rise. The ongoing trade war, fallout from COVID-19, China’s human rights abuses, censoring of U.S. business interests, territorial expansion in the South China Sea, Belt and Road Initiative, and support for North Korea and Iran are all major concerns for U.S. foreign policy. President Biden and senior members of the Administration have signaled continuity with the Trump administration's approach towards China, initially maintaining Trump’s policies on the trade war, intellectual property, forced technology transfers, discriminatory licensing practices, and the integration of Chinese telecom into critical infrastructure. However, unlike the Trump administration, President Biden seeks to use a multilateral approach, leveraging U.S. partners and alliances. This strategy is evident in American re-engagement with NATO, the EU, G7, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, India, Japan, and Australia in March 2021. As key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea are integral to this approach and hence, promoting meaningful reconciliation between Japan and South Korea must be a chief priority for U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific.


Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison meet in Washington D.C.

Source:  Executive Office of the President of the United States

A New Path Forward

The current negotiation process repeats mistakes made by previous attempts to resolve the issue, which may result in a flawed agreement, hyper-nationalism, and further distrust. The United States should engage Japan and South Korea to comprehensively address Japan’s WWII legacy including the use of ‘comfort women’ and forced labor. As a mutual ally, the United States has the mediating experience to develop a robust and victim-inclusive solution, which will be necessary for bringing both Japan and South Korea on board. In order to accomplish this, the U.S. should implement the following measures.

First, the U.S. State Department should partner with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), or a similar organization, to establish bilateral dialogue programs between Japan and South Korea, cultivating mutual understanding and empathy between victims and other stakeholders who played a role in Japan’s wartime abuses. The ICTJ specializes in reparative justice and is well-qualified to build people-to-people (P2P) connections and mend longstanding resentment at a grassroots level. Specific programs can target victims of Japanese occupation in addition to broader programs designed to connect students, businesses, public leaders, and citizens. Importantly, these reparative dialogue programs should be designed in participation with all affected parties to kickstart a generational healing process.

Second, the U.S. State Department should appoint a Special Envoy for Reconciliation responsible for coordinating reconciliation efforts between Japan and South Korea. A Special Envoy for Reconciliation would represent U.S. commitment towards building lasting solutions. The Envoy would also help facilitate the implementation of the ICTJ’s recommendations, oversee continued Japanese-South Korean dialogue programs, and additional initiatives that advance P2P relationships.

Third, the United States, via the Special Envoy and in conjunction with U.S. diplomatic posts, should urge Japan and South Korea to revisit the 2015 “Final and Irreversible Deal” that attempted to establish a reparations fund for victims. To be successful, a revisited deal would require Japan to issue a more comprehensive apology for all aspects of its WWII atrocities including the use of forced labor and comfort women. Japan should also be compelled to apologize for modern historical erasure –– characterized by Japanese textbooks failing to acknowledge Japan’s WWII crimes, even omitting events as significant as the Nanjing Massacre. Furthermore, it is essential that the re-established reparations fund for victims extends beyond just the victims of prostitution to also include victims of forced labor. In return, South Korea must commit not to liquidate the domestic holdings of Japanese firms accused of using forced labor. It is imperative that the primary goal of this phase is a meaningful solution that fully addresses Japan’s colonial past and is not simply a political resolution.

Fourth, the U.S. State Department should facilitate a high-level trilateral diplomatic summit to initiate a “New Path Forward,” encouraging Korea and Japan to return each other to “most favored nation” trading status, reducing mutual tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, and promoting regulatory alignment on AI, cybersecurity, and rare earth sectors. Given the sensitivity of the issue, a gradual easing of barriers to trade –– in line with parallel advancements in reconciliation –– is recommended. Promoting deeper economic cooperation between Japan and South Korea can also unlock mutual economic growth and decrease both economies’ dependency on China.


Graph depicting the reliance of Japan and South Korea on the Chinese market over the last two decades


Benefits to U.S. Foreign Policy

As previously stated, the paramount goal of any new progress on this issue must not be a political resolution, but a meaningful solution that fully addresses Japan’s colonial past. If not, relations between the two states will likely become even further strained with greater suspicion for future reconciliation efforts. The long-term geopolitical benefits of this policy additionally make it worthwhile for all parties involved.

First, American leadership in service of promoting multilateralism counters China’s increasing regional influence. Japan and South Korea’s mutual bitterness significantly inhibits trilateral security and economic cooperation –– clearly evident in the trade war and South Korea’s 2019 threat to withdraw from the GSOMIA. Closer cooperation would also reduce the likelihood of South Korea or Japan rejecting American frameworks on partial or sole account of the other’s participation, such as Japan’s refusal to back Yoo Myung-hee for WTO president. Future trilateral ventures would also enjoy a higher likelihood of success, enabling American foreign policy to more confidently engage with Japan and Korea even on programs whose scope extended beyond Northeast Asia.

Second, the policy would decrease South Korean economic dependence on China. Its overreliance on the Chinese economy is a liability, demonstrated by China’s 2017 sanctions following South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. Restored cooperation and the New Path Forward would allow both Japan and South Korea to solidify critical supply chains while reducing Beijing’s ability to impose coercive economic measures.

The New Path Forward Will Be A Challenge

The New Path Forward would face several challenges. The previous U.S. effort at Japan-South Korea reconciliation, led by the Obama Administration, proved unsuccessful; the “Final and Irreversible” Deal –– neither final nor irreversible –– failed to include victims' voices and was perceived as an expedient political solution rather than a genuine resolution. As a result, a US-led initiative may lack buy-in and risk the possibility of settling for a similarly fragile deal. Another failed venture could increase animosity between the two nations, supporting China’s goal of fraying Indo-Pacific alliances. Another cause for concern –– particularly for the Japanese –– is South Korea’s perceived diplomatic unreliability given President Moon Jae-in’s decision to close the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation. As such, it is important that future negotiations consult all major Japanese and South Korean political parties to build a durable agreement. Furthermore, Korea is limited by its existing economic vulnerabilities vis-a-vis China. Seoul has emphasized the importance of strong bilateral ties with the U.S. and China, and increased trilateral cooperation may incur economic costs and jeopardize China’s involvement in a settlement on the Korean peninsula. These considerations may hurt this proposal’s feasibility for all parties because North Korean nuclear proliferation is a universal higher-priority strategic concern.

A Solution Worth Prioritizing

The New Path Forward would shift the balance of power in the Pacific by promoting strategic cohesion between the U.S. allies. Repairing relations allows for enhanced trilateral cooperation on the economic recovery of COVID-19, intelligence and military coordination, and alignment on policies including the South China Sea. Even if the US, Japan, and South Korea do not agree on all aspects of U.S. trade concerns, unity on key issues such as the protection of intellectual property may help to incentivize a change in Chinese policy. The costs of U.S. mediation in the dispute between Japan and South Korea are low while the potential gains of a renewed dialogue could form a successful strategy to confront China’s Indo-Pacific resurgence.

Beyond the strategic considerations, however, it is time for Japan to fully confront its wartime past. Such reconciliation is not only required of a leading global democracy, but is owed to the victims of Japanese occupation. As the world approaches the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is time for reconciliation and resolution.

About the Author:  Bennett Hawley is a 3rd year in the International Honors Joint Degree Programme between the University of St Andrews and College of William & Mary. He studies international relations and environmental science policy with a geographical focus on Asia. Bennett has previously held internships with the Japan Society, US State Department, DH Infrastructure consulting for the World Bank, and the Federal Innovator’s Salon.
About the Author:  Alex Leopold 李柏安 is a dual-degree candidate at Binghamton University studying Economics and Political Science. During a year living in Israel and working at a Jerusalem think tank, he gained an interest in the national security implications of economic diplomacy and critical infrastructure. He hopes to build on that interest through his study of the MENA region as a theater of grand strategy between the US and East Asian states.

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