pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

Issues and Insights Vol. 14 – No. 10 – Japan-Korea: Working Together in East Asia and Beyond Japan

The inescapable image from 2013’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in Bali was that of a daydreaming Japanese prime minister hunched over in his chair next to a visibly indignant president of Korea. However, the frigid personal relationship between Abe Shinzo and Park Geun-hye is symbolic of a strained bilateral relationship between Japan and Korea. Indeed, ties have become so troubled over the past year that Park even indicated that a summit with Abe would be “pointless.” Park’s refusal to entertain a summit with Abe appears to be partly vindicated after Abe’s controversial and provocative decision to visit Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2013. Abe’s contentious views on historical events have only caused a greater riff between the two countries.

This political divide between Tokyo and Seoul has powerful consequences that transcend their economic relationship. One of the most worrisome is its effect on trilateral efforts with the US to maintain a united front against North Korean provocations, as well as adequately preparing contingencies for potential conflict or regime collapse in the North. There are long-term strategic implications that go beyond the deterrence of Pyongyang, however. For example, the broken relationship between Japan and Korea has opened the door to stronger ties between Seoul and Beijing. This reinvigorated relationship was on full display when Park Geun-hye welcomed Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Seoul in July 2014 for an official state visit while snubbing Abe’s call for a head-of-state meeting. Abe’s stance on history, along with other factors such as Beijing’s disenchantment with North Korea, brought Korea and China together.