Reflections on the Korea Foundation Project “Japan and Korea in the Evolving China-US Relations”

Hostility remains a persistent feature of Japan-South Korea relations. Trade restrictions, territorial disputes, unreconciled historical issues continue to confound the two neighbouring countries, with the prospect of a sustainable bilateral relations appears to become more unthinkable compared to the prior decades. Yet, while the Japanese and South Korean states continue to clash, the surrounding East Asian geopolitical environment has been rapidly changing. New perspectives about the significance of Asian history, culture and economics are gaining ground, while previously side-lined players, both state and non-state, are rising to prominence. At the core is the arguably crumbling great power politics paradigm, where China’s rise and U.S.’ persistence to maintain its preponderance in the region have arguably propelled the changes taking place. What we are presented are two seemingly opposed phenomena that begs for conciliation: on one hand, a durable antagonistic relations between Japan and South Korea, and on the other, a shifting East Asian regional landscape.


As a Southeast Asian studying international relations in Japan, looking at Japan-South Korea relations is inescapable. It is a scholarly responsibility, I believe, to familiarize oneself to the politics of the place where you live, and in so doing, I realized that to understand Japan, it is necessary to understand its relations with its neighbours. Back home in the Philippines, the images of these two affluent countries are relatively positive: they are highly modern industrialized countries, with a disciplined society and admirable culture. We consume anime, manga, K-pop, K-drama and marvel at the technology that Sony and Samsung offer. Yet, one important realization I gained from observing Japan-South Korea relations is that these perceptions are cursory. No matter how favourable the postwar images of Japan and South Korea is to their neighbouring countries, especially in Southeast Asia, if they do not regard each other in friendly terms, then their efforts towards regional security and stability might be transient in the long run.

Japan-South Korea Relations: A Reappraisal

Despite these difficulties, working as a project assistant to the Korea Foundation sponsored IAFOR Research Centre project, “Japan and Korea in the Evolving China-US relations” made it easier to think about a more optimistic outlook. This endeavour brings together scholars of East Asian international relations from Japanese, Korean and Singaporean Universities, who are willing to openly discuss salient and sensitive issues surrounding Japan-South Korea relations, and their impact to the broader geostrategic landscape of the region. From non-traditional security (NTS) issues to tech wars, this project covers a diverse set of topics that could eventually inspire not only a more sincere and meaningful bilateral relations between the two, but also a more extensive joint contribution, regionally and internationally.


The project commenced in earnest with a workshop held in the National Library of Korea in Seoul in December 2019, where majority of the project participants gathered to talk about three key guiding themes: (1) the future of international liberal order (ILO); (2) the legacies and limitations of the San Francisco System; and, (3) East Asian modernity in the global historical perspective. In discussing the first theme, participants lament on the Trump Administration’s inability to sustain the U.S.-led liberal order, and the impact of the ongoing trade wars between China and the US, particularly when it comes to the “internet of things,” and the need for alternative models to realist interpretations of international relations. In exploring East Asia as a source of alternative model, there is a need to examine two layers of the ILO, free trade and liberal democracy. While China has so far demonstrated its reluctance to support these ILO principles, other countries had and continue to offer other modalities. For instance, a human security approach, which have been the core of Japanese foreign policy in Southeast Asia, compels us to “think outside the box” of the Westphalian, realist worldview, and also to consider an “Asian way” of dealing with humanitarian issues that are still tangible concerns the region. In the domain of technology, despite US and China maintaining a lion’s share of the tech industry, both Japan and South Korea have proven that it is possible to compete with and possibly overtake the US in the production of certain technologies, such as AI.

"This project covers a diverse set of topics that could eventually inspire not only a more sincere and meaningful bilateral relations between the two, but also a more extensive contribution, regionally and internationally".

The second theme tackles the structural embeddedness of the San Francisco System to East Asia. While the American designed hub-and-spokes system benefited both the US and its allies in supporting the former’s hegemonic projects and the latter’s security and economic interests, it is undermined by unsettled historical issues. Japan-South Korea relations, I believe, aptly demonstrate the inseparability of geopolitics from normative issues of reconciliation, where the former is sometimes instrumentalized to pursue the latter. As the participants discussed, Japan’s pursuit for normalization appears to be part of a wholesale package to rewrite history, and consequently triggers anti-Japan sentiments from South Korea. This cascaded to informally invalidating previous reconciliation agreements on the state level, and the Koreans’ boycotting of Japanese products. A point of convergence, however, complicates the situation. Both Japan and South Korea are US allies, and in being so, the two “spokes” have each been more preoccupied in acting on American interests in the region, rather than concentrating on their problems. Thus, means to resolve geostrategic and historical issues have fallen short of transforming unequal relations with the US, and remained within the rigid confines of the 68-year old San Francisco System.


Yet, the problem is not exclusively about how state leaders conduct international politics. The third theme highlights the responsibility of scholars and other non-state actors in dealing with the history problem. An outstanding issue is the tendency of each country to write their own history (and mythologies) without promoting inter-cultural/historical understanding. One of the participants, Dr Brendan Howe’s characterization aptly summarized the condition: “Japan escapes from history, Korean maintains it, China invents it.”  Because it has been proven difficult to tackle this “history problem” within the state-centric framework, third parties such as the National Libraries, the academe and civil societies from across the region should work together to rectify both the West’s historical misreading of the region, and to make their existing projects that earnestly address history be heard, if not central to state-level discourse on the issue.


Indeed, the prospects for the bilateral relationship appear gloomy. This does not, however, stop the participants of this project to think about areas where Japan and South Korea could collaborate. During the Association for Asian Studies Conference in Asia (AAS-in-Asia 2020), they gathered virtually in a Special Roundtable entitled, “Japan and Korea in the US-China Relations: A Reappraisal of the Post-War Order”. During this session, each discussant offered their perspectives on how a sustainable Japan-South Korea partnership could influence China-US relations. Three spheres of possible cooperation stood out: (1) non-traditional security; (2) multilateralism; and, (3) technology. With the insufficiency of the Westphalian system in addressing transnational issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, influx of refugees and cybercrime, Japan and South Korea as middle powers should seize this moment of historical transition in the region to play their shared strengths of understanding non-state-centric threats. The major problem that befalls the two, however, is their respective nationalist government’s tendency to politicize and securitize non-traditional security issues, thereby turning them into traditional security concerns. Another challenge is the geostrategic differences between the two, especially when it comes to North Korea and Pan-Korean nationalism, where Japan assumes a supportive but peripheral role. Considering South Korea’s complex domestic politics vis-à-vis North Korea, China and the alliance with the US, Japan arguably is in a less complicated position.

China and the US remain significant to Japan-South Korea relations, especially in the domain of technology, therfore It is important to look at the political economy of tech wars.

Multilateralism appears to offer a viable alternative, that is, considering a third-party state as a space for collaboration. Clashes in security and trade between China and the US paved way for recent trends towards multilateral frameworks, guided mostly by the strategic visions of middle and emerging powers. Bilateralism, in the context of Japan-South Korea relations, appears to have short-term results but lacking in concrete, sustainable outcomes because they are not institutionalized, something a multilateral structure could address. A multilateral relationship with India that was floated by Dr Kei Koga, in particular, provides a promising opportunity for Japan and South Korea to work on shared functional interests, such as infrastructure cooperation, where India could supply human resources, and Japan and South Korea offering experience and technology respectively.


Still, China and the US remain significant to Japan-South Korea relations, especially in the domain of technology. The existing technological disputes between the two, along with the changes the COVID-19 brought in how the world relies more on the internet, has made predicting the impact of tech wars more difficult. It is important to look at the political economy of tech wars, especially the goal of the US to curb advanced semiconductor access to China, and to understand how this could pose another challenge to possible cooperation between Japan and South Korea.

What Lies Ahead

Clearly, the lines that divide Japan and South Korea are both geostrategic and ontological. While they share similar concerns regarding the security and stability of the region, the issues of national identity and historical interpretation loom large in the background. However, as these problems are historically constituted and contemporarily conditioned, the project thus far has demonstrated that there is a chance to reconstruct such damaged relations for both Japan and South Korea’s sake and the benefit of the region. Casting the net further than what the Westphalian state system could help broaden our perspective and shed light to the existing efforts that bind Japan and South Korea – NTS efforts which have been thus far rendered secondary to traditional security interests.  While the challenge of COVID-19 pandemic is out of Japan and South Korea’s control, there remains the persistent humanitarian and developmental concerns in other parts of Asia, especially Southeast Asia, where they could effectively act upon.


Carmina Yu Untalan

Project Assistant

Dr Carmina Yu Untalan is a fellow at the IAFOR Research Centre, Osaka School of International Public Policy, Osaka University.

Banner Image: Kuromon Ichiba Market, Ōsaka-shi, Japan. Photo: Andy Kelly, Unsplash

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