Japan & South Korea: A story of bitter history and Co-operation

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The historical and cultural ties between Japan & South Korea along with being allies of the United States appears appealing to the world displaying a strong sense of unity and cooperation among the two nations. However, what if we say that the two nations stand divided by history but united by the USA to counter common threats in the Asian region. Let’s explore more to understand the relationship between Japan & South Korea

The hyper hike of Chinese power at the international platform and the high risk of a potential cold war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China to dominate the world seems inevitable nowadays.

In such a scenario, Japan & South Korea hold the most strategic weight in this new potential cold war due to their geographical proximity with China. Similarly, their contiguity with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea(DPRK)or North Korea is also a strategic containment concerning the nuclear warhead-loaded enemy of the United States. 

The authoritarian regime of North Korea with its leader Kim Jong-un is a continuous threat to the USA and its allies Japan & South Korea

Not only closer proximity, but the defence capabilities and economic strength of these two nations also allow for containing china in its expansionist vision. Furthermore, being diplomatically and politically closer with the United States (Allies) makes them a crucial player in North-East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

A brief background to Japan & South Korea

Japan and South Korea are

On the economic front, South Korea and Japan are considered the Powerhouse of Asia Economic, also known as East Asian Giants, with approximately an economy of (5.18 trillion dollars) of Japan and (1.619 trillion dollars) of South Korea.

Japan & South Korea are the economic powerhouse of Asia with trillions of dollars and leaders in technology around the globe.

Both nations are regarded as Techno based countries as their indigenous companies are regarded as the finest Prime Technological and automobile companies in the world. LG, Samsung, Kia, Hyundai is a classic example of successful South Korean companies. On the other hand, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, Sony is classic examples of successful Japanese companies.

But suppose we behold actuality in the Bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea. In that case, their entire relationship is composed up of “Hostility and Distrust.” Both nations have a long history of despair, which has spoiled their mutual association.

The global Giants of Tech and Automobile Industry

In fact, this often results in rising tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, which acts as a stumbling blockage between Japan and South Korea cooperation.

Historical Bitterness between Japan & South Korea

Both Nation-states share a complex history with each other. They had enormous infighting history. Japan always had a golden desire to conquer the Korean peninsula. In 1910 after a series of wars, the Korean peninsula was annexed and turned into a Japanese colony.

With the successful annexation, the Japanese exercised their authority. They overhauled the Judiciary, legislature, and Civil Administration, which was vested in Korea’s Japanese-established government. Further, the Japanese loaded atrocities on Korean Nationalists who demanded Self Autonomy.

Depiction of Japanese Colonial Empire and Occupation of Asian mainland till 1942

Anti –Japanese voices were brutally suppressed, and Anti – Japanese guerrilla activities or stances were smashed down hard.

War crime and atrocities in Colonial Era

In the duration between 1935 and 1945, it was around 50,000 Koreans were laid down as forced labours in coal mines. In the infamous (Hashima Island case) the Koreans were used as forced labours in coal mines bearing intensive hardships, depriving them of adequate food, medicine, and dignified treatment. 

Korean women were stigmatised as “Sex Slaves”, deprived of all their rights, and used as a commodity to please Japanese soldiers. As a result, Korean women faced sexual harassment, atrocities, mental humiliation during the second world war.

Identity Crisis

File photo of Imperial Japanese Army

One of the Initial initiatives the Japanese took after annexing the Korean Peninsula was enforcing the Japanese language. The Japanese language was pressed down as Korean schools’ primary language, depriving the Koreans of their own native language, which was being forced into oblivion.

Another example of tampering with Korean culture was enforcing compulsory worship at the Shinto shrine. The principles of the Japanese emperor were inducted into the curriculum of Korean schools, and even more horrifying was that the Koreans were forced to take up Japanese names.

We can, without doubt, regard this as one of the examples of attempted brutal repressions by colonial regimes to wipe a unique cultural identity.

Japan & South Korea relations post-second World War

File Photo of Atomic explosion in Japan
Picture Credits@ The Atlantic

The surrender of Imperial Japan after the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their further surrender led to the decolonisation of the Korean peninsula. This further led to the establishment of Independent Korea, with an agreement between the USA and Soviet Union dividing the peninsula on the 38 parallel.

Therefore, the two historic bitter neighbours’- DPRK (Democratic people’s republic of Korea) backed by the USSR and ROK (Republic of Korea) supported by the USA came into existence. 

Japan’s contribution to the Korean War.

Japan played an essential role in the Korean War of 1950 and the subsequent invasion by North Korea of South Korea. The Japanese (Occupied by Allied forces) played a decisive role in rescuing South Korea and conquering the territory back to 38 parallel.  

Relationship between Japan and South Korea (Post Korean war)

At the end of the Korean War and the armistice with North Korea, the most essential thing for South Korea was to rebuild its economy. To undergo economic development and make Korea’s ambition to become a powerhouse in Asia real, South Korea inked a treaty with Japan. This treat came to be known as [ South Korea – Japan treaty of 1965]

A scene from Korean War
Picture Credits@ PBS

In this treaty, Japan agreed to provide 800 million dollars to south Korea as economic assistance and decided to give permanent residence to the Koreans living in Japan before the second world war. 

The United States of America also argued for the normalisation of relations. As a result, political and economic ties rapidly improved.

Drift movement between: Seoul & Tokyo relations

The rapid economic development of the Japanese and South Korean economies contributed to creating a warm and close relationship. Still, a series of unfortunate incidents soured the relationship between the two nation-states.

The most Prominent issue was Japan’s pre-world war colonial ambition. Another instance that enhanced hostility, bitterness between South Korea and Japan was the “Textbook Issue”. Here the Japanese government gave dictated history lessons in textbooks dealing with Japan’s pre-world war activities, glorifying their acts and disregarding any brutality. 

Tokyo and Seoul the heart of Japan & South Korea

Trade Dispute between Japan & South Korea

Trade again remains the “Bone of Contention.” between Seoul and Tokyo, both Nation-State remains the champion of Machinery, Computer, Mechanics, and Robotics.

But recent resentment over Trade has made things worse. Last year, Japan laid down export cut back on chemicals and other materials, critical for the South Korean Technological Industry. Further, the Japanese authority also cited that these materials are illegally sent to North Korea for making weapons.

Japan also enhanced more restrictions that removed South Korea from its most favourable trade partners list.

DPRK or North Korea possesses a most imminent threat to the nations of Japan & South Korea

Seoul’s Retaliation

-President Moon Jae In “Warned Tech companies to prepare for prolonged Trade Dispute”. Therefore, the South Korean government has encouraged the development of goods imported from Japan, thus building its self-reliance. As a result, South Korean masses also showed cold shoulder to Japanese commodities, clothes, beer, boycotting them.

Strife on Cooperation 

There was broad hostility and sourness in the bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, undoubtedly affecting security cooperation in Indo-Pacific.

Workers’ Party Foundation Monument in North Korea

South Korea was also observed to quash [GSOMIA]-General Security of Military Information Agreement in the Hostile atmosphere. GSOMIA- is a trilateral way of strategic intelligence collection very pivotal for Washington, Tokyo, Seoul to counter North Korea’s Missile threats 

American’s Role in Bilateral Relationship Between Japan and South Korea 

The United States of America has always remained the bedrock of this bilateral relationship. They see both East Asian states as pivotal for their national interest to counter rising Chinese influence in the Pacific and nuclear threat from Pyongyang.

America always advocated for a cordial relationship between Seoul and Tokyo to make a stable pacific. The USA knows the strategic importance of South Korea and Japan. Therefore, America has always ensured and recognised all the military and economic assistance to both states.

Statue of Liberty defines the American Ideology


With its regular testing of nuclear arsenals and emergence of Powerful china in the backyard of both countries, North Korea is a matter of fact.

Both Tokyo and Seoul shares democratic values, a liberal world, human rights. They support rules established by law and free navigation in Indo-Pacific, making them “Natural Ally”.

So it’s their stint to forget the past and emphasise economic collaboration to have a speedy post corona economic resurge. Moreover, they must also stress Military Cooperation to Contain expansionist China and put a cap on Pyongyang’s growing Nuclear test.

About the Author:

Ishant Sharma

Ishant Sharma is actually a stubborn optimist and Political Spectator who always choose solidarity over toxicity. He always acknowledges that there is still Road left to walk, making him pursue his endeavours in detail. Currently pursuing Political Science Hons from SGTB Khalsa College (University of Delhi), Ishant believes in studying history and creating one.

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