Bridled by the Past? The ‘History Problem’ and Korea-Japan Security Relations


Thursday, March 28, 2013, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Thomas Chan-Soo Kang Room (S050), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Kim Koo Forum on Korea Current Affairs

Yongwook Ryu
Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, The Australian National University

Chaired by Sun Joo Kim, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Korean History; Director, Korea Institute, Harvard University


How does the ‘history problem’ affect Korea-Japan security relations? Korea-Japan security relations are something of an anomaly from the perspective of realism and liberal-institutionalism, two main theories of IR. From the realist perspective, the presence of a common security threat (North Korea), a common security concern (China) and a common alliance partner (USA) make the two countries natural security partners. From the liberal-institutionalist perspective, their shared socio-political values and the large and increasing volume of bilateral trade should have resulted in better security relations. Furthermore, the dramatic improvement in people-to-people exchanges in the past decade or so also bodes well for closer security cooperation between Korea and Japan. Yet, in reality the bilateral security relationship is minimal at best and ad hoc rather than institutionalized. As the 2012 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) controversy demonstrates, it can be exceedingly difficult to conclude an even innocuous security arrangement between the two nations. I argue that the lack of security cooperation between the two nations is the result of the rise of the so-called “history problem” (역사문제) as a bilateral diplomatic issue and Korea’s democratization. The former has turned Korea-Japan security relations into an emotional issue outside of rational, strategic calculation, while the latter has made Korea’s foreign policy more vulnerable to domestic public pressure and demand. Hence in an environment of heightened tensions over the ‘history problem,’ any advancement of Korea-Japan security relations will be extremely difficult especially when the issue is known to the public. I analyze the contents of Japan-related articles in Donga Ilbo from 1980 to 2010 to show that Korea’s Japan policy has increasingly been popularized and subject to public pressure. In addition, I present the analysis of a recent survey experiment conducted in Japan, to illustrate how the ‘history problem’ may worsen the Japanese public sentiments toward Korea and create a vicious cycle of worsening emotions between the two countries.

Co-sponsored by the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and Weatherhead Center Program on U.S.-Japan Relations.

The Korea Institute acknowledges the generous support of the Kim Koo Foundation.

"Bridled by the Past? The 'History Problem' and Korea-Japan Security Relations"