Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye on November 2 in Seoul held their first official summit meeting since taking office. The sitdown ended an abnormally long three-and-a-half-year hiatus without such talks due to a deep chill in bilateral relations that began under their predecessors. The political distance between Japan and South Korea, two vital U.S. allies in East Asia, undermines their ability to cooperate and lead effectively in the region. Although the ninety-minute icebreaker was a step in the right direction, Tokyo and Seoul need to stay focused on the long-term challenges of promoting greater trust and more productive collaboration.

Current testy Japan–South Korea ties stem from unreconciled views of history, long-standing territorial disputes, and more recent disagreements on trade and other issues; a situation all the more distressing as it persists into this fiftieth anniversary year of the normalization of Japan–South Korea relations.

The Cold War ended just as South Korea’s economy was beginning to take off and democracy was truly taking root. A resulting diminution of the regional ideological struggle and greater public participation in politics had an impact on Seoul’s diplomacy. Long-repressed feelings in South Korea that Japan has not fully atoned for its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula have again become a significant factor in bilateral relations. Meanwhile, many in Japan believe South Korea underappreciates Japan’s past apologies. The leaders of both countries have tried to manage these perception gaps with inconsistent results.

Japan–South Korea relations are generally at their worst when the perceived strategic need for each other wanes (for example, absent North Korea’s threats or economic crises) and when one side believes the other is trying to alter the uneasy status quo on sensitive historical or territorial issues. High on South Korea’s history priority list now is settling the so-called comfort women issue (referring to Korean women trafficked for sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II), because the number of surviving victims is decreasing rapidly due to old age. The territorial dispute concerns the South Korean–controlled Dokdo islands (“Takeshima” in Japanese), which Japan repeatedly claims.

Textbook revisions and politicians’ comments on historical and territorial disputes—whether or not these actions actually are a part of a coordinated plan—can be perceived as attempts to alter the status quo. South Korea was upset, for example, when influential politicians close to Prime Minister Abe questioned the validity of a landmark Japanese apology from 1993 regarding the comfort women (known as the Kono Statement). South Korean resentment of the comments lingers even though the Japanese cabinet eventually upheld that apology. Meanwhile, Japan takes offense when private lawsuits in South Korea are filed against Japanese companies with links to forced labor cases from the World War II because Japan presumes that all legal claims were settled fifty years ago as part of their normalization agreement.

Strong alliance relations with the United States can also foster Seoul-Tokyo estrangement, ironically, if such relations lead Japanese and South Korean policymakers to believe that they have a sturdy bulwark against any truly damaging implications of their row. In addition, a growing split in how Tokyo and Seoul view the role of China has become another obstacle to close strategic alignment: Japan is more likely to see China as a direct geopolitical competitor and even a security threat, while Seoul often emphasizes the value of bilateral trade with China and the potential for Beijing’s support in matters related to North Korea. 

If the factors dividing Japan and Korea seem daunting, the breadth of their shared strategic interests, common values, and economic interdependence offers hope for a brighter future, as long as their leaders can chart a course for calmer diplomatic waters. Both countries are endangered by a dysfunctional and hostile North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, and security cooperation is becoming even more critical as new U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines create opportunities for enhanced Japanese support in case of a violent North Korean collapse or some extended conflict with that country.

Japan and South Korea both rely heavily on a reliable and open global trading system to provide financial and resource stability. They have benefited dramatically from regional and international institutions, from expanded bilateral trade ($224 million in 1965 to $84 billion in 2014), and from technological innovation and intellectual property rights protections, among other advantages of a rules-based liberal order. They also share a national interest in protecting resources and the environment from the adverse effects of globalization and modernization to steer toward more sustainable growth in the future. The global commons challenges are great and the stakes are high, and highlighting the value of bilateral cooperation and leadership on these issues can help counteract each country’s tendency to underestimate the other’s strategic value.

Thus, the Park-Abe summit must be seen as just a tiny step forward in a long journey toward more stable and productive Japan–South Korea relations, and completing this journey will involve at least three distinct areas of engagement.

The first area of engagement is a complex one of historical reconciliation, and even if an endpoint is not in sight, neither side can simply say that it has gone far enough or that the other side must agree on its ultimate destination before they cooperate any further. An early obstacle is finding sufficient common ground on the comfort women issue, which Park pushed with Abe in Seoul. But the larger challenge is a need to make a long-term commitment to narrow persistent gaps in perceptions regarding South Korea’s colonial experience. South Koreans generally believe that Japan does not appreciate the pain and suffering that they endured under Japanese rule. The Japanese often complain that South Korea simplifies the historical context of colonization as a Japanese evil, when there is actually a broader balance sheet of good and bad involving many nations’ responsibility.

While developing a unified historical view is probably a bridge too far, learning more about how the other side views history could be a first step in promoting mutual understanding. Creative uses of technology by Japanese and South Korean middle and high schools to occasionally participate virtually in each other’s history classes, grassroots exchanges of teachers, and joint academic research between historians can also help. Simply dismissing or ignoring the other side’s interpretation of past events (which often happens today) can be dangerous for the future. Overall, depoliticizing historical education, as difficult as it may be, and shifting some of the historical debates to more academic and civil society circles might ameliorate these tensions over the course of generations, even as those debates continue in public and private forums.

The second area involves more proactive cooperation on matters of common national strategic interest, including North Korea policy, nuclear nonproliferation, energy and health security, environmental protection, marine resource management, and collaborative global and regional governance (especially for trade and finance). Visible acts of cooperation—bilaterally and trilaterally with the United States, among others—are necessary to demonstrate politically that Japan–South Korea ties can serve national interests even as historical reconciliation remains a work in progress. Cooperating on their common objective of a nuclear-weapons-free North Korea and deterrence should top this agenda. As two of the world’s most heavily wired and nuclear-energy-dependent countries, Japan and South Korea could also strengthen bilateral collaboration on cybersecurity and nuclear security. Disaster management is another pressing area for coordination and information sharing particularly on radiation monitoring; a one-stop shop is needed to track radiation in the air, on land, and at sea in a region dotted with nuclear reactors and a disproportionate number of natural threats like earthquakes. 

Such cooperation forms the second track of Japan­–South Korea relations (alongside reconciliation), and it should not be slowed down just because one side is unsatisfied with the pace of progress on historical issues. After all, building a stronger sense of common cause is one way to motivate reconciliation. 

The third area relates to the first two but requires additional investment in networking and relationship building among political, government, business, and opinion leaders in each country. The trend toward more democratized foreign policy making prompted by technological and political developments in each country means that solid relationships among leaders across different sectors and generations in society are needed to promote stable and productive ties over the long term. Committed and enlightened leadership is one of the most effective ways to strengthen bilateral relations that could otherwise become disengaged amid a cacophony of the media and consuming economic or political crises. One way is to reinvigorate dialogue and expand the scope of exchange on knowledge, media, and culture among academics, businesspeople, politicians, artists, and journalists. These networks can help improve communication and mitigate problems when changes in the status quo of sensitive issues are perceived or conflicting views of China exacerbate disagreements.

Japan–South Korea tensions are not simply bilateral issues, particularly given today’s contentious geopolitical landscape in the region. Thus, the United States should also continue to invest in Japan–South Korea relations not only through more visible trilateral cooperation in various fields (including within broader regional networks) but also via close policy coordination on important security, economic, and diplomatic issues in Asia and around the world. These could include addressing pandemic health risks, strengthening missile defense or submarine detection vis-à-vis North Korea, or responding to natural disasters or refugee crises. Joint action is not always required, but the region benefits when the three countries are pulling in the same general direction, and these investments will pay valuable dividends down the line when Korea is reunified.

In 1998, then Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi and then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung signed the Joint Declaration on a New Japan-South Korea Partnership Towards the Twenty-First Century, but that was not a diplomatic event in isolation from other bilateral actions to improve relations. The joint declaration was built upon other initiatives to address historical perception gaps and expand economic and political ties. It is not yet clear if this most recent summit in Seoul can be a useful catalyst for eventually declaring the next upgrade to the twenty-first-century partnership, and tensions over historical memory are expected to reoccur until a final settlement is reached. But only a sustained commitment beginning with their top leaderships can get this important relationship back on a productive track.