Princeton University Library Catalog

FICKLE FRIENDS An Analysis of the Enigmatic Japanese-South Korean Relationship within the Greater U.S.-Japan-South Korea Strategic Triangle

Lee, Joshua [Browse]
Senior thesis
Ikenberry, G. John [Browse]
Princeton University. Program in Theater [Browse]
Class year:
103 pages
Summary note:
Japanese-South Korean relations are cyclically characterized by friction despite constant political and economic incentives that should compel cooperation. Currently, South Korean President Park Geun-hye refuses to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo until Tokyo heeds Seoul’s demands that Japan apologize and pay reparations to the South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese government during World War II. Tokyo, on the other hand, views this request as superfluous and politically provocative, as it believes the issue of comfort women has already been addressed in a 1965 normalization treaty of basic relations between the two countries. This discrepancy and the reverberations of wartime atrocities contextualize the current despondent state of Japanese-South Korean bilateral relations. The dominant lens through which international relations theorists have viewed the Japan- ROK relationship is historical animosity. This explanation suggests that the contention is based on a deep hostility felt by Koreans towards the Japanese rooted in historical grievances from Japan’s colonization of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Though historical grievances indeed exacerbate existing problems between Japan and South Korea, scholars and journalists unwisely consider this the predominant lens through which one can understand the relations between the two countries. Using historical grievances as the only argument to explain Japanese-South Korean relations renders the possibility of any future productive relationship between the two countries. The scholarship on Japanese-South Korean relations typically ignores the important role that external actors play in the strategic bilateral relationship between the two countries. A discussion on the relations between Japan and South Korea must be contextualized within the greater strategic triangle that includes the United States. The United States has consistently been the greatest advocate of improved relations between the two nations and has acted as a crucial intermediary numerous times in the past century. Thus, this thesis looks at Victor Cha’s widely accepted quasi-alliance theory, which contends that the perception of the United States’ security commitment to the region affects the pattern of cooperation and friction in the Japanese-South Korean relationship. However, while the quasi-alliance model is one of the most effective models that explain the enigmatic nature of the Japan-ROK relationship, it is limited because it was developed in the 1990s and only observes case studies from the 1960s to the late 1980s. A comparative analysis of alternative hypotheses reveals that the quasi-alliance model does not apply for the last fifteen years of Japanese-South Korean relations. Instead, this thesis found that diversionary foreign policy played an important role in a leaders’ decision to refer to historical grievances. Leaders always began their terms trying to improve relations between Japan and South Korea. Both nations yearn to improve relations because the various political and economic benefits that would help both countries. Nonetheless, the latent memory of history has become integrated with the national identity of each country. Thus, it is not costly for leaders to use historical grievances to their advantage whenever there is a domestic political issue negatively affecting their popularity. The innate tendency for Japanese and Korean people to associate anti-Korea and anti-Japanese sentiment respectively with nationalism makes it easy for leaders to use this to their political advantage.