International Relations

How to fix Japan-Korea relations

Written by David A. Welch.

In an earlier piece, I suggested that the first thing Japan and Korea should do to set the stage for progress on dealing with the very real issues that divide them is to signal their joint desire for improved relations and for each to acknowledge that the other is an important country that has made, and can be expected to continue to make, important contributions to the region and to the world. I argued that these statements should focus on the positive, and that Japanese and Korean leaders should resist the temptation to dilute or qualify them by broaching lingering grievances. The purpose of this first step would not only be to set a constructive tone, but to encourage both countries to see the very real problems in their relationship not as battlefields on which to contend, but as mutual challenges to be overcome.

There are two main such problems. The more difficult and less tractable we might call “the history problem.” I use this label to encompass a basket of closely related, emotionally charged issues that are all legacies of events preceding Japan’s surrender in World War II (including, inter alia, “comfort women,” textbooks, and various statements and actions of officials that fan the flames of historical grievances).

The easier of the two problems is the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute. I say that this is the easier of the two because there is a specific, identifiable tangible stake involved of the kind with which states have plenty of experience and for which there are proven solutions. “Easier,” of course, is not the same as “easy.” This particular issue has dogged Korea-Japan relations for decades.

What the Koreans call Dokdo and the Japanese call Takeshima are rocky islets in the middle of what the Japanese call the Sea of Japan and the Koreans call the East Sea. Both countries claim sovereignty on the basis of historical possession and offer long, detailed legal justifications. They have been controlled by Korea since 1954 and continuously occupied by Koreans since the 1960s.

An interesting feature of the dispute is that it is a simple disagreement over the application of rules upon which both sides agree. That is to say, Tokyo and Seoul offer competing justifications for their claims in exactly the same legal language grounded in exactly the same set of international legal principles. This is the easiest kind of dispute to solve in the world: all you have to do is appeal to an authoritative neutral arbiter whom you trust to interpret the rules fairly. And indeed Japan has proposed that the matter be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on no fewer than three occasions. Why has Korea refused, particularly if it is as confident in its title to the islands as it claims?

Whenever I ask my Korean friends and colleagues this question, they offer two replies. The first is that Dokdo/Takeshima is not a simple territorial dispute: it is a symbol of Korea’s historical humiliation and Japan’s lack of repentance for its colonial past. Koreans see it is a particularly powerful symbol because Japan’s “legal incorporation” of the islands into Shimane Prefecture took place in 1905, just months before Japan established a “protectorate” over Korea and only five years before Japan formally annexed Korea wholesale. They see it as the first historical step toward full colonization. Since Koreans see it this way, the issue is, from their perspective, part of the larger “history problem.” This perspective makes it very difficult for Korea to display any flexibility. Accepting ICJ jurisdiction would feel like giving Japan the opportunity to prove in a court of law that its conquest of Korea was legitimate. Besides, my Korean friends and colleagues say (this is the second reply), Korea already controls the islands, so why risk losing them?

Importantly, my Japanese friends and colleagues do not see things in the same light. They see Dokdo/Takeshima as a simple territorial dispute wholly unrelated to Japan’s colonial past, and they do not believe that Koreans see it that way, either. When I ask them why they think Koreans refuse to take the dispute to the ICJ, they inevitably appeal to the exigencies of Korean domestic politics and/or simple anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. Accordingly, they dismiss the Korean frame as tactical and insincere. Both perceptions are entirely understandable. As any first-year Psychology student can tell you, there is nothing surprising in the fact that Koreans interpret the dispute in terms of what is in the forefront of their minds (Japan’s “failure” to repudiate its past) or in the fact that Japanese project their own self-understandings upon Koreans (“they must know that Japan is a very different country now”).

In addition to dismissing Korea’s representation of the issue, Japanese find Korea’s intransigence deeply frustrating. Japan would dearly like to get this issue off the table. Quite frankly—I can say this, but of course no Japanese official could say it—Japan would not mind if Korea won at the ICJ. Japan’s emotional attachment to the islands is far weaker than Korea’s. Everyone in Korea knows about Dokdo; there are elaborate dioramas of the islands in subway stations in Seoul. Most Japanese could not pinpoint them on a map, and if shown a photo of the islands would almost certainly misidentify them. Again, this is all perfectly normal. Japan does not imbue the dispute with existential significance the way Korea does, and few in Japan can remember a time when Japan actually controlled the islands. But while Japan would be fine losing in court, it cannot simply walk away from its claim without sending the wrong signal to China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—an issue about which the Japanese feel very strongly indeed.

Clearly there is a major empathy gap here. The two countries believe very different things about their own interests and motives, and about each other’s. While this represents a challenge, it also shines a bright light on what must be done to overcome it.

The first step is to narrow the empathy gap. While old beliefs die hard, it would be helpful for Japanese officials to make strong, clear statements that they consider Dokdo/Takeshima a run-of-the-mill territorial dispute devoid of further subtext. Track 2 dialogues can help correct additional Korean misperceptions of Japanese interests and motives by discussing additional matters that Japanese officials understandably cannot address—for example, the delicate interdependencies between this dispute and Japan’s other major ongoing territorial disputes. It would be helpful, too, if Japanese officials could be persuaded to resist the temptation always to interpret Korean intransigence through the lens of Korean domestic politics or as evidence of an underlying anti-Japanese attitude. They may disagree with their Korean counterparts that the dispute is all about unresolved historical wrongs, but acknowledging the sincerity of Korean perceptions will help point the way toward resolution. The main danger in this preliminary empathy-building stage is that either side or both might not be able to resist the temptation to plunge headlong into the history issue itself.  This would be a sure conversation killer.

The second step is to identify what in principle would represent a good outcome for both parties, and work backwards from there to specific measures and a specific timetable. Let me suggest that a good outcome would have the following abstract characteristics:

  • Neither country would be worse off on balance (ideally, both would be better off).
  • To the extent that either side might feel that it had “lost” something, it would be able to feel that it had also “won” something else.
  • No one’s life or livelihood would be jeopardized.
  • Both the process of moving towards a resolution and the actual resolution itself should showcase and cultivate a spirit of bilateral cooperation.
  • Both the process and the outcome should clearly reflect the autonomous choices of two great nations treating each other as equals and as responsible stakeholders in a more secure and more prosperous regional order.

More than one arrangement might fit this bill, but let me suggest a deal that included the following three elements:

  1. Japan and Korea should agree that if the dispute cannot be resolved through simple bilateral agreement, it will be punted down the road, but not indefinitely. For example, the two countries would agree that the two countries will designate an appropriate forum for adjudication or arbitration in the year 2050; that the two countries will submit their final briefs to the designated court or arbitration panel in 2055; and that a final ruling will come into effect in 2060. In the meantime, both sides will agree to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the kinds of statements and actions that they have hitherto regarded as provocative and requiring retaliation.
  2. Japan and Korea should jointly identify a single vision for Dokdo/Takeshima with which both countries could live no matter what the ultimate outcome of the dispute might be. They should each enact this vision into their own domestic law. This way, absolutely nothing material could or would change in 2060. For example, the two countries might agree that the islands themselves should be designated a wildlife refuge and that to pave the way for that no new permanent residents will be permitted; that at a certain point all man-made structures on the island will be removed; and that the islands will be formally and legally demilitarized prior to adjudication or arbitration.
  3. Japan and Korea should embed the dispute in a larger package deal that presents opportunities for joint gains and mutually beneficial tradeoffs. For example, first, the two countries could agree to establish a bilateral commission to promote joint scientific study of the entire Sea of Japan/East Sea and to make recommendations on the sustainable management of its maritime resources. Second, they could agree that if Korea is ultimately found to have title over the islands it will formally relinquish its efforts to have the International Hydrographic Organization recognize the name “East Sea,” and that if Japan is ultimately found to have title over the islands it will support Korea’s efforts (or perhaps the two countries could jointly submit a request to call it something entirely new). Third, they could commission a monument to be designed jointly by a Korean and a Japanese artist and placed on the islands commemorating the resolution of the dispute as an example of constructive cooperation in pursuit of the greater good.  One could imagine additional elements of the package as well.

An arrangement of this kind would have several merits. First, it would effectively take the issue off the front burner. Second, it would open space for long-term cooperation in pursuit of shared ends. Third, it would give leaders in both countries plenty of domestic cover against charges of weakness or irresolution because it would involve no immediate concessions and would ultimately yield a win-win. Moreover, the political climate may well change so dramatically between now and 2060 that the issue will lose its emotional edge entirely—in which case it would save a great deal of pointless negative energy in the meantime.

Admittedly, this kind of deal will require statesmanship on both sides, and statesmanship is something that has recently been in short supply throughout the region. Also, it would be difficult to get traction on this program without at least some sign or hope of progress on the history issue. In the best of all worlds, Korea and Japan would make progress on both simultaneously, setting up a virtuous spiral of cooperation. However, that is a subject I intend to deal with in another post.

David A. Welch is a senior fellow and chair of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where he leads a project on Confidence, Trust and Empathy in Asia-Pacific security. A version of this piece was first published on his CIGI blog, Asia-Pacific Security. It is a second installment of a 3-part series on Japan-Korea relations, for the first piece click here. Image Credit: CC by Republic of Korea/Flickr.

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