mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Poll Shows South Koreans Worry About Norks & China More Than Japan


Since Shinzo Abe entered office, Japan and South Korea haven’t gotten along. His administration’s nationalism and hawkishness, as well as its apparent blindness to the suffering of Japan’s colonial subjects in the past century, have certainly taken a toll on the official relationship. The clearest sign that all was not warm and fuzzy was new South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s decision to make Beijing, rather than the customary Tokyo and Washington, the destination for her first official trip abroad.

But what do ordinary Koreans think about the relationship with Japan? If a new poll by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Korean think tank, is to be believed, the Korean public is more willing than its leadership to mend fences with Japan.

Well more than half (58 percent) of South Koreans, the poll found, would support a presidential summit between Seoul and Tokyo. Slightly more (60 percent) say a military communication agreement, which South Korea canceled after advanced discussions in 2012, should be signed. And South Koreans support both of these positions without preconditions such as Japan’s giving ground on territorial disputes or apologizing for historical wrongs. That suggests that South Koreans are still more spooked by the Norks and by China than by big bad Abe.

This puts President Park, in office for 7 months and with a popularity rating around 70 percent, in a tough spot: signing an intelligence agreement with Japan (one that would likely be focused on the DPRK) could put recent gains with both Pyongyang and Beijing at risk.

The distrust in Northeast Asia runs deep on all sides, so crafting a deal with Japan will require careful diplomacy. But good relations between South Korea and Japan have the potential to help stabilize the balance of power in east Asia. There are strategic gains to be made if President Park chooses to act on the public’s evident pro-Japan leanings.

[President Park Guen-hye and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Washington in May; image courtesy Wikimedia]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    I have been teaching English in Korea for several years, and I have been able to glean a few insights from discussions I’ve had with Korean friends. First, unlike Korean big business, which is obviously keen to do business in the massive Chinese market, average Koreans are not enthusiastic about China. They live right next door, and I know more about what is going on there than they do, largely from reading this blog and the New York Times.

    Most American teachers in Korea are very interested in traveling to China. I know I am, especially with so much China coverage in the news. When I tell my Korean friends about this interest, they don’t really get it. They’d MUCH rather go to America or Western Europe.

    • Corlyss

      Perhaps if you asked them if they would like to tour their own country by way of explanation, they’d get it. I mean, you know America and you’ve probably been to Western Europe. Why WOULDN’T you want to explore the mysterious unknown now??? Personally if I were them I’d rather go to America too – that must seem to them to be much more exotic than their nearer neighbor.

  • Corlyss

    Well, of course they are. They know we sit on the Japanese, while we simultaneously show no inclination to engage our enemies anywhere at any time about anything.

  • cubanbob

    Japan doesn’t represent a serious threat to South Korea. North Korean and China do. It’s not that complicated.

    • Kevin

      Good point. But I wonder if Japanese rearmament will change this perception.

      • Blake Waymire

        Possibly, but I’d say with things as they are now it’s not likely. The South Korean citizens I’ve met, as well as nearly every prominent celebrity, really don’t seem to hold any malice toward Japan whatsoever. Personally, I suspect they have the feeling that the occupation was a long time ago and see that the modern Japanese people don’t actually have the same imperialist streak that their ancestors had at the end of the 19th century.

        • Tom Billings

          More to the point, the Japanese no longer accept the theories of Cecil Rhodes, that nations *must* control the sources of raw materials for their industrial capacity for them to remain independent themselves. In both the 16th and the 20th Centuries, Korea was seen as a road to the raw materials wealth of China by many in Japan. In addition, ashigaru-style military careerists no longer dominate in their defense forces. These changes give Japan every incentive to preserve Korea as a buffer between them and the PRC.

  • nooyawka212

    Your characterization of Japan’s “apparent blindness to the suffering of Japan’s colonial subjects ” is a sign that you have not studied history well and you have fallen for the propaganda dispensed by Korea’s recent political class. S Korean politicians have recently been trying to sell the story that Japan was a cruel occupier and therefore owes S Korea financial compensation.

    The Japanese side of the story is that prior to the colonial period S Korea was ruled cruelly by its royalty and yampans (propertied class), which owed their status to centuries of domination by China. During the centuries of Chinese domination Korea was so poor it paid its annual tribute to China by sacrificing young girls and neutered young boys. During Japanese rule Korea was given education and infrastructure.

    The reports of Japanese misbehavior during the colonial period is the work of the contemporary political class in S Korea. Your poll indicates that the average citizen retains memories of the centuries of rule by China, as well as a clearer recollection of Japan’s role in Korea than the story propounded by the political class.

    • submandave

      I agree with your larger theme, but the article spoke specifically of the Abe government’s “apparent blindness to the suffering of Japan’s colonial subjects,” not Japan’s in general. To that degree, I agree with them that Abe has always been less prone to the standard abject acceptance of ROK and PRC political posturing on this topic.

  • submandave

    The ROK leadership enthusiasm for decrying Japan is easily explained by one word: politics. The leadership uses the past with Japan to generate support among a relatively small but vocal and politically powerful group, while simultaneously proceeding with productive engagement quietly.

  • David Govett

    Twice, Mongol armies containing Korean soldiers and sailors attempted to
    invade and subjugate Japan, via Korea. The Japanese haven’t forgotten
    that, and they see Korea as a potential enemy, long term. East Asian
    monocultures think long-term and are slow to forget an insult.

    • SteveH

      And Korea was more than once invaded and subjugated by either Japan or China. Everyone in that part of Asia remembers what happened, and who were responsible in their respective histories.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service