Japan–South Korea relations

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Japan–South Korea relations
Map indicating locations of Japan and South Korea


South Korea
Diplomatic mission
Japanese Embassy, SeoulSouth Korean Embassy, Tokyo [ko]
Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine [ja]Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo [ko]

Japan–South Korea relations refers to the bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea. After the division of Korea, Japan and South Korea established diplomatic relations in December 1965, under the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, with Japan recognizing South Korea as the only legitimate government of the whole Korean peninsula.

Japan and South Korea are close geographical neighbors, and since the end of World War II are both allied with the United States. Despite this, the relationship between the two states are almost always strained, due to many disputes. These disputes include: territorial claims on Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo or Takeshima), Japanese prime ministers' visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and differing views on Imperial Japan's treatment of colonial Korea, as well as Japan's refusal to negotiate Korea's demands that it apologize or pay reparations for mistreatment of World War II comfort women from Korea. The Diplomatic Blue Book by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 2018 removed the phrase present in the previous year referring to the ROK as "Japan’s most important neighbor that shares strategic interests with Japan."[1] These tensions have complicated American aspirations and efforts to promote a front against China as a common enemy.[2]

According to a 2014 BBC World Service poll, 13% of Japanese view South Korea's influence positively, with 37% expressing a negative view, while 15% of South Koreans view Japanese influence positively, with 79% expressing negatively, making South Korea, after China, the country with the second most negative perception of Japan in the world.[3]


Embassy of South Korea in Japan

In line with the 1965 reconciliation treaties, Japan continued to improve its relations with South Korea. Tokyo provided $300 million as compensation to so-called comfort women, forced laborers and other victims, and extended an additional $200 million credit to Seoul, and Prime Minister Sato attended official functions in July, the first visit of a Japanese premier to postwar Korea. Nevertheless, Seoul objected violently to occasional visits by Japanese politicians to North Korea, to the continuation of Red Cross repatriation of Korean residents in Japan to North Korea, and to the proposal of Tokyo Governor Minobe to permit a pro-North Korean university in Tokyo. The Japanese Foreign Ministry opposed Minobe on this issue in order to prove its loyalty to South Korea. Meanwhile, contacts between Japan and South Korea increased through new air routes, tourism, and trade.

In 1975, South Korean–Japanese relations improved following the July "settlement" of a two-year-old feud that began when South Korean agents abducted Kim Dae-jung, an opposition leader (and future President of South Korea), from a Tokyo hotel. As a result of the settlement, a long-delayed ministerial conference was held in Seoul in September to discuss economic cooperation between the two countries. Japan joined the United States in providing assurances for South Korea's security. In a joint statement by Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki and President Ford declared: "The security of the Republic of Korea is ... necessary for peace and security in East Asia, including Japan".

Trade and partnership[edit]

In 1996 FIFA announced that the two countries would jointly host the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The next few years would see leaders of both countries meet to warm relations in preparations for the games.[4] Though citizens of both countries were initially unhappy about having to share the honors with the other, and the Liancourt Rocks controversy flared up again, the event turned out to be very successful.

According to David Kang and Jiun Bang, South Korea has tried to create a peaceful middle ground with other North Asian countries such as Japan, for business and trade because of its objective to be the "center of Asian business".[5] The two argue that this agreement favors China more than Japan due to South Korea's unsafe political security history with Japan, which has affected the Seoul-Tokyo economic relations.[5] This has led to a decrease in trade and export between both countries; Japanese tourism is one of the big exporting services South Korea offers, which decreased by a rate of approximately 23% between the year 2012 and 2013.[5]

In 2013 South Korea banned the import of fish from eight states in Japan due to growing concerns over the Fukushima nuclear power plant waste incident, after Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) declared the incident to be a radioactive waste a couple of years after the earthquake.[6] Japan considered the ban a hostile move, leading the Japanese government to file a complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in May 2015, claiming that Seoul was "discriminating against" Japanese seafood'.[7] In October 2017 the WTO issued a ruling, with reports stating that South Korea lost the case.[7]

On April 12, 2019, the WTO overturned its initial 2013 decision. Nearly 50 countries have enacted bans on Japanese imports following the nuclear disaster of 2011, though Japan has only filed a case to the WTO exclusively on South Korea's import restrictions.[8]

In July 2019, Japan announced that the export of several controlled items to South Korea would now be put through restrictions including a licensing process. Specifically, Japan notified restrictions on fluorinated polyimides, hydrogen fluoride, and photo resists.[9][10] South Korean tech companies currently import either a majority or a large portion of these three tech imports from Japan.[11] The restrictions came into effect starting on July 4, 2019. In a news release, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) gave a lack of trust on their side for South Korea's export control and restriction system, along with the discovery of controlled items being improperly exported by companies to South Korea, as justification of the restrictions.[12] While METI has not given specific details or examples of the above narrative,[13] some media reports claim South Korea may have passed on restricted chemicals to the United Arab Emirates, Iran, or North Korea.[9][14][15] South Korea denies claims that their country's export governance is lax, and summoned a Japanese embassy official to speak against Japan's allegations that South Korea was inept in carrying out sanctions against North Korea.[9][15] South Korean Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Sung Yun-mo stated that an emergency inspection on companies importing chemicals from Japan came up with no evidence those chemicals were being exported to North Korea, and that Japan's claims were groundless and should be stopped.[9] Others view Japan's trade restrictions as partially being an excuse to retaliate against suspected intellectual property infringement by South Korean companies.[10]

Japan intends to begin a new round of trade restrictions, this time striking South Korea from a list of nations that are viewed as taking necessary measures against the proliferation of conventional weapons and weapons of mass-destruction.[14][15] A removal from the list enables METI to perform restrictions on any export to South Korea, including those outside the current three key tech-imports, on the basis of national security concerns from Japan's view.[15][16]


Statue of An Jung-geun in Seoul, who assassinated Japanese Prime Minister Itō Hirobumi in 1909.

Sea of Japan naming dispute[edit]

There is dispute over the international name for the body of water between Japan and Korea. Japan points out that the name "Sea of Japan" (Japanese: 日本海) was used in a number of European maps from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, and that many maps today retain this naming. However, South Korean government has protested that the term "East Sea" has been used in Korea for 2000 years and Japan encouraged the usage of the name "Sea of Japan" while Korea lost effective control over its foreign policy under Japanese imperial expansion.[17] South Korea argues that the name "East Sea" or "Korean Eastern Sea" (Korean동해; Hanja東海), which was one of the most common names found on old European maps of this sea, should be the name instead of (or at least used concurrently with) "Sea of Japan."

Japan claims that Western countries named it the "Sea of Japan" prior to 1860, before the growth of Japanese influence over Korean foreign policy after the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Further, Japan claims that the primary naming occurred during the period of Sakoku, when Japan had very little foreign contact, and thus Japan could not have influenced the naming decisions.[18] It was the 1928 International Hydrographic Organization's Limits of Oceans and Seas document, which officially took the name Sea of Japan, which eventually influenced other official international documents such as those by the United Nations. Japan also claims that it is not important whether the term "East Sea" has been used in Korea for more than 2000 years because it is only the localized name and how it was named internationally is more important. South Korea claims that Korea was occupied by the Japanese and effectively had no international voice to protest in 1928.[citation needed]

Liancourt Rocks[edit]

The Liancourt Rocks, called Dokdo (독도; 獨島; lit. "solitary island") in Korean and Takeshima (竹島, "bamboo island") in Japanese, are a group of islets in the Sea of Japan that is occupied by South Korea. There are valuable fishing grounds around the islets and potentially large reserves of methane clathrate.[19]

The territorial dispute is a major source of nationalist tensions between the two nations.[20] Currently, South Korea occupies the island, which has its Korean Coast Guard stationed there, as well as two elderly Korean residents.[21]

Comfort women for Japanese military[edit]

Wednesday demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, October 2012

Korea has been demanding official acknowledgement with a sincere apology and compensation for the sex slaves or comfort women issue, referring to the women and girls who were forced to have sex with Imperial Japanese military soldiers during World War II. According to the World Conference on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, enlisted to the military stations through force, kidnapping, coercion, and deception, the Korean sex slaves, mostly girls under the age of 18, were raped and tortured by 30–40 soldiers each day.[22] According to the New York Times,

Most mainstream historians agree that the Imperial Army treated women in conquered territories as spoils of battle, rounding them up to work in a system of military-run brothels known as comfort stations that stretched from China to the South Pacific. Many were deceived with offers of jobs in factories and hospitals and then forced to provide sex for imperial soldiers in the comfort stations. In Southeast Asia, there is evidence that Japanese soldiers simply kidnapped women to work in the comfort stations.

Among the women who have come forward to say they were forced to have sex with soldiers are Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos, as well as Dutch women captured in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony.[23]

Japanese media attempts to shift blame for the wartime brothels away from the Japanese military onto others, saying, "Prostitution agents were prevalent due to the poverty and patriarchal family system. For that reason, even if the military was not directly involved, it is said it was possible to gather many women through such methods as work-related scams and human trafficking."[24] As the few surviving female victims continue to strive for official acknowledgment and a sincere apology, the Japanese court system has rejected such claims due to the length of time and claiming that there is no evidence.

In November 1990, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military (한국정신대문제대책협의회; 韓國挺身隊問題對策協議會) was established in South Korea. In 1993, the government of Japan officially acknowledged the presence of sexual slavery in World War II. As of 2008, a lump sum payment of 43 million Korean won and a monthly payment of 0.8 million won are given to the survivors.[22][25] The Japanese government has also arranged an organization that gives money and official letters of apology to the victims.[22] Today, many of the surviving female victims are in their 80s. As of 2007, according to South Korean government, there are 109 survivors in South Korea and 218 in North Korea. The survivors in South Korea protest in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea every Wednesday. The protest was held for 1000th time in December 2011.[26]

In December 2000, The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery sat in Tokyo, Japan. During the proceedings, the judges of the Tribunal heard hours of testimony by 75 survivors, as well as reviewed affidavits and video interviews by countless others. The Tribunal's Judgment found Emperor Hirohito and other Japanese officials guilty of crimes against humanity and held that Japan bore state responsibility and should pay reparations to the victims.

In July 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution demanding that Japan apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II. The resolution was sponsored by Mike Honda (D-CA), a third-generation Japanese-American.[22][27] On December 13, 2007, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that demands the Japanese government to apologize to the survivors of Japan's military sexual slavery system. This resolution was passed with 54 ayes out of 57 parliament members present.[28]

On 28 December 2015, Japan and South Korea have agreed to finally and irreversibly settle the issue of "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War II, in their first such deal since 1965. Japan had made an apology and will pay 1bn yen ($8.3m, £5.6m) to fund victims. The announcement came after Japan's foreign minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Seoul for discussions with his counterpart Yun Byung-se, following moves to speed up talks. However, on November 21, 2018, the government of South Korea discarded the 2015 agreement by deciding to shut down the foundation launched in July 2016 to finance the agreement's controversial settlement.[29]

Forced labor of Koreans during World War II[edit]

During World War II, Japanese Empire conscripted as many as 7.8 million Koreans into forced labor, including military service and sex slavery (AKA comfort women).[30][31]

In 2019, the South Korean Court rulings allowed individual Korean citizens to sue Japanese companies for compensation over their use of forced labor during the Second World War. This has led to an increase in tensions between the two countries. According to Japan, all issues related to wartime conduct were settled in 1965 when the two countries signed agreements establishing diplomatic and economic relations that included some reparations for Japanese actions during the war.[32] However, there is a different perspective on the 1965 treaty; individual rights to ask for reparations have not been part of the treaty in order to achieve diplomatic relations on a nation-to-nation basis. That is why "the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, two corporations that exploited Korean labor during Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910–1945), should pay reparations to their victims." [30]

On July 29, Several Japanese medias reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan disclosed "the claims for Japan" presented by the Korean government in the process of negotiating the Japan–Korea claim agreement concluded in 1965 regarding the WWII. It specifies the claims for compensation to Korea is "complete and final" by Korea accepting a total of $500 million in funding. The claim consists of eight articles, in which it states that "the claim by recruited Koreans for, reimbursement, compensation, and other claims required" are all included. According to the Negotiated Minutes published along with the claim, when the Japanese representative asked, "Do you want Japan to pay for Korean individuals?" in the May 1961 negotiations, the Korean side said, "We will receive the whole payment as a country, and the domestic payments will be made as necessary as domestic measures." Thus, Japanese government provided $300 million in free and $200 million in charge to the Korean government.[16]

Cultural exchange[edit]

In spite of the many disputes that are negatively affecting the relations between the two nations, both enjoy cultural exchanges with each other.

From South Korea to Japan[edit]

In recent years, South Korean pop culture experienced some popularity in Japan, a phenomenon dubbed the "Korean Wave" (韓流) among K-pop fans in Japan. The Korean Wave has sparked a fad for Korean movies, dramas, and pop music in Japan.

A Korean television series entitled Winter Sonata, which first appeared in Japan in April 2003, became a runaway hit in Japan,[33] and has often been identified as a landmark in South Korean-Japanese cultural exchange. The female K-pop artist BoA is one of the most popular singers in Japan with six consecutive albums topping the Billboard charts.[34]

In more recent years various K-pop acts, including Super Junior, TVXQ, Choshinsung, Big Bang, Kara, Girls' Generation, 2PM, and later Twice, BTS and Red Velvet, have made their debuts in Japan, and these groups have contributed to the rebirth of the Korean Wave in Japan. Kara, Girls' Generation and Twice, in particular, has been topping numerous charts and awards in Japan.[35][36][37]

The South Korean government maintains Korean cultural education centers in: Tokyo, Chiba, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Nagano, Nara, Okayama, Osaka, Saitama, Sapporo, Sendai, Shimonoseki, and Yokohama.[38]

South Korean international schools associated with the Mindan include: Tokyo Korean School, Educational Foundation Kyoto International School, Kongo Gakuen (Geumgang Hagwon), and Baekdu Hagwon (Keonguk).[39]

From Japan to South Korea[edit]

After the end of World War II, South Korea banned Japanese cultural imports such as music, film, anime, video games, literature (manga). However, the ban was partially lifted under the Kim Dae-jung administration in 1998.[40][41] In 2004, the ban on imports of Japanese CDs and DVDs was lifted.[42]

There are two nihonjin gakko Japanese schools in South Korea for Japanese children in the country: Japanese School in Seoul and Busan Japanese School.

Military relations[edit]

In 2012, it was reported that South Korea agreed to sign a military pact with Japan, possibly in response to threats from North Korea and China. The military agreement between South Korea and Japan is a military intelligence-sharing pact. However, the fact that the government tried to pass it without public discussion or debate in the National Assembly was reported by The Korea Herald.[43] The Majority of citizens, the opposition party and even the ruling party objected the military cooperation due to historical and territorial disputes and the possibility of provoking North Korea and China.[44] Therefore, it was delayed only an hour before the signing ceremony.[45]

The reason why the governments of South Korea and Japan wanted to sign it was both South Korea and Japan are U.S. allies and have their own military alliances with the United States.[46]

In November 2016, despite criticism from all sides, ROK and Japan signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement [jp] (GSOMIA), which means Japan and South Korea share military information about North Korea without the US.[47]

In 2017, South Korean Foreign Minister stated that South Korea would not enter any trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan, something that Chinese President Xi Jinping raised concerns about when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in. South Korea has been wary of Japan’s ambitions, under its prime minister Shinzo Abe, to increase its military profile in the region.[48] Moon stated that "If Japan uses a nuclear-armed North Korea as an excuse for its military expansion, it would not be appropriate for ASEAN nations as well."[49]

The GSOMIA agreement is automatically renewed unless either of countries wants to terminate it. In August 2017, South Korea and Japan decided to renew the agreement.[50]

Relations between the two countries deteriorated following an incident on December 20 between a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Kawasaki P-1 and a South Korean destroyer. According to Japan, South Korea deliberately targeted the Japanese aircraft with missile-targeting radar. The Republic of Korea Government explained that the Japanese patrol aircraft had been flying at an extremely low altitude and interfering with a humanitarian rescue operation and the ROK destroyer had not illuminated JMSDF's aircraft with STIR (Signal Tracking and Illumination Radar).[51] The disagreement continued to escalate prompting a comment from the United States Department of Defense about ongoing instability in the Asia Pacific region.[52]

On August 22, 2019, South Korea gave Japan the required 90-day notice that it intends to pull out of the GSOMIA, further straining relations between the countries.[53] Days later, Japan summoned the South Korean ambassador to protest Seoul’s decision to put an end to an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo.[54] In November, 2019, Japan and South Korea agreed to hold formal talks in December in a step to improve relations after recent trade disputes.[55]


Japan–South Korea tourist comparison 2005–2015

Since Lee Myung-bak's visit to the Liancourt Rocks and repeated demands for the emperor to apologize again in 2012, the Japanese public's image of South Korea deteriorated significantly. Japanese tourists to South Korea declined by half from 3.5 million in 2012 to 1.8 million in 2015 while South Korean tourists doubled from 2 million in 2012 to 4 million in 2015.[56][57][58]

Official view[edit]

The Diplomatic Blue Book [ja], a document published by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its 2018 version, in the section relevant to relations with South Korea, stated simply: "Their good relationship is essential for peace and stability in the Asian-Pacific region", removing the foregoing part from the previous year: "The Republic of Korea (ROK) is Japan’s most important neighbor that shares strategic interests with Japan." The tone has seen a continuous downward trend from the peak in 2014 which went as "The Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan are the most important neighboring countries to each other, which share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and respect for basic human rights."[1]

On March 2, 2015, the document was revised to read to simply Japan's "most important neighboring country" reflecting the deteriorated relations. The change was made the day after South Korean President Park Geun-hye's speech that Japan and South Korea, “both upholding values of liberal democracy and a market economy, are important neighbors..."[59] A Japanese government official said, “There is distrust in South Korea’s judiciary and society.” In February 2012, the words "sharing of the basic values of basic human rights" had already been removed in the text.[60][61][62][63][64]

See also[edit]


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