Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder on Japan-Korea Relations



Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting both Scott Snyder (Council on Foreign Relations) and David Straub (Stanford’s Korea Program) for a program on the Korean elections. While in San Diego, Scott also gave a talk on his new book with Brad Glosserman The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States

Glosserman and Snyder’s reach toward identity politics was driven by the fact that standard realist and liberal arguments don’t appear to explain why the two allies have had so much trouble: both face similar security challenges, including with respect to both North Korea and China, both are democratic market economies, both have a common ally in the US.

But both also have core national identities, in their view, that generate ongoing tensions. Japan has been going through an identity crisis as a result of economic stagnation, demographic problems and new threats from China, all which sit uneasily on a pacifist self-conception. For its part, Korea appears more confident but remains stuck in its continued preoccupation with the colonial past. 

It will clearly take both political and intellectual leadership in both countries [Japan and Korea] to put down some of the historical burdens they carry. And from the US perspective, the sooner the better.

These identity differences help explain why Korean evaluations of Japan—even when more positive—are consistently more suspicious than those of Japan toward Korea (see here for recent data making this point clearly). Much of the empirical contribution of the book comes in a detailed analysis of such public opinion data in the two countries and the factors that generate distrust, including the linked territorial and history issues. Among the many interesting findings are the fact that the Kim-Obuchi framework of 1998 had a much greater impact in Japan than in South Korea—in part because of its ambition to lay the history issues to rest—and the fact that the recent downturn in bilateral relations appears to date from Lee Myung Bak’s gratuitous visit to Dokdo rather than from the personal animus of the Park-Abe years.

Glosserman and Snyder give credit to the comfort women agreement of last December, and in particular to the willingness of the Abe administration to finally treat the issue on moral as opposed to merely legal terms. But they argue that much more is needed. They even propose a new treaty of friendship and cooperation that would include common commitments such as acceptance of unification on Southern terms, a “shared values” statement, an explicit recognition by Korea of Japan’s positive contribution to the postwar security order in Asia and a new holiday celebrating the bilateral relationship.

During the Q and A, two extremely smart students from the Graduate School—one Korean, one Japanese—engaged in a heated debate over Dokdo, both resorting to well-rehearsed historical arguments (“Dokdo was the first piece of Korean land seized by the Japanese; are we still under the Japanese empire?”; “Takeshima’s status was not really settled by the Peace Treaty of 1954. Why can’t we put this to third-party arbitration?”)

Sadly, the contretemps appeared to demonstrate the points Snyder was trying to make about identity. Yet at another level they demonstrated another point the book makes, although less directly than it could: that identities are hardly immutable and that trust between the countries has gone up and down. The “identity” of the moment may in fact reflect competing political conceptions within each country of where it is and should go. It will clearly take both political and intellectual leadership in both countries to put down some of the historical burdens they carry. And from the US perspective, the sooner the better.  

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