For the last four years, Japan and South Korea have been locked in bitter a feud. Tensions between the two countries date back more than a hundred years, centering on Japan’s brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. During World War II, Japan forced nearly 750,000 Korean men to serve as laborers and 200,000 women to serve as sex slaves; many of these captives died or were maimed as a result. Countless others were killed. In just one day in 1919, the Japanese colonial police executed some 7,500 Korean protesters.
Disputes over apologies and reparations—known in South Korea as “history issues”— have flared time and again between the two U.S.-allied democracies, preventing them from forging a closer relationship. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2018, when South Korea’s top court ordered the Japanese firm Mitsubishi to compensate the Koreans it had conscripted as forced laborers, and South Korea’s progressive president, Moon Jae-in, shut down a foundation that was central to a controversial 2015 deal to compensate the so-called comfort women. Tensions spiraled from there, with Tokyo enacting punitive trade measures against South Korea and Seoul hitting back by threatening to cancel an intelligence-sharing pact.
The prospects for a rapprochement seemed to improve in March 2022, when South Koreans elected the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol as president. Yoon promised a “future-oriented” relationship with Japan that expands cooperation based on shared values. “I will not repeat the mistake of dividing the people into pro-Japan and anti-Japan, and leaving South Korea-Japan relations tied down in the past”, he vowed on the campaign trail.
Since then, renewed North Korean provocations, growing concerns about Chinese assertiveness, and calls from Washington for closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea on regional security issues have reinforced the need for the two powers to mend fences. And now, amid a flurry of bilateral and trilateral high-level meetings, a diplomatic reset might appear within reach: Japan and South Korea could rebuild their trade relationship, deepen military cooperation, and bolster much-needed collaboration on pressing issues, such as emerging technologies, global health, and climate change.
But this is not the first time the stars have aligned and shared challenges seemed capable of outweighing concerns about colonial injustice. Previous conservative South Korean governments have prioritized cooperation with Japan, including through agreements that were supposed to resolve history issues—notably, a 1965 treaty normalizing relations between the two countries and the 2015 comfort women deal. But such efforts lacked democratic legitimacy and sparked public mistrust and even outrage. Ultimately, they failed because they favored immediate dealmaking over a genuine reckoning with the past.
Yoon’s administration will fail, too, unless it finds a new formula for cooperation with Japan, one that is not only future oriented but also inward looking. At a minimum, success will require acknowledging that past attempts at reconciliation were fundamentally undemocratic. A sustainable entente will require building trust with the victims of Japanese colonial crimes and coordinating closely with Tokyo on public messaging. Absent sufficient public consultation in South Korea and a commitment by Japan to avoid nationalist provocations, any attempt to resolve history issues is likely to fall short once again.
Reconciliation Without Forgiveness
The road to reconciliation between Japan and South Korea has been long and full of false starts. Talks over normalization began in 1951 under the conservative Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, at the urging of the United States. Rhee was an ardent nationalist, but his ruling coalition included elites who had collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation. Despite this uncomfortable fact, Rhee frequently stoked anti-Japanese sentiment for his own political gain, causing the negotiations with Tokyo to break down. In exchange for restoring diplomatic ties, Rhee demanded colonial reparations and recognition of South Korean sovereignty over disputed territories—at one point unilaterally extending South Korea’s maritime boundaries far beyond the country’s internationally recognized territorial waters.
It was not until 1965 that the terms of a normalization treaty were finalized under the conservative South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. Park sought reconciliation with Japan as a bulwark against international communism and as a catalyst for economic modernization, but much of the South Korean public saw his government’s diplomatic efforts as little more than collusion with Japan—and by the same segment of the authoritarian ruling class that had benefited most from collaborating with Japan during the colonial period. An estimated 3.5 million South Koreans demonstrated against the agreement, pouring into the streets and chanting, “Stop the humiliating diplomacy”. On multiple occasions, Park violently quashed anti-Japanese rallies and dismissed calls for colonial justice as untimely and even unpatriotic.
Park’s legacy was further tarnished in 2004, when South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, a progressive, made public confidential documents showing that Park had funneled Japanese compensation for colonial and wartime crimes to nation-building projects instead of to the victims and their families. In so doing, Roh redirected public resentment against Japan to South Korea’s “pro-Japan” conservatives, who were seen as having robbed the victims of Japanese injustice. This bolstered progressives politically, but it also lent a degree of credence to Japan’s rhetorical insistence that it had already paid for its past offenses.
Reconciliation, in this progressive narrative, had been achieved not by forgiveness but by coercion. Even worse, Park and his conservative successors had been bolstered by the very imperial forces from which the South Koreans had hoped to escape, in exchange for renouncing their right to forgive and to hold Japan accountable. It was no surprise, then, that pro-democracy activists such as Im Jongguk came to call for the “eradication of vestiges of Japanese imperialism and the restoration of national righteousness”. Anti-Japanism became an expression of democracy.
This fraught history helps explain why, contrary to popular belief, South Korean conservatives such as Yoon are uniquely constrainedwhen seeking rapprochement with Japan. In 2012, for instance, conservative President Lee Myung-bak tried to negotiate a military intelligence-sharing deal with Japan. But the secrecy surrounding the negotiations was interpreted by many South Koreans as evidence of collusion, and Lee was forced to walk away from the agreement after an outpouring of public rage. He abruptly reversed his policy on Japan, seeking to repair his image with a series of inflammatory actions, including a surprise visit to the disputed territory of Dokdo, a small group of islets in the Sea of Japan referred to by Tokyo as Takeshima.
Park Geun-hye, Lee’s successor (and the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee), faced a similar predicament. In 2015, she signed the so-called comfort women deal with then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Tokyo agreed to pay one billion yen, roughly $9 million, toward assisting the 46 living victims of sexual slavery in Japan. In a joint declaration, the two leaders pledged to have settled the issue in a “final and irreversible” manner. Yet the Korean Council—a civil society group representing the surviving comfort women and their families—rejected the deal as “diplomatic collusion” and refused the funds, claiming that they were not legal reparations but veiled payoffs to silence the victims. In demonstrations across the country, protesters compared the comfort women deal to the 1965 normalization treaty, which Park’s father had rammed through with a similar lack of public consultation.
Less than two years after its signing, the 2015 agreement unraveled when Park was ousted for corruption. Her successor, Moon, appointed an independent team of investigators to look into the deal, and they found that it had been made without sufficient consultation with the victims. Moon then took steps to dismantle the agreement, calling it “inconclusive”—as opposed to “final and irreversible”—and eventually shuttering the Japanese-funded foundation that was tasked with distributing the funds. Crucially, he blamed the weak “democratic procedural legitimacy” of the deal for its failure to deliver justice.
This legacy of forced reconciliation is likely to complicate the current president’s rapprochement agenda. As a conservative, Yoon carries a historical burden that progressives do not, and worsening partisan polarization in South Korea bodes ill for his efforts.
Meanwhile, Japan is not doing anything to help bridge the gap. On the contrary, it has taken a series of untimely and misguided actions that have stoked anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea. In March 2022, Japan revised its history textbooks to claim Dokdo as a Japanese territory and eliminate expressions such as “forced recruitment” and “sexual slavery” from its curriculum on the colonial era. Such revisionism makes it harder for Yoon to persuade the South Korean public of the prudence of rapprochement. It also enhances the potency of a familiar progressive narrative weapon—that of conservative collusion with Japan.
Overcoming these obstacles to reconciliation will require procedural legitimacy. Any effort to craft a deal to resolve history issues once and for all must involve careful consultations with civil society groups such as the Korean Council and with the broader public. So far, Yoon’s administration has made only limited attempts to engage civil society. It has established a joint public-private councilon the forced labor issue but has also pressured the courts to prevent the liquidation of Japanese companies’ assets, which victim support groups have labeled an “act of sabotage”. Already, members of the council have floated the idea of having South Korean companies pay off the victims—without Japanese apologies or reparations—in order to break the diplomatic deadlock between the two countries, suggesting that this initiative may resemble previous ones in being oriented more toward Japan than toward the victims.
Rapprochement with Japan would be a tall order for any South Korean president. But it is an especially tall one for a conservative president who faces a dwindling public approval rating and an increasingly nationalist counterpart in Japan. And although there are many reasons to seek reconciliation—from tackling shared demographic and environmental challenges to maintaining regional stability—old patterns of hostility will be difficult to break, especially if efforts to seek common ground generate conspiracy at home rather than compromise abroad.
What Yoon needs is an approach that is both future oriented and inward looking, one that bridges the ever-widening divide between the two countries’ historical narratives. Both the South Korean and Japanese governments must rein in historical revisionism and more clearly demarcate the boundaries of reasonable disagreement. To that end, they should institute a moratorium on unilateral changes to history textbooks, create exchange programs for legal scholars and historians aimed at clarifying historical ambiguities, and promote efforts by civil society to build a joint mechanism for commemoration.
Yoon must also lay the domestic groundwork for an eventual agreement, ensuring that South Korean citizens won’t reject it as they did previous deals. To that end, he should regularly inform the public of his conciliatory efforts and consult relevant civil society groups, so that any deal with Japan is seen as representing the interests of South Koreans in general and the victims of Japanese colonial crimes in particular. At a minimum, Yoon must avoid blindsiding victim support groups in his dealings with Japan and give them a seat at the negotiating table whenever possible. Instead of conducting talks behind closed doors and announcing a surprise pact, the two countries must adopt a set of procedural steps, including a process for public comment, that seek popular approval for the chosen mechanism for dispute resolution—whether that is international arbitration or bilateral negotiation. Repairing public trust in the rapprochement process will take time, which is why sustained efforts at dialogue will be crucial.
Finally, Yoon can begin to re-narrate the history of colonial memory in South Korea by acknowledging the failures of past conservative rapprochement efforts. Admitting that these initiatives forced reconciliation without forgiveness and robbed the victims of justice might be politically costly for conservatives. But doing so would give Yoon the best chance of upending the entrenched narrative of colonial-authoritarian illegitimacy that has prevented South Korea and Japan from settling their disputes over the past for so long.
Eun A Jo is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Cornell University and Predoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University.