Learning to Cooperate Not to Cooperate: Bargaining for the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization*

By Yoon, Tae-Ryong | Asian Perspective, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Learning to Cooperate Not to Cooperate: Bargaining for the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization*


Yoon, Tae-Ryong, Asian Perspective


With the conceptual tool of "Pareto optimum" (or "Pareto frontier"), this article offers an explanation as to why the 1965 Korea-Japan normalization was achieved at that particular time. No existing single factor can sufficiently explain the outcome. The exclusive focus of the existing literature on favorable domestic and international conditions only after General Park Chung-hee's military coup in 1961 blinds us to the long-term learning process of the two states. We also need to ask a non-question: Why was normalization so delayed even under favorable conditions at the time? Based on counterfactual analysis, this article argues that without the coup, normalization would have been achieved much faster and in a way more conducive to the genuine Korea-Japan reconciliation. The complicated political situation caused by Park's military coup delayed rather than accelerated the normalization. Refocused analysis suggests that an America-centric approach turns our attention away from the simple but crucial fact that Korea and Japan themselves were most responsible for determining their own bilateral relations, and that the U.S. role in Korea-Japan relations was significant but not determining.

Key words: Korea-Japan relations, East Asian politics, Parento frontier

Introduction: Necessity for Refocusing

When we read about the successful conclusion of the 1965 South Korea-Japan (hereafter, Korea-Japan) normalization of relations, we see that most experts focus on the facilitating factors, such as President Park Chung-hee's pragmatic leadership,1 U.S. pressure,2 backdoor networks,3 domestic politics, and the international situation. For instance, criticizing the leadershipfocused analysis, Victor Cha argues that4

Another factor critical to the materialization of a treaty in 1965 was the subtle but significant efforts of the United States to consolidate the Japan-Korea axis in response to heightened cold-war tensions in the region. . . . By 1964 . . . increasingly tense cold-war circumstances in Asia prompted a marked change in U.S. attitudes. . . . The normalization treaty sheds light on the difficulties of using historical-animosity and leadership variables. . . . [I]n fact, acute historical animosities and anti-treaty sentiments were present on both sides. . . . Instead, confluence of U.S. cold war security imperatives and domestic realpolitik in Tokyo and Seoul produced the settlement.5

Contrary to Cha's emphasis, the U.S. pressure on Korea and Japan to normalize relations had been fundamentally a constant factor despite some "subtle" differences in its intensity.6 Mean- while, Cha downplays the significance of the normalization as he argues that the signing of a basic relations treaty hardly represented the start of a new era of amiable relations, pointing out mass demonstrations against the settlement and residual animosity in the years immediately following the signing of the treaty.7 However, as I will substantiate, his argument is founded on selective evidence.8 After the normalization treaty was signed, Korea-Japan cooperation actually accelerated, even before the Nixon Doctrine in 1969.9

This article seeks to explain why normalization of relations was achieved in 1965. No single cause sufficiently explains the particular outcome. All the factors mentioned above played some positive roles in the normalization process. However, this article introduces a different perspective.

First, because the Korea-Japan normalization treaty was achieved by President Park's administration, the existing literature tends to emphasize various facilitating factors that were present during the period of 1961-1965. Scholars naturally have paid attention to the negotiations that took place between 1961 and 1965. However, this exclusive attention to the 1961-1965 period blinds us to the long-term learning process of the two states since their first conference in 1951. Therefore, what is needed is a longterm focused analysis of the process.

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