This year marks the 50th anniversary of normalized relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan. The anniversary, however, fails to reflect just how toxic the relationship has become. Recently, Korea-Japan relations has been plagued by a string of missed opportunities for the two countries to narrow their differences on an array of issues. On June 22, President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo tried to reverse that trend by attending embassy events at their respective capitals to celebrate the anniversary. Despite many considering this to be a diplomatic breakthrough, an improvement of relations in the long-run still appears elusive. While the anniversary events laid the groundwork for the first summit meeting between these two heads of state, they failed to shed light on the most important question: how can the two countries overcome their differences on history issues? Given these developments, this report aims to gauge how Koreans view Japan today and how they foresee Korea-Japan relations taking shape.
Recent public opinion surveys by the Asan Institute show that Koreans have taken a noticeably pragmatic view of Korea-Japan relations. They understand that disputes over history are unlikely to disappear any time soon. At the same time, they acknowledge the importance of Korea-Japan cooperation moving forward. They appear convinced that history issues and Korea-Japan cooperation should be mutually exclusive.
Survey results also confirmed that Koreans possess a generally negative perception of Japan. Many associated Japan with the “Fukushima nuclear crisis” (31.3%), “militarism and colonization of Korea” (24.1%), and “politicians such as Prime Minister Abe Shinzo” (22.6%). On a scale of 0 to 10 (0=very unfriendly; 10=very friendly), they felt less friendly toward the Japanese (3.74) than they did toward the Chinese (5.06) and the Americans (5.82). When asked to rate their favorability of Japanese products (0=least favorable; 10=most favorable), respondents were most favorable toward Japanese cuisine (4.41) followed by tourism (4.14), industrial products (3.87), and pop culture (2.71). Interestingly, Koreans in their 20s were significantly more favorable toward Japan than older Koreans. The likely explanation is that those in their 20s lack memories of the colonial period and do not remember Japan’s heyday as an economic superpower. As a result, they appear less threatened by Japan’s recent posturing.
According to surveys conducted in June, Koreans were significantly less favorable toward the Japanese Prime Minister than toward Japan as a country. On the same scale as the aforementioned favorability ratings, Prime Minister Abe received a score of 1.36 while Japan scored 2.91. The favorability rating of the Japanese people was 3.74. Prime Minister Abe’s nationalistic tendencies appeared to have strongly influenced his ratings. Specifically, the designation of Takeshima Day as a government sponsored day, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese politicians including the Prime Minister himself, and provocative statements over comfort women issues have undoubtedly lowered his favorability ratings to one of the worst among regional leaders as assessed by Koreans.
Koreans were also pessimistic in their current and future assessments of Korea-Japan relations. More than 80% of respondents stated that relations has worsened since President Park and Prime Minister Abe were elected as leaders. About 70% were convinced that relations will not improve. Additionally, the majority of Koreans identified the nature of the relationship as competitive rather than cooperative with 70% stating as such.
Koreans showed considerable concerns for Japan’s recent shift to the right (worried: 72.8%; not worried: 11.7%). This shift has gained traction in Japan as conservative leaders continue to hold office. 37.3% and 36.1% of respondents pointed to “distortion of history in textbooks” and “territorial dispute over Dokdo,” respectively, as major concerns. In addition, more Koreans have begun to look at comfort women as a major issue with 19.8% stating as such. This particular finding appears to have been aided by an increasing number of Koreans in their 20s who have expressed great interest in human rights issues. This confirms the critical role that the comfort women issue will play in the future with regards to relations between Korea and Japan.
Despite the bleak assessment of Korea-Japan relations, there was noticeable public support for improved relations vis-à-vis a summit meeting between the two leaders. 56.3% of Koreans agreed that a summit meeting should take place even if Prime Minister Abe fails to convey a message of sincere apology in August when he is expected to make a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. 38.5% opposed.
What explains this seemingly contradictory pattern? One explanation is that there is a general agreement (65.2%) for a decoupling of history issues from Korea-Japan relations. While 88% of Koreans agreed that the Prime Minister should offer a sincere apology in August, 82.6% also admitted that Japan is unlikely to do so. Only 11.6% stated that there were more politicians who were remorseful for Japan’s past than those who were not. 30.0% said the same about the Japanese public.
These survey results indicate that Koreans have become increasingly pragmatic in their assessment of Korea-Japan relations. While they show support for cooperation between Korea and Japan, they are also determined to deal with sensitive issues, including those related to history. There appears to be some understanding that history disputes will remain a constant factor when dealing with Japan.
As such, there is a growing need for the two governments to approach the diplomatic deadlock in a realistic and pragmatic manner. Accepting the fact that both sides need each other regardless of the history issues appears to the first step. Judging by the survey results, the Korean public today appears fully aware of this fact.