Security Cooperation Between South Korea and Japan Needs Strong Leadership

Security Cooperation Between South Korea and Japan Needs Strong Leadership

Eight months have passed since President Yoon Seok-yeol’s administration took office. Not many people were optimistic about the future of President Yoon, who was elected with a smaller vote margin than any previous president. It must be very difficult for a president to operate state affairs with limited public support and with the opposition party holding the majority in the National Assembly. Over the past eight months, there have been various opinions about the Yoon administration, but it would be fair to say that the Yoon administration has received relatively positive reviews with respect to national defence and foreign affairs. However, President Yoon’s political opponents still criticise his defence and foreign policies harshly, and at the core of their criticisms rests the ‘Japan’ issue.

As each other’s closest neighbors, South Korea and Japan need to respond to the common threat of a nuclear and missile-armed North Korea, which is arguably the most urgent and serious security threat in East Asia right now, even as they have been often in conflict and mostly for historical reasons. The threat from North Korea is getting worse year by year. Last year is expected to go down in the record books as the year with the highest number of missile provocations by North Korea ever, not only in terms of the number of missile tests but also in the types of missile technologies tested. Pyongyang is exercising a level of threat that is quite different from the past.

In light of this fact, security cooperation between South Korea and Japan makes a lot of sense; South Korea and Japan can complement each other in tracking down or responding to North Korea’s missiles given their geographical locations and military technologies. Since South Korea shares a border with North Korea and Japan is separated by the sea, information on North Korea’s missiles can be made more complete by combining information from the two countries. Moreover, since the two countries are allies of the United States, more effective countermeasures can be prepared through cooperation and division of labor among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Unfortunately, these rational reasons do not necessarily convince everyone in the two neighboring countries, South Korea and Japan.

In both South Korea and Japan, people who are skeptical or critical of security cooperation between the two countries often talk about ‘trust’. On one hand, anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is strong, with people saying Japan is an unreliable partner given Japan’s past behaviour. Past acts they highlight include, for example, a series of incidents in which South Korean naval vessels felt threatened by the low-altitude flights of Japanese Self-Defense Force aircraft between December 2018 and January 2019, and the decision by the former Abe administration to control the exports of materials that are key for producing semiconductors, which is South Korea’s major export product, citing security concerns in July 2019. There is ongoing concern over Japan’s continuous use of the Japanese naval flag which is similar to the Rising Sun Flag at International Fleet Review ceremonies. And there is also a great controversy in South Korea these days over the recent change in the Japanese government’s security policy that it has maintained over the past 70 years. Japan has decided to acquire the ‘capability to strike enemy bases (counterstrike capability)’ to directly strike missile bases in neighboring countries such as North Korea and China, and to increase Japan’s defense budget from 1% to 2% of GDP. Voices of concern over Japan becoming a military powerhouse are growing.

On the other hand, those in Japan who oppose deeper security cooperation with South Korea also take issue with the lack of trust. Japanese opponents to security cooperation say that no matter how many apologies are given or how much compensation is offered to South Korea, all that comes back in return is criticism, so further efforts at engagement are meaningless. Moreover, even when Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year, observers who tend to be cynical toward South Korea in Japan criticised the fact that South Korea’s response to Russia violating Ukraine’s sovereignty was ambiguous. Therefore, according to those critics, it is doubtful whether South Korea shares the same values ​​of a free and democratic country as Japan.

Both sides talk about trust, but in fact, identity politics is working at the base of their argument. Nationalistic critics in South Korea probably do not want to forgive Japan’s past misdeeds and war crimes, and right-wing critics in Japan do not accept South Korea’s changed international status. The former group might need to maintain the image of Japan as an aggressor for the construction of their nationalistic identity. Similarly, the latter group finds it hard to admit the reality that South Korea, previously a weak nation that Japan first invaded and then later aided and guided, became both an economic powerhouse and a cultural powerhouse with globally influential soft power. It is difficult for these opposing sides to take a forward-looking attitude as their group identities are maintained only when they have these fixed and biased images of each other.

Fortunately, both South Korea and Japan are countries that operate under liberal democracies and are societies where various voices coexist. Elections are the process of selecting leadership based on majority opinion, and a leader elected through a fair election is qualified to represent the collective will of the people. It is the duty of a democratic leader to listen to the opinions of the minority and make efforts to build a social consensus. At the same time, it is also necessary for a leader to carry out his or her political beliefs as long as the authority to set the direction of the country was delegated to him or her. Therefore, the leaders of South Korea and Japan now must think deeply about what is really important for the safety and security of their people and for the sake of peace in East Asia, and cooperate together for the future.

For the future of security cooperation between South Korea and Japan, I would like to suggest a few things here.

First, it is important to restore trust so that identity politics do not overwhelm the serious reality both countries face. Trust can start with mutual respect and consideration for the other person’s position. The leadership of the two countries, therefore, needs to respect the differences in political systems, sociopolitical culture, and historical views of the other country to some extent and persuade the public to understand these differences. Acknowledging the other’s differences is not denying oneself. Approaching a deeper appreciation of the history of South Korea and Japan as a zero-sum game should be avoided at all costs.

Second, if they can admit their differences, the two sides must then refrain from using words and taking actions that attack each other’s identity and self-esteem.

Third, it is necessary to educate the public in detail of the positive effects of mutual security cooperation between South Korea and Japan in dealing with the North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Fourth, security cooperation between South Korea and Japan should not be seen as pressuring or encircling China. Rather, it is necessary for South Korea and Japan to together persuade the United States and China that China’s help is needed to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue as it is a real and imminent threat to everyone involved. In that respect, I believe putting too much emphasis on the Taiwan issue is not conducive to peace and stability in the region.

South Korea and Japan should share a common goal of better security cooperation between the two and of allowing North Korea to come back to the negotiating table to resolve this nuclear issue diplomatically. It is difficult to persuade dissenting voices, but I believe the leaders of these two countries must silently move forward on the path to peace and well-being for all.


About the Author

Eunjung Lim is an Associate Professor at the Division of International Studies, Kongju National University (KNU). She also serves as Vice President for International Affairs, Dean of the Institute of Korean Education and Culture, and Dean of the Institute of International Language Education at the same university. Her areas of specialization include international cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, comparative and global governance, and energy, nuclear, and climate change policies of East Asian countries. Since 2018, she has served as a board member of the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC) and currently serves as a member of the Policy Advisory Committee for the Ministry of Unification.

Before joining the KNU faculty, Dr. Lim served as an Assistant Professor at the College of International Studies, Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, Japan. She also taught at several universities in the United States and Korea, including Johns Hopkins University, Yonsei University, and Korea University. She has been a researcher and a visiting fellow at academic institutes including the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, the Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul National University, the Institute of Japan Studies at Kookmin University, and Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. She earned a B.A. from the University of Tokyo, an M.I.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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Image: Armed forces from Japan, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia participate in the opening ceremony of a military exercise in Thailand on 25 February 2020. US Navy/Julio Rivera.