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South Korea’s Small Think With Japan

by Scott A. Snyder
August 15, 2012

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visits a set of remote islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visits a set of remote islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese August 10, 2012. (The Blue House/Courtesy Reuters)


Lee Myung-bak broke new ground by making a presidential visit to Tokdo, but should the visit be considered as a big statement of Korea’s place in the world or is it a product of small thinking about how South Korea can get what it wants from Japan?

The trouble I had with Lee’s visit to the island, as significant as it may be for many South Koreans, is that with Lee as South Korea’s president I have grown used to Korean “big think” on national security issues and on its place in the world. Hosting the G20 and the Nuclear Security Summit. The idea of a Global Korea. An expanded vision for South Korean international aid and efforts to promote Green Growth. These actions advanced South Korea’s international profile and influence based on its new capacities and a calculated effort to strengthen South Korea’s position in the world. I am sure that American national security planners must have slept easier knowing that Lee had avoided escalation with North Korea into a military conflict, despite North Korea’s provocations.

But by visiting Tokdo and suggesting that Japan as the bigger country should act in accord with its national power to address historical issues, I believe that Lee is thinking small, investing disproportionate emphasis on a single, limited issue at the expense of South Korea’s broader regional and global interests. And this is occurring at the same time that the nature and balance of relative power between South Korea and Japan is undergoing profound change, but in ways that are leading to further convergence of their respective interests.

Lee’s visit may hold great emotional importance for those who are still focused on past historical injustices between South Korea and Japan, but it distracts from the central reality that ultimately must propel relations between the two countries. First, Japan needs South Korea, perhaps even more so now that it feels more vulnerable than it did when it felt strong. Japan-ROK normalization itself was built on the proposition that Japan would benefit from an economically and politically stronger South Korea. Japanese loans and investments were structured both as a source of profit and as a means by which to catalyze South Korea’s development, and by extension, provide Japan with security. Now Japan needs South Korea as a security partner in the face of China’s rise, and as a natural economic partner and source of trade and investment.

South Korea also still needs Japan both as a trading and investment partner and as a security partner. South Korea’s chronic trade deficit with Japan is a longstanding source of frustration, but South Korean companies make money in Japan and Japanese are major purchasers of South Korean products. If China substitutes for Japan’s share of South Korea’s trade, will South Korea feel safer?

Although South Korea has become an economic player on the world stage, its security remains precarious as long as it faces unresolved historical and territorial disputes on three sides—from China and North Korea as well as Japan. Effective simultaneous management of these protracted disputes requires South Korean presidents to look at the big picture and avoid instigating unnecessary tensions with its neighbors.

It will never be in the U.S. interest to choose between its Asian allies or to be an arbiter for their disputes. The United States sees rising tensions between South Korea and Japan as counterproductive, and expects both sides to manage tensions in the relationship with maturity. Actions by either side that hinder stable South Korea-Japan cooperation cannot be welcome developments in Washington, especially in the context of a U.S. rebalancing strategy that anticipates greater cooperation among Asian allies as a means of shaping China’s rise.

Nor is it likely that any single South Korean action will finally bring Japan to “see the light” on issues of history or territory. Instead, the initial predictable response of some Japanese Diet members has been to visit Yasukuni shrine following a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led moratorium on such visits since 2009. If “small think” won’t work, then the only option for successfully managing a relationship in which both sides need each other is to buck the lure of populism and resort to “big think.” Despite the apparent precedent set by the Lee visit, I hope South Korea’s next president starts with “big think,” and that Japan’s leaders are able to respond accordingly.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by James

    It would also be nice if you could define what “small think” and “big think” are. From each side’s POV, their actions are historical and influential to the future, which may be more important current economical relationship.
    From Korea’s POV, each small claims matter, because of their loss of sovereignty during the imperial era. They witnessed how they could lose power to Japan when they conceded and stayed silent. On the other hand, Japan has not shown a significant change that prove their willingness to reconcile. No wonder Korea, or China, or Russia still have dispute with Japanese government. ( It seems like entire East Asia are thinking “small” because they are pretty aggressive about their boundaries.

  • Posted by ASDF

    Equivocal Chinese rise and it’s accompany ‘threat’ to strategic security in Northeast Asia is very much minor in the foreseeable future considering the economic interdependence between the two nations (China/Korea), and is prone to speculation by war-hawks who want to increase US military expenditure to justify US military presence in the region.

    Unlike China, which hasn’t assaulted the sovereignty of Korea, Japan has very much invaded Korea twice in the past 500 years, so no matter how Western imperialists drum up this “China threat” theory, Korea would never ally with Japan/US to form an anti-China alliance, because among other things, China is impossible to contain, and antagonizing China through a ROK-Japan alliance would seriously hinder Korean unification on South Korean terms.

  • Posted by JC

    I totally understand the frustration many who do not understand the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute and also why many would question the timing of it when the balance of NE Asia is at stake (particular with an encroaching China and a troublesome North Korea). All I will say is that there is a complexity about this and that Lee’s visit to Dokdo was a definitive response to a very subtle series of actions and maneuvering by Japan, who was trying to position the dispute in a way where it could address it at the international level with Korea. In effect, both countries are really caught, as you say, “thinking small” on this one — but it is Korea who is less inclined to tiptoe around the issue and is using the opportunity to impact what will happen when they both start thinking big again. And Japan would’ve carried on with its maneuvering irregardless of how Lee responded/reacted — so it was inevitable if Korea was going to try and put a stop to it. As many know, Lee has been very pro-Japan for much of his 5 year term. To do this action is an extremely calculated move on his part and has much to do with responding to Japanese actions as well as addressing unaddressed issues between the two countries around Comfort Women. Some claim this is a way for him to galvanize the Koreans as his political influence wanes — but people should note that he is NOT up for re-election. There is no 2nd term. This is about posturing and potentially strengthening Korea’s position for the incoming regime, particularly since he spent much of that political capital with Japan that his two predecessors, known for more independent thinking from Japan and US influence, had built up. In the end, what does it accomplish? I personally think it sends a very strong shot across Japan’s bow that Korea is not going to be lulled into sleep about Dokdo/Takeshima and that it doesn’t need Japan as much as Japan needs Korea. Also, that Japan cannot use Dokdo/Takeshima as leverage to negotiate an apology for the Comfort Women. The two allies will most likely patch things up so as not to let China move ahead undisputed — but Korea wants to make sure that leverage is not only on Japan’s side on joint efforts going forward. This is why Lee is also making it clear in his statements that Japan remains an important partner, but at the same time requesting Japan’s emperor to apologize (when in effect is not going to happen — would be a major loss of face). Japan is feinting surprise and pointing to the absurdity of it all — but in reality this is a recovery for Japan being caught red-handed trying to apply its agenda (small thinking agenda) on South Korea.

  • Posted by Jongryn Mo

    Scott offers a calm and statesman-like perspective missing in much of the Korean debate on President Lee’s policy reversal with respect to Japan. One unknown, however, is what provoked President Lee. He must be reacting to something Japan has done. South Korean media point to President Lee’s frustrations with Tokyo’s instrasigence on comfort women and territorial issues. But they are old issues and I wonder if there is anything else.

  • Posted by Edward

    ASDF is correct. Japan has infringed on the sovereignty of Korea twice within the past 500 years where in that same time frame China has not.

    Too many Western observers of Asia look at the region from out of a fish bowl instead of an ocean from both a historical and policy standpoint. Furthermore, they too often take Japan’s side, despite the enormous amount of harm Japan did to much of East Asia from 1933 to 1945 (longer if you are Korea, from 1910 to 1945). East Asians have real and insufficiently addressed grievances against Japan and as soon as Western observers understand that the sooner these problems will be resolved.

  • Posted by SJ

    Far East Asia politics is lot more complicated than just over an island or an emotional statement.

    In response to a comment by Jongryn Mo, you have to understand why Europe is able to move on from their Holocaust, any why East Asia seems to be about attrocities committed by Japan during colonization. Ask anyone from Far East Asia why they feel after half a century, Japan just evades history as if it never happened.

  • Posted by Yong J. Kim

    An incorrect historical account of no Chinese infringement on Korea’s sovereignty for the past 500 years. In 1636 during Korea’s Lee Dynasty, the first emperor of Ching Dynasty invaded Korea whereupon the King surrendered after a brief resistance. Though the King neither abdicated nor was removed, several of royal family members were taken as hostages as well as half a million Korean women, later to be returned for cash. The Lee Dynasty had remained subjugated to Ching Dynasty until defeat of Ching in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895.

  • Posted by ROK

    So ROK is still scared of Japan more than China or North Korea?
    ROK seriously thinks Japan might infringe on their sovereignty again just because it happened in the past? Do other SE Asia country think the same? Don’t think so. Somebody is blind and deaf enough not to realize the current situation in the region. On top of that, why don’t ROK come to the international court to solve this issue as a mature and civilized country? Please don’t disappoint us with small think, Global Korea.

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