South Korea's strengthened relations with Japan may pose as its Achilles’ heel
Published: Mar 02, 2024 08:40 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The current South Korean administration has been criticized as lacking a sense of national independence compared to its predecessors, and President Yoon Suk-yeol’s latest remake provides a clear example to this perception. 

Yoon highlighted that South Korea and Japan are "partners" in overcoming their "painful past" and moving toward a "new future" while marking the 105th March 1 Independence Movement Day against Japanese colonial rule, according to Yonhap News Agency on Friday. This statement sparked the anger of many Koreans, with a member of South Korea's largest opposition party even denouncing it as "an insult" to the spirit of the independence movement.

It was an unwise choice to emphasize the "partnership" between Japan and South Korea during this commemoration. After all, anti-Japanese sentiments still persist in South Korea, and the Japanese government has yet to engage in self-reflection on its past militaristic sins. 

Obviously, Yoon’s speech seems to focus more on the "future" of the two countries. However, if the Yoon administration seeks to deepen cooperation with Japan for the sake of its situation on the peninsula, it may trigger another wave of anti-Japanese sentiments across the country. This is because the Yoon administration’s evasion and avoidance of the South Korean-Japanese historical legacy exemplify a shameful diplomatic approach. Such actions not only betray its own people but also irresponsibly disregard the victims of wartime forced labor by Japan.

In recent years, Seoul has seized every opportunity to demonstrate goodwill toward Japan. However, the "third-party reimbursement" plan announced by the Yoon administration in March last year to compensate the victims triggered a strong backlash in South Korea. By doing so, the Yoon administration has adopted a conciliatory stance to a large extent in its efforts to repair relations with Japan, hoping for a reciprocal display of friendliness.

This submissive stance has further hurt the national sentiments of many Koreans and intensified domestic political and social divisions. Yoon's speech on March 1 this year, which did not reference Japan's historical crimes and instead emphasized improved ties with Japan, once again aggravated social antagonism. As long as the historical issues remain unresolved, such contradictions will persist.  

"Although the South Korea-Japan historical legacy is gradually blurred under the Yoon administration," Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times, "the historical problems between Japan and South Korea, including the anti-Japanese sentiment among the Korean public, are unlikely to disappear overnight, regardless of Yoon’s push for reforms and improved relations with Japan," 

Another problem is that South Korea may not have truly built mutual trust with Japan despite making significant concessions. Seoul’s approach toward Japan is driven by political considerations, but the historical dispute remains a scar between the two countries. This wound cannot be healed through mere empty rhetoric and calls to "looking toward the future." The historical controversy could erupt at any moment, unsettling both sides. How can such cooperation endure without a foundation of genuine trust? 

On the surface, Yoon appears to have achieved certain political and military objectives. South Korea, Japan, and the US conducted what was possibly their biggest-ever joint naval exercises in January. Subsequently, South Korea and the US are planning to conduct joint military drills from March 4 to 14. Seoul's strengthening of military ties with Japan and the US resembles a reckless gamble.

The continuous escalation of trilateral military cooperation may alternatively exacerbate regional tensions and undermine regional peace and stability. Even South Korean activists on February 28 called for an end for the South Korea-US military exercises in March, urging to stop the push for the South Korea-US-Japan military alliance.

Of course, South Korea seeks protection under the "umbrella" of the US and Japan, but compared to its resolute determination and constant concessions, this "umbrella" seems feeble and precarious, potentially exposing South Korea to new risks. It is highly likely to ignite fresh tensions on the Korean Peninsula, further complicating South Korea's geopolitical landscape.

Seoul may believe that in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the US and Japan will not stand idle. But it cannot be denied that South Korea will certainly bear the brunt due to its geographic proximity. In this regard, the lessons of the Russia-Ukraine conflict can’t be more significant. Instead of finding shelter under the "umbrella," South Korea has, in fact, to some extent, surrendered its autonomy. In the end, South Korea's deeper dependence on the US and Japan could become its Achilles’ heel.

Hence, Seoul should carefully consider whether the price it is paying is worth it or not. If South Korea really wants to gain a sense of security and realize true "freedom and prosperity," it must utilize its strengths to promote multifaceted cooperation and safeguard regional stability, rather than tying itself to the US and Japan’ boat. Otherwise, it will further exacerbate the security dilemma on the peninsula. Common security is the only way to achieve lasting peace, and South Korea is unfortunately heading in the opposite direction.