The Role of Political Leadership in the Formation of Korea-Japan Relations in the Post-Cold War Era

By Kim, Hosup | Asian Perspective, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Role of Political Leadership in the Formation of Korea-Japan Relations in the Post-Cold War Era


Kim, Hosup, Asian Perspective


The variables defining Korea-Japan relations can be categorized into those pertaining to structural elements and those related to leaders. Optimists and pessimists emphasize structural factors when addressing post-Cold War relations. Pessimists say that changes in structural elements such as the post-ColdWar global system are the cause of Korea and Japan drifting apart. Optimists stress another structural factor: their shared political system. But the role of the political leadership, to which neither optimists nor pessimists directly refer, is crucial in the short term in turning historical issues into diplomatic conflicts. Issues in the past relations of the two neighbors have not always become thorny diplomatic controversies, nor have they always prevailed in the links between the two countries. Relations between Korea and Japan are highly likely to expand in an amicable way as long as their leaders manage topics surrounding the past in a manner that prevents them from triggering diplomatic disputes. KEYWORDS: South Korea-Japan relations, East Asian politics, political leadership.

WHICH PATH WILL KOREA-JAPAN RELATIONS TAKE IN THE TWENTY-FIRST century-the one leading to more consolidated, friendly ties, or the one heading for conflict and strife? Will they continue to strengthen their close links with each other, with animosity and confrontation being exceptions to normally smooth relations; or will it be the other way around-ties dominated by aggravating enmity, with trust and reconciliation briefly warming the mostly aloof stances toward each other? Were Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine symbolic of the aloof relations between the two countries, a gesture to be repeated in the future and therefore a barrier to friendly ties; or were the visits exceptions to the closer Korea-Japan relations that have marked the post-Cold War era? Will the gap of interpretations of history between the two countries continue to grow to a point where they cannot reconcile?

Pessimists believe relations will grow cooler as a result of the nationalistic trend in Korea coupled with the expanding political influence of the conservatives in Japan. These analysts say that one of the key variables in this regard is that the two countries no longer have shared security interests as the Cold War has come to an end (Lee 2005). According to the pessimists, during the Cold War, America's global strategy to counter the threat of the communist bloc by creating a common capitalist front moved Korea-Japan relations toward "friendliness." Nationalistic confrontations between the two nations were suppressed. But, say the pessimists, the mechanism has collapsed with the thawing of East-West relations, illustrated by the emergence of anti-Korean feelings in Japan in response to the official expression by the former Korean president RohMoo-hyun of his concern over the resurrection of militarism in Japan.

Pessimists also worried that the year 2010 might witness the explosion of nationalist conflicts. Given that the largest stumbling block to friendly relations between the two countries is the aforementioned gap of historical interpretation, in 2010, which marked the one hundredth anniversary of Japan's occupation of Korea, the clashing views between the two sides on the significance of the annexation could have exercised negative influence on Korea-Japan relations in general. However, if Korea-Japan relations are deteriorating, it would be natural for the human and material exchanges between them to dwindle.

However, the reality is that the mutual trade volume has steadily risen since the end of the Cold War, in parallel with the steady increase of the number of people visiting the other country.1 Further, cultural exchanges are rapidly growing since Korea opened its doors to Japanese culture in 1998, and the influence of the Korean wave (Hallyu) in Japan has expanded to a level that would have been unimaginable before the opening.

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