theOn January 19, 2018, the talk “How Have the ‘North Korea Factors’ Shaped Japan-South Korea Relations?” was held at the Munk School of Global Affairs. The speaker was Dr. Seung Hyok Lee, Associate at the Centre for the Study of Global Japan in the Munk School and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. Lee’s research interests include the influence of domestic society on publicized foreign policy issues with a focus on Japan and North and South Korea. The event was chaired by Dr. Louis Pauly, Distinguished Professor of Political Economy and Interim Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto. Pauly publishs extensively in economic crisis management and global finance. The Centre for the Study of Global Japan sponsored the talk, with the Munk Institute of Global Affairs, the Asian Institute, the Centre for the Study of Korea, and the Department of Political Science as co-sponsors. In the talk, Lee argued that the “North Korea Factors” have complicated Japan-South Korea relations over the last decade.
Lee started by laying out the framework of his analysis of Japan-South Korea relations. Taking a constructivist view, he argued that in publicized bilateral issues, societies guide and frame the policy options that are open to politicians. Lee cautioned against viewing this influence as necessarily “good,” arguing that bilateral issues may be better resolved without domestic popular influence. However, as he later argues, this is the “dilemma of democracies”—individuals will inevitably have different levels of emotional engagement with foreign policy issues. In democracies, when an emotionally charged issue does arise, it is natural for leaders to make gestures appeasing the domestic public, often at the expense of a more effective foreign policy.
Lee noted that in the early 2000s, it appeared that South Korean and Japanese foreign policy towards North Korea had begun to shift. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung’s visit in 2000 and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in 2002 signaled an unprecedented shift in relations. Japan appeared to be reevaluating its policy of minimal contact with North Korea in favour of formalizing relations and taking a leading role in resolving the nuclear weapon and missile issue. South Korea, for its part, seemed to have abandoned its intensely anti-communist Cold War framework in favor of a “Sunshine Policy” rooted in a “One Nation sentiment” and the objective of a “Korea-centred” reunification of the peninsula.
Rapprochement was met with contrasting domestic reactions in South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, it was met with an unprecedented “diversification of discourse” surrounding Cold War “security identities” and high levels of emotional support. As the scope of legitimate discourse on North Korea expanded, former participants in 1980s democratization demonstrations advocated for reevaluation of South Korea’s alliance with the United States.
In Japan an issue unrelated to security halted developments and raised domestic opposition. Reports in the Japanese media that a number of Japanese citizens had been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s were met with an admission and precedential apology from Kim Jong-Il. At first, the Japanese leadership miscalculated the ramifications of the revelation and assumed that an apology would appease the public. Instead, the issue not only halted the establishment of Japan-North Korea agreements but also grew into what Lee considers the single greatest issue in Japan-North Korea relations to the present day. As Lee notes, the revelation placed under question Japan’s post-WWII official “dogmatic” remorse towards North Korea as a “colonial victim.” Now, for the first time since WWII, Japan had been victimized by the deliberate actions of another country. North Korea coverage, tainted by the abduction issue, saturated the Japanese media from 2002-2006, allowing the Japanese public to “personalize” the tragedy. Due to the intense emotions of the domestic public, it became politically impossible for Abe to proceed until the status of all abductees was known. In 2002 to 2003, all agreements between Japan and North Korea halted. Relations continued to deteriorate with Japan’s imposition of unilateral sanctions on North Korea in response to the latter’s 2006 nuclear missile test.
South Korea and Japan’s shifting approaches to North Korea colored their perceptions of one another with what Lee calls a “mutual security anxiety.” South Koreans saw Japan as inflating the abduction issue as a means of justifying a “muscle flexing” colonial stance towards North and South Korea. Japanese citizens, on the other hand, were concerned that South Korea was weakening the Japan-South Korea-US security bloc by siding with China and the Communist regimes. In both cases, Lee contends, academics and the media were guided by inaccurate “historical common sense” that painted in the first instance, Japan as a colonial power, and in the second, South Korea as historically cursed to side with either the US and Japan or China.
Lee contends that the expansion of South Korea and Japan’s security discourse is structural. Irrespective of leadership or the prominence of the “North Korea Factors,” Japan and South Korea’s “mutual security anxiety” at the societal level is likely to persist. While what we are seeing is a structural side-effect of democracy, Lee argues, what both countries can do is recognize that the lack of a definitive “grand strategy” on the issues of North Korea and the US on either side and the democratic nature of both countries makes an extreme outcome impossible.
In the Q&A section, Dr. Pauly raised the question of whether Lee’s assessment was coloured by an “American” view of democracy as a system where “society leads, leaders follow.” He contrasted this with the “Canadian view” wherein society is “not a political creature until it is constructed by the leadership.” In the second view, the “politics of the moment” are constructed by the leadership using the “resources” of history. To Dr. Pauly’s question of how we are to decide among these views, Lee contended that while a bottom-up approach is not applicable to all policy issues, in the given area, society significantly altered policy by making certain choices politically infeasible.
There were several questions regarding the issue of how to strengthen South Korea-Japan ties. In response to a question about how to improve the South Korea-Japan-US “security community,” Liu noted that the problem for South Korea is that an alliance of such a nature necessitates an “enemy.” Were South Korea to participate in such a community, the enemy would be China, a country that South Korea does not want to antagonize. Another participant asked how South Korea and Japan could overcome deep-seated emotions in the way that had happened in Europe post-WWII and in the US post-Pearl Harbor. They noted that with time, economic interdependence tends to shift countries’ fundamental interests; countries do not “need to love one another, they just need to need one another.” Lee argued that while there is some interdependence between Japan and South Korea, mutual security anxiety significantly constrains it.
There was also significant discussion of the role of generational changes and of historical narratives in the Japan-South Korea relationship. Lee contended that from his experience, there is a difference between the older and the younger generation of Koreans. While the older generation holds official animosity towards Japan, on an individual level there is coexistence. Lee notes that while at the individual level the views of the younger generation towards Japan are positive, this generation’s knowledge is not as deep as that of the older generation. Young people’s opinions are subsequently more vulnerable to media influence and to broad generalization. He compared this situation to Israel, where the younger generation of Palestinians and Israelis is politically polarized as it does not “know” the other side. He argued that the problem is “national histories.” A diversity of narratives is not in itself problematic, but there is a need for those narratives to be mutually acceptable and understandable. In other words, South Korea and Japan must agree to a broad and inalterable “Big Picture” reference frame.
Daniela Zaks is a first year student at the University of Toronto studying International Relations. She is currently serving as a Event Reporter for Synergy.