From Normalization to Reconciliation. The Japan-Korea Case

Seminar Paper, 2017

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Meaning of Reconciliation

3. Reconciliation between Japan and Korea?
3.1. The Problem of History
3.2. The Importance of Reconciliation
3.3. The Main Condition for Reconciliation
3.4. Methods for Reconciliation
3.5. Possibility of Reconciliation

4. Conclusion


From Normali zation to Reconciliation – The Japan-Korea Case

1. Introduction

More than five decades ago, Japan and the Republic of Korea (in the following ‘Korea’ or ‘South Korea’) normalized their relation. Much time has passed, but frictions continue to strain relations every once in a while, usually due to history-related issues. This casts doubt on the claim that normalization has brought with it reconciliation. Like Morris-Suzuki stated, Japan and Korea have not been able to achieve more than “a ‘thin’ and ultimately very fragile form of reconciliation” yet.

Thus, the main questions of this paper are: Is ‘thick’ reconciliation between Japan and Korea desirable, let alone possible? How can such a reconciliation be achieved? Why is history still a problem? To answer these question, the paper is structured as following: First, the meaning of reconciliation will be discussed. Based on this the main part analyses and discusses reconciliation between Japan and Korea by explaining the history ‘problem’, exploring conditions and ways for ‘thick’ reconciliation and assessing the possibility of achieving ‘thick’ reconciliation in the future. Lastly, the conclusion summarizes and assesses the findings of this paper.

In this paper, I argue that reconciliation has not been achieved yet. It is possible for Korea and Japan to reconcile if both remove the other state from their national identities. Unfortunately, though, this cannot be achieved in the nearer future.

The analysis focusses on the relation and reconciliation between Japan and South Korea. Possibilities for reconciliation with North Korea and China will be addressed briefly in the discussion section.

2. The Meaning of Reconciliation

This section explored the meaning of reconciliation to provide a framework for the following discussion.

Often, reconciliation is used interchangeably with conflict solution or normalization, but this is not correct, because reconciliation goes beyond these concepts. In its dictionary definition, reconciliation simply means “the restauration of friendly relations”[1]. However, the question remains, what ‘friendly’ implies. This question is dealt with by Bar-Siman-Tov who states:

“When the sides still encounter severe difficulty in overcoming the built-up bitterness and grievances of a protracted conflict […] they may fail to stabilize peace relations. Reconciliation is therefore a crucial factor in stabilizing peace after the resolution of an international conflict and in transforming relations between former enemies. Reconciliation, them, goes beyond conflict resolution and stabilization of peace relations.” (Bar-Siman-Tov 2004: 4)

This implies, that reconciliation is not automatically achieved with the normalization of relations between two states. This view is also shared by Kelman, who argues that “reconciliation […] is a process, […] and the end of the process that generates it, is its conduciveness to ultimate reconciliation. […] Reconciliation is a progress, as well as an outcome” (Kelman 2004: 112).

Thus, the question is whether Japan and Korea can successfully reach the end of this process leading to reconciliation and whether this a desirable or necessary development.

3. Reconciliation between Japan and Korea?

This part analyzes and discusses the hindrances to reconciliation, conditions and ways to achieve reconciliation, as well as an assessment about its possibility.

In international relations, normalization means the establishment or restoration of diplomatic relations between two countries and the willingness to cooperate. Normalization is the outcome of successful conflict resolution, but as discussed above, it is not the same as reconciliation. The 1965 Normalization Treaty between Japan and Korea, therefore does not mean that reconciliation has occurred already, but that the process of reconciliation could begin. However, even today historical grievances and different views about certain aspects of history still constitute a major obstacle for reconciliation between the two states.

3.1. The Problem of History

The major obstacle to reconciliation between Japan and Korea are the unresolved historical grievances resulting from Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Japan, influenced by European ideas of imperialism, as well as the fear of being colonized itself, colonized several counties in Asia from the late 19th century on, justifying this by their sense of national superiority, which claimed that Japan was more civilized than the rest of the world (Suganami 1984: 196). Due to this attitude, Japanese colonial rule in Korea was extremely intense compared to European colonialism (Jansen 1984: 78). The Japanese claimed to bring civilization and increased welfare to the country, but in fact they exploited the peninsula and governed the Korean people in a largely inhumane way. This included the assimilation policy, whose aim it was to make Koreans ‘Japanese’. It is therefore only natural, that may Koreans suffered under colonial rule (Peattie 1984: 96) and developed grievances towards the Japanese.

Especially problematic issues that still strain relations until today are the forced laborers and comfort women. Hundreds of thousands of Korean men and women had been send from Korea to Japan to work in mining and construction, and many had been subjected to forced labor inside Korea as well (Smith 2000: 220, 226). Japan also forced around fifty thousand to two hundred thousand women into sexual slavery before and during the Second World War, and the majority of them were Koreans (Soh 2007: 17).

Despite all this, Japan often declared that its colonial rule had been overall beneficial for Korea. However, statistics show that economic growth in Korea was rather low during colonial times and real wages partly declined, leaving many Koreans poorer than before colonialization. Furthermore, government institutions in Korea were usually dominated by Japanese, only a few Koreans were able to advance to high positions (Haggard, Kang and Moon: 1997: 870f., 873) and colonial people were not represented in the Japanese central government (Peattie 1984: 98).

After the Second World War, there was no immediate normalization of relations between Korea and Japan, rather quite the contrary. The San Francisco Conference in 1951 not only left questions of Japanese guilt and reparation payments unresolved, the victims of Japanese aggression, including Korea, were not allowed to take part in the conference, which could have helped to resolve some of these questions. Therefore, according to Dower, the San Francisco settlement “became an occasion for spinning history and encouraging amnesia” (Dower 2014: 2,6). Another issue that was neglected during the conference was the issue of the small islands of Dokdo/Takeshima, which continues to be a problem in Japan-Korea relations until today, without any resolution in sight. Had the issue become solved then, it might not be a matter for discussion today anymore. Lastly, the settlement enabled Japanese politicians and bureaucrats who had been involved in colonial politics to return to their government positions, which further hindered the historical issues to be assessed adequately (Dower 2014: 3-6). According to Lee, the ignorance about past-wrongs and Korean emotions “can breed prejudice and ill-feelings” in Korea (Lee 1985: 30). During the Seungman-Rhee-era, the combination of Japanese ignorance on one side and Rhee’s strong anti-Japan attitude on the other allowed negative emotions to manifest between the two countries (Lee 1985: 40).

Only twenty years after liberation Japan and Korea managed to normalize their relations with the 1965 Normalization Treaty. However, the treaty was strongly opposed by the general Korean public and it did not attenuate emotions (Lee 1985: 67). Yet, as I have stated above, normalization is only the beginning of the reconciliation process, so the treaty was necessary and a positive development to allow this reconciliation process to take off.

However, Japanese denial and whitewashing of history continued and Korean emotions did not abide. Korean politicians and the Korean public accusing Japan of ‘new imperialism’ was common whenever Japan tried to influence Korea (Lee 1985: 112). On the positive side, economic and political exchange continued to increase over the years, but whenever history became an issue between the two states, relations quickly turned for the worse (Park 2008: 14).

The problem of history coupled with emotions continues to be a problem in Japan-Korea relations that hinders ‘thick’ reconciliation until today. A representative poll held in 2017 by The Genron NPO and East Asia Institute (all translations of polls by author) asked Korean and Japanese citizens to give reasons for having a negative impression of each other’s countries. 76,5 Percent of Japanese answered that they had a negative impression of Korea because they continue to criticize Japan for the historical issues, a slight increase from 2016; around 40 Percent also cited the Dokdo/Takeshima problem. Interestingly, 80,6 Percent of Koreans answered they had negative impressions of Japan because they are not reflecting sincerely enough about their invasion of Korea, a significant increase from the previous year. More than 70 Percent cited the Dokdo/Takeshima issue.[2] This poll not only shows that history continues to be a major obstacle for reconciliation, but that Japanese and Korean assessments of this history are opposed to each other. It also became evident that these problems are rooted deep in the past. Due to ignorance and emotionalization, history might never be addressed in a neutral way between the two countries. Koreans, as will be discussed below, have still reasons for criticizing Japan, yet, the memory of being forced to ‘be Japanese’ during colonial times might be the more important factor for why Koreans today are largely unwilling to see Japan in a positive light. Under such preconditions, will the two countries ever be able to reconcile? This question is examined in the following.

3.2. The Importance of Reconciliation

This section analyses and discussed the importance of reconciliation between Japan and Korea as well as conditions and ways to achieve it.

Some might say that Japan and Korea do not need any ‘thick’ reconciliation and that the status quo is good as it is. However, I think that reconciliation is needed and agree to Bar-Tal and Bennik’s proposal that “reconciliation is required when the societies involved in a conflict evolve widely shared beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and emotions that support adherence to the conflictive goals, maintain the conflict, de-legitimize the opponent, and thus negate the possibility of peaceful resolution and prevent the development of peaceful relations” (Bar-Tal and Bennik 2004: 13). As shown above, many of these societal beliefs, attitudes etc. can be observed in Japan-Korea relations. Thus, “the essence of reconciliation is a psychological process which consists of changes of the motivations, goals, belief, attitudes and emotions of the majority of society members” (Bar-Tal and Bennik 17).


[1], last access: 2017.12.17.

[2], p. 10 (last access: 2017.12.18).

Excerpt out of 21 pages


From Normalization to Reconciliation. The Japan-Korea Case
Korea University, Seoul  (Graduate School of International Studies)
Korea-Japan Relations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
reconciliation, normalization, korea, japan, korea-japan relations
Quote paper
Britta Kistenich (Author), 2017, From Normalization to Reconciliation. The Japan-Korea Case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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