The harmony that belies Japan and South Korea strife

As relations sour between the two American allies, it may be ever-closer ties between the two peoples that prevent further rupture.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, walks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upon his arrival for a photo session at the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, in June.

When diplomats fail to end hard strife between two nations, they often turn to a soft-power solution: more exchanges of tourists, business people, artists, academics, and others. This “track II” approach may soon be required between Japan and South Korea.

At the diplomatic level, the two American allies are in a downward spiral of relations. Their only way up might lie in taking a wider view of common interests and values. People-to-people contacts would help.

In the past year, official ties have become so bad that South Korean President Moon Jae-in calls them an “unprecedented emergency.” Japan is so frustrated with Seoul that it threatened this month to restrict exports of essential raw materials to South Korea’s world-class computer chipmakers. The United States, meanwhile, is caught in the middle even as crises with North Korea and China escalate.

At the heart of the dispute are unresolved differences over whether Japan has made enough amends for its domination of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Despite a formal treaty in 1965 that settled compensation for that brutal past, a revival of South Korean democracy since 1987 helped reopen demands against Japan and forced it into making numerous official apologies. The last straw for Tokyo was a ruling last year by South Korea’s Supreme Court that found certain Japanese corporations must compensate Koreans who were made to work for Imperial Japan during World War II.

As the dispute has widened, so has popular distrust. A poll in July by Japanese and South Korean newspapers found 75% of South Koreans did not trust Japanese people while 74% of Japanese were distrustful of South Koreans. Many Korean consumers have started to boycott Japanese goods this year.

Yet the two countries have become so intertwined in business and culture that their leaders will find it difficult to rupture ties any further. In fact, by emphasizing the healthy parts of their relationship, Japan and South Korea could work around or even solve their historical issues.

Korean pop music, for example, is extremely popular in Japan while South Koreans have adopted cultural aspects of Japan, such as anime and manga. Last year, tourist exchanges between the two countries were at a near-record high. In both Japan and South Korea, top business leaders who conduct trade between the two nations are trying to keep close ties while quietly criticizing their governments’ hard-line stance.

“A startling paradox is that individual Japanese and Koreans usually get along perfectly amicably,” writers Korea watcher Andrew Salmon.

While U.S. diplomats tried to coax diplomats in Tokyo and Seoul to compromise, the long-term solution may lie at the rice-roots level of people exchanges. Younger generations of Japanese and South Koreans are ready to move on and find a future-oriented relationship.

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